It is now three years since the restoration of Chennai’s historic Victoria Public Hall began. Since then several dates have been announced for its re-dedication to the public and all of them have gone by. The last missed deadline was end-June. There has been no official announcement since then and the only news item is disturbing – a few tiles fell off the roof very recently probably owing to vibrations caused by the Metrorail construction work. What exactly is happening within those stately interiors?
The Chennai Corporation, which took possession of VP Hall following a prolonged tussle with the erstwhile Trust that governed it, announced a Rs. 3.39 crore restoration programme in 2009. This was to be financed by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). It is worth pointing out here that one of the conditions for State Governments to access this fund for civic projects is a commitment to restore heritage – both built and natural.
The Corporation had announced that the restoration would be monitored by a team comprising, among others, representatives of INTACH, the School of Planning and Architecture and IIT Madras. As to whether these members are actively involved is not known, but certain aspects of the restoration would appear to indicate otherwise. Chief among them was the haste with which the staircases of the building were all removed followed by a statement to the effect that these would be replaced with new ones.
Though we have had assurances to the effect that only traditional construction techniques would be used, it cannot be denied that the work is -completely in the hands of the Government machinery. Their record in heritage restoration is not exactly glorious. A recent example is the restoration of the Madras GPO where, in the name of security, circular stairways were removed and access to certain parts of the building were permanently cut off. All this in the name of restoration.
Reverting to VP Hall, it was first estimated that work would be completed by early 2011. This was then extended to May and later to September 2011. The change in regime did not exactly help either and deadlines were further extended to May and later to June 2012.
In the midst of all this came an announcement that a sound and light show was being planned within the compound. This was touted as a grand tourist attraction which would document the history of the city. But the Metrorail soon put paid to that. A part of the compound was taken over for storing construction material and drilling work began a few feet away. Plans for the show were shelved. It is also to be noted that despite several assurances from Metrorail that it would be careful in handling the heritage precinct, among the first acts was the shifting of the historic Trevelyan fountain from the building front to one of the sides, a process in which some of its ornaments were damaged.
Authorities are also silent on what they plan to do with VP Hall once it is restored. Will it in true Chennai tradition be kept locked after its renovation as seen in the cases of the Connemara Library, Rajaji Hall and Senate House currently there are some vague noises being made about the first floor of VP Hall possibly being let out for events. But with no parking space in the vicinity and no proper access at least till Metrorail completes its work, hosting any event here is bound to be a challenge.
And so, that is where matters stand at the moment. Watch this space for further developments.