It was here that the first cinema show was held in Chennai 116 years ago. The Victoria Public Hall (VPH), now undergoing restoration, was quite young then. T. Stevenson, proprietor of the Madras Photographic Store, ran some shows that consisted of ten short films.
Since the late 1880s, when the hall was opened to the public, the quaint red structure, adjoining Ripon Building on Poonamallee High Road, witnessed hundreds of theatrical performances and the pioneers of Tamil play, Sankaradoss Swamigal and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, staged their plays at the hall. Stalwarts, including Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Sardar Patel, addressed meetings there.
For the last 40 years or so, the hall has ceased to host such events but its historical significance has not been lost sight of. It was featured in a scene in Rajinikanth's blockbuster ‘Sivaji – The Boss' that was released about five years ago.
Designed by Robert Chisholm (1840-1915), the Victoria Public Hall was built by Namberumal Chetty to commemorate the golden jubilee of the reign of Britain's Empress Queen Victoria. Its history can be traced to a meeting in March 1882 at the Pachaiyappa's Hall in George Town when some leading citizens decided to construct a town hall. A sum of Rs.16,425 was mobilised from around 30 persons, who attended the meeting and a trust formed for the project.
On December 17, 1883, Sir Ananda Gajapathi Row, the then Maharajah of Vizianagaram, laid the foundation stone on an extent of 3.14 acres, leased by the Corporation. A plaque on the eastern wall of the hall is a testimony to this event. It took about five years to complete the construction.
An example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, the rectangular structure has two halls, one each on the ground and first floors, which together can seat around 1,200 persons at a time. The hall on the first floor has arcaded verandahs along the northern and southern sides supported on sleek Corinthian stone columns.
The Suguna Vilasa Sabha (SVS), founded in 1891, was most closely associated with the VPH. Among the many firsts of the SVS was the concept of conducting evening drama shows.
In October 1906, the play ‘Kaadalar Kangal' was staged at the VPH, said V. Sriram, historian.
For the next 30 years, the Sabha remained at the VPH and later, built its own theatre on acquisition of 36 grounds next to Christ Church on Anna Salai. It is now only a social club.
The building became a home to two more organisations, the South Indian Athletic Association and the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha, which were also subsequently vacated.
As Chennai grew southward and the medium of cinema acquired greater popularity, the building gradually went out of public attention. After the expiry of the lease between the civic body and the trust in 1985, a legal battle ensued. Eventually, Chennai Corporation took over the building from April 1, 2009.
Since then, it demolished 32 shops situated on the periphery and a building that housed the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha. A few months ago, a private hotel, located on a portion of the 55 grounds belonging to the VPH, was demolished, after which the majestic red brick structure has become visible.
In the last 50 years, efforts were indeed made to restore the building at the initiative of Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai in October 1967.
In 1993, when Suresh Krishna was Sheriff of Madras and an ex-officio Trustee of the Victoria Public Hall Trust, he took steps for the renovation of parts of the building. Former Maharashtra Governor C. Subramanian re-dedicated the building.
Sources in the Chennai Corporation, which is restoring the building at a cost of Rs.3.39 crore, say the work is expected to be completed by June this year.
“We have a team from the ASI, INTACH and School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University to inspect the building regularly. No cement is used. Lime mortar with jaggery and Kadukka is used,” a source said.
Most of the plastering works on the interior walls have been completed and also the wood work. The false ceiling made of wood on the first floor too is nearing completion. Besides, electrical work, flooring and work on the turrets have to be carried out.
S. Suresh, State convenor of INTACH, says the execution of the work is slow because of the complexity of the building. “We give them advice at every stage of the restoration.”
Once the hall is thrown open to the public again, it will make a difference to citizens of Chennai, particularly those in northern parts, in the social and cultural spheres of life.