Friday, August 22, 2014

Hidden treasure

By rights, this building should have celebrated its centenary with great pomp and show five years ago. Its foundation stone was laid by the grandson of the lady whose name it bore; called the Victoria Memorial Hall, it took three years to build. Prince George (later King George V) laid the foundation stone on January 24, 1906 and it was open to public on March 23, 1909. Henry Irwin, the architect who is usually remembered in the context of Indo-Saracenic style, took inspiration from Mughal and Rajasthani designs for this building. The canopied turrets and the Jaipuri-Jaina windows got this building to stand apart from its neighbours.

The first occupant of the building was the Victoria Technical Institute which had until then been functioning from the museum itself. The VTI operated from this building until 1951, when it was taken over by the government. It continued to be associated with arts and crafts, for it now housed the National Art Gallery. There was quite a lot of art there, with paintings from the Mughal period, rock art, traditional Indian paintings and quite a few paintings from the British era. Most of those works were moved to the new art gallery building right next to this, sometime in 2003; for by then, the Victoria Memorial Hall had been deemed unsafe for use.

Last year, a renovation project was announced with much fanfare. Apart from putting up a metal screen/barricade around the front of this building, not much more was done on the renovation front. In some ways, this is quintessential Chennai: grand ideas and beautiful structures. But somehow, they stay hidden, not thrusting out in-your-face, but knowing that there is beauty here, even if you have to come over all the way to this corner of the museum and have the patience to look beyond the barricades!

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