The year 1887 was a special one for the British empire. The Queen Empress, Victoria, was completing fifty years as sovereign and many were the celebrations across the world. In Madras, it was decided that the commemoration would be by way of the Victoria Public Hall and the Victoria Technical Institute (VTI). The latter was planned as a body that would promote local arts and crafts and also include a venue for their exhibition and sale.
The VTI came into existence thanks to funds collected by the Central Jubilee Committee which was in charge of the celebrations. The Government made a matching grant on condition that the President and one-third of the managing committee of the Institute ought to be its nominees. This was accepted and the VTI was set up in 1887 as a charitable trust. On October 26, 1889, it was registered as a Society. Its councillors immediately began fanning out into the districts of Madras Presidency, meeting various craftsmen and convincing them to route their products through the VTI. In addition, scholarships were instituted in the Madras School of Arts (now the College of Arts and Crafts) and lectures were organised on the talents of Indian artisans. As the Government began setting up technical institutes and colleges of arts in other parts of the Presidency, the VTI’s importance grew.
While the VTI was a success from Day One, its permanent exhibition centre was slow to get off the ground. It was only when Queen Victoria died in 1901 that the idea was revived again. In 1906, the Prince of Wales, later King George V, laid its foundation stone inside the Museum complex at Egmore. The building, named the Victoria Memorial Hall, designed by Henry Irwin as a scaled down model of the Bulund Durwaza at Fatehpur Sikri, was completed by T. Namberumal Chetty in 1909 and the VTI had a home. An account in 1920 has it that it was the chief attraction in the Pantheon Complex, outshining the museum and the library.
With the coming of World War II, the VTI’s Victoria Memorial Hall was commandeered by the Government and the Institute had to move to a shop on Mount Road. Hope Tod, wife of a boxwallah, remembers it to have been a “large, double-fronted shop on Mount Road where 52 different missions of all denominations sold their wares.” Clearly, given the British administration, products from ecclesiastical missions were what were sold through the VTI. Hope Tod remembers them to have been “the most beautiful embroidered garments, children’s clothing, luncheon tablemats and so many other items”.
When the War ended, the VTI did not want to go back to Egmore. In any case the Victoria Memorial Hall was found to be in a bad state. The Government then did some renovation and converted it into a National Gallery for Art. The VTI in the meanwhile purchased 14 grounds of land on Mount Road in 1952 and constructed a new showroom on it by 1956. This is the one that is shown in today’s picture. The VTI continues to perform the role for which it was first set up. It is known for its collection of bronzes, woodwork, metal work, Tanjore paintings and several other traditional South Indian artefacts. It also exports these creations to other countries.
You may want to read about these other landmarks – some lost, others surviving: