How the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla was restored

The story of how the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla was restored to its former glory.

Published : Jan 16, 2022 06:00 IST

The view of the Gaiety Theatre from the Scandal Point end.

The view of the Gaiety Theatre from the Scandal Point end.

THERE are a few instances in life when one sincerely feels that events conspired to make things happen. One such instance is the story of the restoration of the Gaiety Theatre in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, a saga that unfolded over several years.

The famous English architect Henry H. Irwin designed the original Gaiety building and theatre complex in the Gothic style. It was completed in May 1887 at a cost of Rs.3.23 lakh, an extravagant sum at the time, but seemed jinxed from the start. Numerous problems appeared within a few years of its completion. The nexus between the Public Works Department (PWD) and contractors seems to have been active back then as well, as subsequent inquiries revealed that inferior quality local stones had been used instead of the Kalka-cut stones specified in the tender document. By 1911, 24 years after the theatre opened, things came to such a pass that the authorities were left with no option but to declare the building unsafe and demolish its top three storeys. A temporary tin roof was put in place, which protected the building until as late as 2003 when the restoration work began.

My first encounter with the Grand Old Lady was in 1981 when I was briefly posted to Shimla as subdivisional magistrate. I then learnt that many famous people, both English and Indians—such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Baden-Powell, Raj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni and Shashi Kapoor—had performed at the theatre. For me, it was love at first sight, and I made a promise that if I ever had the opportunity I would do my best to get her back in shape. That opportunity did come my way but some 25 years down the line. On my return from the Government of India in 2002, Prem Kumar Dhumal, who was the Chief Minister then, promptly posted me as Principal Secretary, Tourism, Culture and Sports, which made it all possible. Who says patience is not a virtue in government.

I was fortunate that one of my illustrious seniors, M.K. Kaw, had already done substantial groundwork in the 1980s. Back then, the push had come from the Prithvi Theatre, Bombay (now Mumbai), with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, in tow. Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, his wife, of the Prithvi Theatre had been staging plays at the Gaiety Theatre and were besotted with it. Pupul Jayakar, the cultural tsarina of the time, also put her weight behind the project. The late Virbhadra Singh, who was Chief Minister at the time, set up a heritage committee and appointed Ved Segan, the man behind the renovation of the Prithvi Theatre, as its principal architect. The property, until then with the Municipal Corporation Shimla, was acquired at a cost of Rs.5.65 lakh, but unfortunately, the project could not take off, primarily owing to funding issues.

On my joining in 2002, the first miracle happened when Ved Segan readily accepted my offer to take up the assignment on the same terms and conditions and rates he had quoted in 1985. The second miracle that closely followed was when the Finance Department agreed to this without retendering although Veg Segan’s bids were some 16 years old. I was particularly delighted about this as due diligence and inviting nationwide tenders can take up to a year and does not guarantee results.

Despite these early windfall gains, the question about funding remained. In a cash-strapped State like Himachal Pradesh, getting funds for culture or tourism from the regular budget was out of the question. Despite its position as a tourist destination, the State’s annual budget was only Rs.5 crore. I was, therefore, constantly on the lookout for Government of India schemes or hoping to catching the eye of a benevolent donor funding agency. The Himachal Pradesh government was able to get some support from the Norwegian Agency For Development Cooperation, but that barely sufficed to replace a few tin sheets of the building’s ever-leaking roof.

All this changed with the visit of Jagmohan, the then Union Tourism and Culture Minister. He had an awesome reputation as a doer having set right places such as Vaishno Devi that were considered impossible. Our project would be like a walk in the park for a person like him. And so it proved to be. I still remember the date: September 16, 2003. Realising the importance of the moment, I accompanied the Minister personally to the Mall road and on an impulse led him into the Gaiety Theatre Complex not knowing how he would react. As luck would have it, he was receptive and assured us of his full support. True to his word, his visit was followed by a sanction of Rs.5.13 crore from the Ministry of Tourism and another one of Rs.2.50 crore from the Ministry of Culture. We now had a tidy sum with which to kick-start our project.

Once we secured the clearances and the funding, the next hurdle was getting the building vacated. It was occupied by staff from various government departments, including the Municipal Corporation, the Electricity Board, the police and the Home Guards. This was an uphill task as the Non-Gazetted Officers Association was strong those days. But again as luck would have it, I was given the additional charges of the Home and the Town and Country Planning Departments. This helped in shifting, to begin with, the Home Guards. Then, with some prodding from the Chief Minister’s Office, the Municipal Committee staff followed suit. Soon, to the surprise of everyone, especially Ved Segan and the contractor, we had the entire building to ourselves except for the police control room, which continues to be there to this day.

The next hurdle proved even more challenging. The Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC), which is controlled by the Army and is a social club like the Delhi Gymkhana, is also located within the Gaiety Theatre Complex. The ADC had serious reservations about the project from the very beginning. Ved Segan and his team had a tough time even taking measurements in those parts of the building and premises that were with the ADC. But once again events contrived to deliver a way forward.

This time it was in the form of my childhood friend Col. Ranbir Singh (later retired as Director General of the Assam Rifles), who was my classmate in Sacred Heart Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, in the 1960s, and my friend from college (the GCM Government College, Chandigarh) in the early 1970s, Major General Vijay Singh Lalotra. They were posted one after the other to the Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla, and, uncannily, put in charge of the ADC. Because of them, especially General Lalotra, we were able to sort out all the major issues such as relocation of spaces. I would not hesitate to say that had it not been for them the theatre complex would not be in the form we see today. They were the deus ex machina that got positivity and good vibes flowing all around. We were also fortunate to have Lt Gen. K.S. Jamwal, a thorough gentleman and a soldier as the head of the ARTRAC. Thanks to them and my own family’s known contribution to the military, we were able to have the ADC and the Army fully on board for the project.

Time-consuming process

The starting of the physical construction work did not mean the end of our challenges. First of all, restoration and conservation is a time-consuming process. Many members of the ADC were running out of patience as parts of their premises were out of bounds because of the ongoing work. The threat seemed to be home-grown and therefore very real. We even had to face a public interest litigation petition in the High Court, which fortunately got resolved owing to the protective hand of V.K. Gupta, the then Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh, who recognised our sincerity and overall good intentions.

Second, numerous engineering and technical obstacles kept presenting themselves. The biggest one was how to resolve the issue of the crumbling stones and the horrible possibility that the existing walls would not be able to withstand the additional heavy load of the iron girdles that were holding up the new roof. The other major problem was how to delink the building from the “Ridge” (a flattened hill feature that is a prominent landmark next to the theatre complex) to which it had umbilically been connected since birth through heavy iron girders. This fatal flaw was responsible for the slow death of the building as rainwater had been pouring from the Ridge side on to its walls year after year.

Fortunately for us, the report from the Shriram Institute for Industrial Research, New Delhi, came to our rescue and removed all our doubts about the ability of the existing walls to bear the load. The PWD still had its reservations, but Ved Segan dug in his heels, for which he won my admiration, and eventually the engineers relented. The stones were strengthened with the use of special polymers that allowed them to breathe and remain intact. The culprit had been the layers of cement applied indiscriminately over the years to hide the crumbling stones. Until then, we never knew stones also needed to breathe.

The PWD and Ved Segan had to spend days figuring out a way to separate the theatre building wall from the Ridge without damaging either one, which they eventually succeeded in achieving. Some of the delicate Gothic style stone railing was strengthened using carbon fibre technology provided by IIT Bombay. For the interiors of the sanctum sanctorum, that is the theatre itself, the architect located parties in Mumbai who could supply period material and install them flawlessly. Ved Segan’s experience of working on the Prithvi Theatre proved invaluable.

Fortuitous events

Thus, one by one—almost as if some unknown force was at work aligning the stars—all our challenges were overcome by a series of timely and fortuitous events, one of them being my unusually long tenure of five years in these related departments straddling the tenure of two Chief Ministers at the peak of their political rivalry. We were also exceptionally lucky to have an outstanding team of officers at the helm. S.P. Negi, the Engineer in Chief of the PWD, was a man with an open mind and always ready to accommodate our architect, who was a real dragon when it came to heritage norms, for instance, every stone removed had to be marked and put back in its original place. Dr Prem Sharma, Director of the Department of Language, Art and Culture, was a man from the theatre itself. He also had the ear of the Chief Minister, which we “surgically” used whenever we were in a tight spot. S.K. Kuthiala was not a run-of-the-mill contractor; he was a man of few words but always passionate about his work. We also had an outstanding site engineer in Y.K. Joshi, who often had “skirmishes” with his own department, the PWD, and the architect but always for a justifiable reason. When I now speak with Ved Segan, his only regret is that he was not allowed to build the platform in front on the Mall where the Viceroy used to alight from his buggy in the 1890s. Perhaps, the police control room, an iconic landmark on the Mall, stands in its way. His experiment with platforms on the eastern side, from the Mall to the Ridge, is a runaway success as it is thronged by young local residents and tourists alike. The other disappointment, which both of us share, is about the ADC not being able to stage enough plays.

Sensing this, in the lease agreement signed in 2006 with the ADC, I insisted that least three plays be performed each year. Also the ADC needed to amend its by-laws to restore the promotion of dramatics as an objective, which surprisingly had disappeared. The ADC is the inheritor of the legacy of the oldest functioning dramatic club of India, which was founded in 1837, half a century before Gaiety. It was interesting to learn that it has a branch in London, formed in early 1900s by Major Wilkinson of Wilkinson Sword fame.

Today, when I pass by the Grand Old Lady, she seems to smile and say to me: “Thanks, buddy, for fixing me up and making me once again the soul of the town.” This resonates with Sudarshan Sharma, the present manager of the Gaiety Theatre, who said: “Gaiety has re-emerged as the cultural hub of Shimla with a footfall of 7,000 Indian and 26,000 foreign tourists since 2010 when the renovated Gaiety Theatre was inaugurated. We now have a corpus of Rs.2 crore with which we can comfortably maintain her.” Sudarshan is right. She is indeed Bouboulina of Zorba the Greek and needs gentle handling and constant touching up. Whether she will continue to be looked after only “time will tell”, which ironically was the name of the first play performed in the theatre, in 1887.

Ashok Thakur is a former Education Secretary, Government of India. He belonged to the IAS (Himachal Pradesh cadre) and now lives near Manali.

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