Tucked away in Armenian Street, in the same line as the Armenian Church, St. Mary’s Cathedral and the headquarters of Binny’s stands the stately building which houses the Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA). The Association owes the existence to Annie Besant, the Theosophist, social reformer and Indian nationalist.Notable among her contributions were the creation of the Central Hindu College of Benares, which later was to expand into the Banaras Hindu University, her involvement in the Scout Movement, and her sponsorship of the Indian Women’s Association (IWA). She had also becomes the President of the Theosophical Society in Adyar in 1907 and since then Madras had become her home.
Founded by Annie Besant in February 1914, the Young Men’s Indian Association was created by her to provide “a political gymnasium as it were, to equip the youth with a strong body, an informed mind and a noble character to inherit and imbibe the country’s glorious tradition and to take their rightful place as leaders of the future. She planned to create a home for the Association, which would have hosted facilities for students who came from locations outside Madras, a library, a gymnasium, a canteen and a lecture hall.
In the Besant Centenary Book, A. Ranganatha Mudaliar has written that she felt the necessity of the Hall in “the times ahead, when there would be difficulties for free expression of opinion for want of a hall whose authorities were prepared to resist official pressure and let in the used freely even if it was to severely criticise the policy and methods of the Government”. This hall was named after Gopal Krishna Gokhale, founder of the Servants of India Society, patriot, social reformer and a pioneer in education. It is not clear whether Mrs. Besant intended to name the hall after Gokhale even in 1914, but his death in 1915 may have been the cause. The Association had among its founding fathers, such luminaries as Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Ayyar, Sir Pitty Tyagaraya Chetty, Sir V.P. Madhava Row, former Dewan of Mysore, G.A. Natesan, Dewan Bahadur (later Sir) T.Sadasiva Iyer and the Hon. F.B. Tyabji, both Judges of the High Court, Madras and K.S. Chandrashekhara Iyer, Judge, Chief Court of Mysore. Sir S. Subramanya Iyer was its first president.
Annie Besant funded the buildings in her personal capacity C. Jinarajadasa, the noted Theosophist and writer, laid the foundation stone in May 1914. Rao Saheb G. Subbiah Chettiar, Hon. Magistrate and Auditor, Madras Customs managed the construction. By the end of 1915, the buildings were ready and the Association moved into its home at 66, Armenian Street.
The Gokhale Hall, with its magnificent dome, its large balcony and its wonderful acoustics soon became the centre of cultural, literary and artistic endeavours. It was originally intended as a lecture hall and many were the fiery speeches to which its walls echoed. Annie Besant delivered here famous “Wake Up India” lectures from this platform. Almost all the political leaders of the time spoke at the Gokhale Hall, Mahatma Gandhi addressed the public here. So did Jawaharlal Nehru. On the days of his address, the Hall and the street beyond would be inaccessible, with the youth of Madras long having taken up all the vantage points. Despite such crowds, the Hall rarely became unbearably hot – its high dome and large windows contributing to ample ventilation. However, the sole entrance cum exit was a problem.
Annie Besant could not but be satisfied at the kind of position that the Hall had achieved that the Hall had achieved in the social life of Madras. Later she was to write with justifiable pride “Where could the new dynamism of our politics after 1914, have found a platform, if in Madras there had been no Gokhale Hall?”
Writing a tribute to Mrs. Besant and the Hall, Pandit Nehru wrote: “The Gokhale Hall has been the scene of great achievements in oratory and public speaking as well as music and the fine arts. It has received with open arms, persons of every description without distinction of caste, creed, colour or political persuasion. The Hall ever reminds us of the master voice of its founder and no one associated with it can ever forget the inspiration of that voice.”
Annie Besant passed away in 1933 and she is remembered with a statue in the entrance lobby. After her, several great personalities such as Sir CP, Dr. G.S. Arundale, Rukmini Devi, Sir P.S. Sivaswamy Iyer, Dewan Bahadur Govindoss Chatturbhujadoss, Chitra S. Narayanaswamy, K. Balasubramania Iyer, C.R. Parthasarathy Iyengar and Khan Bahadur Ghulam Mohammed Muhazir, guided the Association. The Hall was the venue for several political meetings till the 1960s. One of the best descriptions of a meeting at the Hall is in Monica Felton’s I meet Rajaji.
George Town was the centre of urban life in the early part of the 20th Century. The Ramanuja Koodam-s, the Bhajana Mandiram-s, the Matham-s and the Patnam temples were all venue of the music, dance and theatrical performances. The YMCA on the Esplanade was also the venue for programmes. Gokhale Hall when it came up, became the most popular venue. Kalki Krishnamurthy, the celebrated writer, regularly attended the programmes and his reviews appearing under the nom de plume “Karnatakam”, in Ananda Vikatan, could make or break an artist’s reputation. Filled with pungent wit, they nevertheless displayed his knowledge of the subject. Kalki, an ardent lover of Tamil, began to lament the emphasis given to singing songs in Telugu and Sanskrit. C.N. Annadurai, later to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, also wrote in the 1930s of how he used to patiently listen to Naina Pillai singing song after song in Telugu, just to have the pleasure of hearing him sing a Tiruppugazh at the end. Slowly a movement for bringing Tamil compositions to the fore gained momentum and Gokhale Hall became the venue for these Tamil Isai concerts. Kalki’s close friend T. Sadasivam and his wife M.S. Subbulakshmi joined the movement which gave it a major fillip. The powerful Justice Party also threw its weight behind the movement and many bigwigs such as Sir K. Ramunni Menon, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, Sir Pitty Tyagaraya Chetty, and the Mudaliar twins championed the cause from the Gokhale Hall.
The first full fledged Tamil Isai Festival took place at the St. Mary’s Co. Cathedral Parish Hall on Armenian Street in 1943. Artists such as M.M. Dandapani Desigar, T.N. Swaminatha Pillai, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, and M.S. Subbulakshmi performed to full houses and their concerts were reviewed by an ecstatic Kalki Krishnamurthy, flushed as he was with the success of the Tamil Isai Movement. The next year witnessed performances at the Gokhale Hall itself and Kalki once again reported about the 5000 plus crowd that thronged the Hall and the street outside to listen to their favourite artists. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s concert that year in particular, boycotted as she was by the Music Academy for her involvement in Tamil Isai, drew mammoth crowds and resulted in record gate collections.
The success of the Sangam encouraged Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar to announce the building of an auditorium for the Sangam and this soon came up as the Rajah Annamalai Manram on Esplanade. The Sangam began holding its performances there and has continued there ever since. With the departure of the Sangam, Gokhale Hall gradually began losing its position of eminence in Carnatic music. The Annamalai Manram was more easily accessible land had a larger seating capacity and better interiors. George Town was fast becoming a commercial centre and most of the patrons had move to South Madras. The peregrinating Indian Fine Arts Society held its annual conference for about fifteen years in the Hall, till the mid 1950s. But performances on a regular basis stopped, though programmes were held occasionally till the late 1960s, and early 70s.
There was a brief revival in October 1964, when the YMIA and the Hall celebrated their Golden Jubilee. Held under Sir CP’s supervision, the festivities were inaugurated by the then Vice-President of India Dr. Zakir Hussain and the Governor of Madras, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. The noted nagaswara artist Veerusamy Pillai gave a performance on that occasion. For many years, it was customary for Kalakshetra, to hold its dance performances here, especially on the birthday of Dr. Annie Besant. Rukmini Arundale herself served as President of the YMIA after Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer passed away.
I was first introduced to the glories of Gokhale Hall by my friend Sanjay Subrahmanyan and together we made it a regular stop during our annual heritage walks in George Town. One of the regulars during these walks, S. Thiagarajan, grandnephew of Musiri Subramania Iyer, came forward to host a concert of Sanjay’s at Gokhale Hall in order to revive old memories. The concert was held in 2002. Since then Gokhale Hall has not witnessed any music programmes. A misguided attempt to demolish it was stalled by the High Court and since then the building is surviving as a decrepit shell. Its future depends on the outcome of an appeal in the Supreme Court.