The crumbling beauty
How many of you are familiar with this beautiful 19th century hall located on Lahore’s Rattigan Road? Let me take you through this historic hall today and why it stands so important and why there is a dire need to save this dilapidated structure. This hall remained a symbol of revolution for entire British India. The name of this building is Bradlaugh Hall which as per historic references was established through the fundraising efforts of the Indian National Congress, which held its annual session in Lahore in 1893. It is quoted by historians that the planning for that meeting took nearly five years, as there was a need for a dedicated space for political events in Lahore and finding a space was sensitive at that time. As early as 1888 a prominent newspaper publisher named Sardar Dyal Singh was able to secure Lahore as the meeting place for the Indian association in 1893.
Singh was elected chairman of the reception committee of the session, and ticket sales were sufficient to save Rs10,000 after covering all expenses. This small sum enabled the construction of Bradlaugh Hall. Just imagine at that time, with much value of money, how expensive this building was! The structure sadly is now crumbling and neglected by everyone with political posters on it and broken windows. Also the Rattigan road in the late 19th century was occupied by massive British bungalows. This was the elite section of the town, thus this hall was among the elite buildings of Lahore. Is it so now?
This hall’s name honours Charles Bradlaugh, a British MP in the late Victorian era who was fond of India and outspoken in his belief in social justice and women’s rights. Mr Bradlaugh visited India in 1889 and attended the 5th annual session of the Indian National Congress. In recognition for his activities, Surendar Nath Banerji — a senior leader of the Indian National Congress — installed the dedication plaque at Bradlaugh Hall on 30 October 1900 when this building was inaugurated. This plaque is still on the hall but the building is losing its grandeur and magnificence with the passage of time. If you closely observe this building you see the colonial architectural elements mixed with local climatic requirements. The high ceilings and thick walls depict the typical colonial elements of constructions. You will see much similar architecture in Lahore built during the same period.
Now let’s review what happened to this majestic elite building over the passage of time. Like many other Mughal era monuments the colonial era buildings have also been damaged. Once as a stately building and hall it played host to a veritable “who’s who” of advocates for the subcontinent, reaching a peak in the 1920s and ‘30s. But the majesty of the building was lost when in 1946 the Muslim League’s majority in Pakistan meant that the Indian National Congress could no longer meet there. As per historic accounts it was the time when the building took the journey towards dilapidation. The hall was then used as a storehouse for grain, a home for migrants from Amritsar, and a place for ironworkers.
More came in the year 1956 when the hall and the surrounding neighbourhood was flooded, making the hall useless as a warehouse and place of habitation. It was then handed over to the National Technical Institute. Although the building was used by the school for several decades the institute closed down in the late 1990s. The management then rented the building out to teachers of nearby government schools and other short-term clients. The partitioning and renting out of small portions of the hall to various tenants who had little understanding of the historical value of the property lead to widespread damage to the interior of the building. Bradlaugh hall that played a central role in the independence of Indian sub-continent, for almost half a century but this place saw a complete turn of fate after the creation of Pakistan. Irrespective of clan, creed or even political ideologies, the hall was famous for the meetings of all communities including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, they would organise political sessions, used to give receptions to visiting leaders in the city, and hold well famed literary sittings of that time, those called mushairas. Many plays and other cultural activities were organised here with the focus on freedom of India. Notables who frequented this hall and attended meetings included, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Dr Muhammad Ashraf, Mian Ifthikhar uddin and Malik Barkat Ali, Bhagat Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai. As part of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, Lala Lajpat Rai founded the National College inside this hall to impart quality education to the Indians, who did not want to join British institutions.
The Evacuee Trust Property Board seized possession of the building claiming itself as the legal owner of the property. At present the main door is locked. The stage, on which freedom fighters sang the lyrics of independence and free land, is just decaying. The hall now belongs to a government organization which is responsible for maintaining properties abandoned by non-Muslims during Partition. Before being taken over by ETPB, it had been served as a storeroom of a steel mill however it has been closed since 2009. In its present state, the building is nearly a ruin, but enough of it is still intact as you can see in the pictures. What now is needed is a strong conservation and rehabilitation process by the government.
This Hall in my opinion should be preserved and opened for public by giving it a decent access. It should be converted into a museum, art gallery and functional hall where cultural activities can take place regularly. Trust me we all need such activities for a healthy lifestyle. Also plaques, history and portraits of the notables who visited this hall and made a history should be placed inside the hall for all of us to realise the importance of this place. Heritage must not be neglected. It has no religion, cast or colour. So let’s save this dying monument of 19th century for our next generations.
Photo Credits: Fareed Ahmed Khan