Begin typing your search...

Those were the days: A memorial for the Mahatma in Madras

Gandhi had been to Madras 15 times and every time he was here, he saw himself as an evolved man and also witnessed the evolution of the city.

Those were the days: A memorial for the Mahatma in Madras

 Gandhi mandapam

CHENNAI: The Mahatma had a strong connection with Madras. His sister in-law and daughter in-law were from here. The first public place named after him was the Gandhi-Irwin Road in Egmore (surprisingly by the British and many years before independence).

Gandhi had been to Madras 15 times and every time he was here, he saw himself as an evolved man and also witnessed the evolution of the city. In his several visits, Gandhi spoke on several topics. The first time he came here, he was dressed in a suit, stayed in a star hotel and splurged money on purchases and services (including laundry). He read out a speech that lasted 90 minutes, which was tedious for listeners but sat through out of respect for the speaker, who had just returned from South Africa.

The most surprising of all his speeches in the initial days of return from South Africa is that they were majorly in favour of the British Raj. In a speech he delivered in 1916, in People’s Park to people who were at the helm of the Madras high court he would reiterate, “Nowhere in the world can a man be as content as under the British empire.”

Only after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre there was a change in him. Satyagraha, Non Cooperation, Quit India, Do-Or Die – his favourite terms were thought of later. The Non-cooperation Movement was a brainchild of his at dawn in a house in Cathedral Road. The people of Madras loved Gandhi. People in Madras loved him so much that they listened to him despite not understanding Hindi. There was a proposal to rename Madras as ‘Gandhi pattinam”. When he was shot dead, people assembled in Marina and many shaved their heads (as a symbolic sign of mourning the loss of a father) and almost all, including the Chief Minister took a dip in the Bay of Bengal.

Many proposals for memorials to the father of the nation were proposed across the country. Ardent Gandhi followers in Madras, wanted a memorial for the Mahatma here. Writer Kalki Krishnamurthy was a devotee of Gandhi. A star pupil, he left school just days before the exam on Gandhi’s call to boycott the British. He would work for the Congress during Gandhi’s visits. Once Gandhi patted him on the back and said, “Acha desh sevak” ( good worker for the nation).

Gandhi’s autobiography was translated by Kalki in Thiruvika Nava Sakthi magazine. Kalki was not satisfied with just being a writer and an editor. He delved deep into public causes, giving them publicity in his magazine and collected funds as well. He decided to get the ball rolling for a memorial for the Mahatma in madras He had his artist Maniam design a column of 79 feet (one foot for every year the Mahatma lives) . Kalki published the picture and sought help for placing it on the beach, opposite to the Madras University. There was a grand welcome from the public.

The first two Chief Ministers of Madras state supported the move. Donations started pouring in. MS Subbulakshmi, the majority shareholder in the Kalki magazine, held her Carnatic concerts across the presidency and collected funds. The dream was about to come true.

Kalki’s mentor Rajaji assumed the CM’s chair of the Madras state and Kalki approached him with the Rs. 1.5 lakh fund he had collected for the memorial.

Rajaji welcomed the idea but was clearly against symbolic memorials, as a Gandhian, and proposed changing the monument to a meditation hall. Kalki accepted the change without a second thought. A circular hall suited for meditation with a south Indian temple gopuram over the entrance was again proposed by Kalki and drawn by Maniam. It would be built with granite stone, it was decided and the architect would be Vaidyanathan Sthapathi.

Backed by political power the idea entered the execution stage rapidly. The then Governor Sri Prakasa offered 10 acres of land from the forest that surrounded the Raj Bhavan. Kalki and his assistant editor Bhagirathan would choose the ideal plot roaming in the Guindy forests for weeks together. The 2 square mile forest around the Raj Bhavan was once a hunting reserve for British officials. The house built in its midst in 1670 was a weekend retreat for the governor. Only after the independence did the official hose of the governor shifted there.

When everything was moving towards the mandapam being built, Kalki fell sick and died. In his defense it should be said he left only two major projects incomplete. His magnum opus novel Ponniyin Selvan and the Gandhi mandapam.

The total cost of the mandapam was 4 lakhs. The plaque on the entrance names Kalki as the secretary of the trust

Sculptor Dhanapal bust of Gandhi was placed before the mandapam. The building was painted in white to signify truth and non violence. On January 27, 1956 with Rajaratnam’s nadhaswaram sounding in the background, and MS Subbulakshmi singing Vaishnava Janato, the mandapam was opened for the public. But allotting land for the Gandhi Mandapam was the beginning of deluge. The land was carved out of a vital urban forest from theIndian institute of technology and the Cancer Hospital. The Mahatma certainly would not have approved of this.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
Next Story