December 9, 2023

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Coimbatore’s Victoria Town Hall turns 130

An artist, an architect, a historian, a publisher, a Government official, a pickle seller, and a sweet vendor reminisce about one of the city’s oldest buildings

An artist, an architect, a historian, a publisher, a Government official, a pickle seller, and a sweet vendor reminisce about one of the city’s oldest buildings

The Victoria Town Hall has stood the test of time. Once the venue for public and council meetings, civic receptions and banquets in honour of visiting celebrities — including Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji — it faced the threat of demolition in the early 1990s.

The Coimbatore chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) led by its then convenor Shashi Ghulati launched a campaign and the over 100-year-old heritage structure was saved for posterity. Municipal council meetings were held there till 1953 while from 1952 to 1986 a library and reading room existed on the mezzanine floor.

It is spruced up now to welcome the elected members of the city Corporation council. Apart from the seating arrangement, which has been increased from 72 to 100, minor repair works have been also addressed.

The Town Hall, however, is more than just bricks and cement. For, it houses memories of the people who have been inside it and those who live close to it. Here are a few of them talking about the centuries-old structure:-

‘When life was easy’

Originally from Rae Bareilly, I came to Coimbatore in 1967 after my SSLC and just stayed on. My forefathers came here much early on. Life was easy and not so chaotic. There was less noise, less crowd and one could count the number of vehicles as Big Bazaar Street had two-way traffic.

The Victoria Town Hall building opposite our shop would always be abuzz with political meetings. I remember watching Sivaji Ganesan at one of the meetings. When he floated a party, the actor conducted his election meetings at Town Hall. I could catch every word from my shop. During the time of leaders such as Bhaktavatsalam and Kamarajar, political meetings were low-key affairs. There were no convoy of cars or round-the-clock security. Events like handloom exhibition was also be organised there.

The ground near the hall also played host to Kribananda Variyar’s kathakalakshebams. He was one of our star customers. My father supplied Durghalal Rose Gulkhand, a specialty of our shop to him regularly. He would mention our products while talking about food and it gave us good publicity.

The narrow lanes around Town Hall teemed with cloth merchants, jewellers and textile shops, much like what it is today. The North Indian population was less then. People who lived within 10 km frequented the city, now we have people coming from as far as 100 km away on business and work. The neighbourhood around the Town Hall was a popular spot for cinema. We had more than seven theatres here. While Naaz screened Hindi films, Rainbow showed English films. There was no ticket reservation system and the shows were only in the evening and night. Balcony tickets cost just ₹3.

D. Ramesh Lal of CR Durghalal Pickles shop that has been standing on the Big Bazaar Street (close to the Town Hall) from 1930

‘Butter cream cakes and Tamil novels’

During my school days, I frequented the building to use the library upstairs (the spiral staircase in wood was a big draw!) and read Tamil novels for time pass. In the 1950s, the building was in a state of neglect. It stands tall as a monument today after a renovation in the 1990s.

I have watched in awe when MGR held public meetings just outside the building. I have read that the building plan of Victoria Hall and that of Tuticorin Corporation are similar. When the corporation council meetings were held there, it was well maintained. A well-laid tar road leads to the parking lot and there is lush greenery.

After parks, this became a public space that people frequented. The corporation had just one zone so all the meetings happened at the Victoria Hall. We’d supply tea time snacks and also tea cakes and butter cream cakes for small parties at the hall.

The hall once also played host to counting of votes. The entire area was blocked and the scene resembled the heydays when life was easy. Though we have been seeing the building every day ( we have to cross the building to pay our monthly EB bills), but we never paid attention to the historic value attached. I have heard stories from my father of a time when British officers would exit from the Victoria Hall in the 1920s in their plush cars to reach the army camp in Madukkarai.

S Humesh runs Shri Balaji and Co bakers, a family-run enterprise at Big Bazaar Street, that attracts devoted customers for five decades from the city and the outskirts.

‘An important part of my life’

All my life, I have lived five minutes away from Town Hall. So, it is an important part of my life. Town Hall introduced me to the world of literature. A significant portion of my childhood was spent at the library within the hall. I studied English medium. So, I used the library to read Tamil books.

When I was young, the Town Hall grounds – on which some offices were built later – used to host painting exhibitions, poetry recitals, and other literary and cultural events. And, book fairs were a big deal back then. They were spaces for readers and writers to interact. And, writers of not just Tamil but of other languages used to participate in these fairs. I had the chance of meeting popular Malayalam writers like Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan and Ayyappa Paniker, thanks to these events. My father (N Velayutham Pillai) was a popular cinema banner artist. We would sometimes display some of the banners on the ground. I especially remember this giant banner of Rajinikanth on a motorcycle for Paayum Puli (1983).

Town Hall, hence, used to be a space for the public until the 80s. I think that’s the purpose of any town hall. I went to Calicut recently – and almost every day the town hall there hosted some public function. But the Town Hall in Coimbatore, unfortunately, has ceased to be a public space. Ever since it became the seat of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation, public entry has been restricted. I still pass through the building almost every day. But It has been over 15 years since I stepped inside. I hope Town Hall will once again be a place for the people of Coimbatore.

V Jeevananthan, known as ‘Oviyar’ Jeeva, is a lawyer, artist, and author. His book Thirai Seelai , received “special mention” in the Best Book category of the National Film Awards, 2011

Inside the Victoria Town Hall

Inside the Victoria Town Hall
| Photo Credit: Siva Saravanan S and M Periasamy

‘The birth of a modern Coimbatore’

The Town Hall marks the birth of modern Coimbatore. The city graduated from a town to a municipality and became an urban centre where elected councillors held meetings with the Mayor on developing civic infrastructure of the city. Robert Stanes, who spearheaded the textile and automobile revolution, was the first Municipal Chairman.

In the 1990s, the Town Hall was in bad shape. Stone slabs in the corridor were coming out and window panes were broken and posters were pasted on the walls. We physically examined the building and came up with measured drawings, a blueprint of sorts, then gave instructions on repair and renovation in the original style. With the help of INTACH and industrialists, we saved the building. It is a typical Victorian building with big walls made of stone and lime and mortar plaster, panelled shutters for windows, timber trusses with Mangalore tiles for roofing, and a gallery with a wooden floor.

Starting from this majestic structure, the rest of the Coimbatore was built. The entrance porch has Gothic arches and a balcony. The foyer leads to the assembly hall. The mezzanine floor is now used as a visitors’ gallery for council meetings. A low-roofed corridor, with Tuscan type stumpy columns, runs along three sides of the hall. This style of colonnade in the verandah is similar to the Doric order of Greek architecture, which uses simple columns and round capitals. After renovation, the Town Hall was put back to its original use — to conduct council meetings.

Architect Philip Fowler prepared the report and recommendations for restoring the Victoria Town Hall in 1992

‘My inspiring moment‘

Built in the late 19th Century, this is one of the oldest buildings in the city.

As Coimbatore is not as old as some of the other towns in Tamil Nadu like Madurai or Kumbakonam, there aren’t many ancient buildings here. The region grew into an industrial town only during British rule. So, in 1887, to commemorate the 50th year of rule of Queen Victoria, some of the city’s elite, headed by a social activist, SP Narasimhalu Naidu, decided to build a structure. We need to keep in mind that it was just two years since the formation of the Indian National Congress. So, the anti-British rule movement had not started then.

Until the 1980s, there was an old market near Town Hall. People called it ‘pazhaya market’ (old market) because you could find used goods and scraps for sale. It was like the smaller version of the famous Moore Market in Madras.

In a long, narrow lane, you could find people selling little birds, fish apart from small engineering tools like a micrometer. And, these small traders had good engineering knowledge. They were an integral part of the city’s burgeoning industrial hub in Coimbatore.

Personally, I cherish the building. When I was 15, I got to meet writer Sujatha at a book fair here in 1979. It was an inspiring moment. Such book fairs were common in Bengaluru or Chennai. But for Coimbatore, which was much smaller back then, it was a rare occasion.

CR Elangovan is a Coimbatore-based historian

‘We made it all white’

After a gap of six years (as there were no local body elections), publicly elected representatives are set to enter the Victoria Hall, a great moment for the democratic governance of the city.

As of recorded history, we know that the building was constructed in 1892. We have records of council resolutions since 1866. Many historic decisions, for example, the infrastructure for Pilloor water supply or the underground sewage system that modernised Coimbatore were taken here.

For the renovation, we consulted a heritage architect and peeled off many layers of paint to expose the original structure. We removed white paint from windows and doors, and polished it to show the original teak. Most historic buildings, especially the ones built by the British, were only white. We removed others colours and made it all white.

Another challenge was fitting 100 plus chairs for officials. We have tried to work with furniture and took examples from the Tamil Nadu Assembly. On March 4, the election for Mayor will be held at Victoria Hall.

Raja Gopal Sunkara, IAS, is the Commissioner of Coimbatore Corporation

‘You don’t see sparrows anymore‘

The Town Hall area is probably the busiest you will find in the city today. It is perennially bustling. And, it is a nightmare to cross Oppanakara Street. Can you imagine Town Hall without traffic? Well, that was how it was in the 1950s. You hardly came across motor vehicles back then. Horse carriages were more common. In fact, beside the clock tower, where the Poompuhar handicrafts stall now stands, was a horse carriage stand. The place has been witness to some extraordinary events over the years. In the 1965 anti-Hindi agitations, I remember there were shots fired on NH Road. By this time, there were more bicycles on the road. But because of the protest and the resultant firing, the entire road was empty.

The latter half of the 1970s was an important phase in my life. I started my venture, Vijaya Publications in 1976 at Town Hall. Three years later, we organised our first Reader’s Fest inside the Town Hall auditorium. I remember paying a rent of Rs 25 for the auditorium. It was packed. Some of the big names in Tamil literature, like Sandilyan, Vallikannan, Na Parthasarathy, and Balakumaran were there. Writer Sujatha was there, too. When we stepped out for tea, he had to be guarded by cops because people were trying to mob him. Overall, it was a wonderful evening. Even as some of the writers spoke, you could hear the chirrups of sparrows outside the hall. You don’t see or hear sparrows anymore.

M Velayutham is the founder of Vijaya Publications, which has been visited by the who’s who of the Tamil literature and film world