The Young Men?s Indian Association was the brainchild of Annie Besant, the eminent suffragette, Theosophist and champion of Indian independence. Dr Besant having made Madras her home felt that the city lacked a place where young men of the country could develop their bodies and minds as befitting the future citizens of a country that would one day be free. The YMIA was thus formed on 17th February 1914. Its headquarters came up at 66, Armenian Street, Madras with C Jinarajadasa, the noted Theosophist and writer laying 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, comprising a gymnasium, a reading room, hostel facilities for outstation students, a canteen and an oratory.
The last named, was an impressive structure with its dome rising to the full height of the building. It had a wooden stage for performances. Audiences were seated on chairs in the ground floor and squatted on a beautiful wooden balcony on the first floor. This oratory was named Gokhale Hall after Gopalakrishna Gokhale, patriot and founder of the Servants of India Society.
From the very beginning, Gokhale Hall became the home of Carnatic Music in George Town, the old quarter of Madras city. Kanchipuram Naina Pillai had sung here with his full bench, comprising nine accompanists. Each man in the troupe was a stalwart and any round of swara singing would take ten minutes to complete given that each demanded a solo performance. In 1918, the powerful trio of violinist Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai and percussionists Kumbhakonam Azhaginambi Pillai and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai fielded a prot?g? of theirs at this location. That was the first time residents of Madras heard Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and he never looked back after that.
All the great names in Carnatic Music performed here. There is a review of a DK Pattammal concert in 1934 at this venue which rues the unruly behaviour of the audience who were unhappy with the percussionist. Musiri Subramania Iyer was a regular performer here and audiences would weep openly when he would sing songs such as ?Theyilai Tottathile?. Once the crowd for a Semmangudi concert here was so immense that the musician was locked out of the hall by the watchman who refused to believe that he was the performer. Whenever the maverick but brilliant singer Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer would sing here, a black board would be placed outside the Hall. Once the musician had warmed up and was performing well, a message would be scrawled on the board reading: Maharajapuram in full form now. This would be the signal for those waiting outside to purchase tickets and rush in.
The Indian Fine Arts Society founded in 1932 held its programmes here. That year, its founder CY Anjanelu Chetty organised a performance by a relatively less known woman singer from Madurai at this venue. MS Subbulakshmi went on to become the brightest star on the Carnatic firmament thereafter.
The Hall witnessed heated moments as well. It was at a Chembai concert here that T Chowdiah threatened to walk out if he had to switch places with the left handed Palani Subramania Pillai. Chembai had to convince Chowdiah to give up such prejudices. There were sad moments also, such as the occasion in 1931 when a stroke afflicted Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai had to be lifted onto the platform to accompany Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. Everyone including the singer paid their homage in tears to Pillai. It was the last time he performed on stage.
Harikatha performances were very popular in Gokhale Hall. The tradition of utilising Tyagaraja?s songs to liven up Harikatha performances was given a boost by Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar at this venue on 23rd July 1932 when he performed over 300 songs of Tyagaraja while discoursing on the Ramayana. The title of Mahakathaka Kantirava was bestowed on him by Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer on the occasion. It was here that the Indian Fine Arts Society conferred the title of Harikatha Prasanga Marga Darshini on C Saraswathi Bai on 24th December 1936, in an early instance of a woman artiste being awarded and recognised.
In its heyday Gokhale Hall was booked for music performances almost throughout the year. However all good things come to an end and with the gradual abandoning of George Town as a residential area, music too faded away from Gokhale Hall. Mylapore and T Nagar began witnessing a proliferation of Sabhas. Patrons did not have to travel to George Town for music and over time Gokhale Hall as a venue was largely forgotten. The Founders Day of the YMIA witnessed dance performances at the venue till the passing of Rukmini Devi Arundale in the 1980s. With her death this too was given up.
In 2001 thanks to a Heritage Walk organised by the founders of www.sangeetham.com and Charsur Digital Workstation, interest in the Hall was revived. A concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan was organised in 2002 to whet public interest. The accompanists were MS Anantharaman and Vellore Ramabhadran, artistes who had performed at this venue in its heyday. The concert was a success and the superb acoustics of the Hall explained why it was such a popular venue in earlier days.
Sadly the momentum was not kept up and the YMIA decided to have the building demolished to make way for a more up-to-date venue. The structure is now locked and out of bounds for visitors pending sanction for demolition. When it goes it will carry away many memories of the freedom struggle, the world of classical music, cinema and theatre. This is a small tribute to a once historic venue.