History is in the making as the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly is set to return to the Kalaivanar Arangam complex after almost 65 years, albeit temporarily. Impacted by COVID-19, the Assembly department is looking for a new building where the mandatory Assembly session could be held for a few days in September, with the tiny building in Fort St. George found inadequate due to physical distancing issues. History has a knack of repeating itself!
When the State Legislative Assembly first came into being, it held its meeting at the Senate House in the Madras University complex and later at the Rajaji Hall in Government Estate in the years 1938-1939. In 1940, the Assembly moved to Fort St George where an Assembly Hall was ready. In Independent India, the composite Madras State had more legislators to cater to, and needed a larger Assembly. Thus, a new Legislative Assembly was built in the Government Estate at a cost of ₹10 lakh, which was inaugurated by Governor Sri Prakasa on May 2, 1952.
The Assembly was held there for a few years. Then Chief Minister K Kamaraj, ever the people’s chief minister, enquired reporters as to whether they had a place to have their lunch or rest for an hour before resumption of the Assembly in the afternoons. When reporters said they had nowhere to go, Kamaraj asked officials to find a place next door. A small complex, right next to the Assembly building, was handed over to the Madras Reporters Guild rent-free, premises shared with the Post Office, where reporters could have their lunch and rest for 30 minutes before returning for coverage of the Assembly. The building was opened by Kamaraj himself after an inspection of the premises.
After the birth of Andhra Pradesh, the number of MLAs in Tamil Nadu decreased, and the Assembly could move to a smaller place in the Fort itself.
Thereafter, the Legislature Building was modified to a Children’s Theatre where a large number of comedy films, featuring Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, besides some Tamil films, were screened at costs as low as 25 paise per head for children and 50 paise for adults!
With the advent of several air-conditioned cinema theatres in Chennai, coupled with the lack of films for children, the Children’s Theatre was modified into a 1,000-seater auditorium, named after Kalaivanar (NS Krishnan) by his film-world colleague M Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister, in January 1974. This auditorium was particularly useful for dramas and music events, whose organisers found the rent of ₹10,000 per show affordable. Plays would be held regularly every weekend in particular. The Kalaivanar Arangam served its purpose by turning into an useful hall for theatre groups.
However, the grandiose plan of Karunanidhi during his tenure from 2006-2011 to build a new Secretariat-cum-Assembly complex in the Omandurar Government Estate cast its shadow on the Kalaivanar Arangam nearby. The Arangam, the Post Office building which also housed the Madras Reporters Guild, was to be demolished to make room for the new Secretariat. These buildings were indeed demolished, and a hurriedly-organised meeting of the Assembly was even held at the new Secretariat building, while several departments too were shifted to the new building from Fort St. George.
It was a case of much ado about nothing as the next chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, decided to convert the new Secretariat building into a multi-specialty hospital. The Secretariat and Assembly departments moved back to Fort St. George. Jayalalithaa also decided to build a new Kalaivanar Arangam, and a massive structure came up at the old location as a three-storeyed, air-conditioned building in February 2016. The new Arangam is let out for events but the rates are prohibitive (over ₹1 lakh for three hours), leaving theatre and music groups in the lurch.
In view of the COVID-19 attack, the State Legislative Assembly is due to meet before the end of September. As physical distancing needs to be followed within the premises, it would not be possible to seat all the MLAs there. Recently, the Pudhucherry Assembly too had to move out of its building to sanitise the complex, and held a session under a shamiana. With alternatives being discussed in Tamil Nadu, the Assembly department discussed the possibility of holding a truncated session at the Kalaivanar Arangam. After all, the new hostel for MLAs is also just a stone’s throw away, which would make it easy for MLAs who stay there, while the Secretariat too is nearby. The Assembly Speaker, along with his team of officials, inspected the Kalaivanar Arangam on August 22 to discuss the arrangements.
A decision on holding the Assembly at the Kalaivanar Arangam is expected to be formally announced by the Speaker and the goverment in a day or two.
It would mark the return of the State Legislative Assembly to the Arangam after nearly 65 years. Much water has flown under the adjoining Cooum river since then.