The man who dreamed up Vidhana Soudha
The problem with being Bengalurean (a very different thing from ‘living in Bengaluru’) is that many of the benefits of being one can only be experienced, not articulated.
The problem with being Bengalurean (a very different thing from ‘living in Bengaluru’) is that many of the benefits of being one can only be experienced, not articulated. This is partly why Bengalureans are at such a loss when visitors demand to be shown their city’s sights. In the end, putting a brave face on it, they take their guests to ‘see’ Lalbagh, Cubbon Park, and the one building that is guaranteed to draw a gasp or two, the Vidhana Soudha.
In a long-ago interview, the second chief minister of Karnataka, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, revealed that it was a similar problem that had made him nix the original plans for a new legislature building for Mysore State, which his predecessor, KC Reddy, had approved. It was a Russian delegation that Hanumanthaiah was showing around the city in 1952 – in all likelihood, that tour also featured Lalbagh and Cubbon Park, apart from the Attara Kacheri, the old British Public Offices (now the High Court of Karnataka), into which the Mysore legislature had moved at Independence. After the tour, the visitors asked a pertinent question – “We have only seen British buildings – where are yours?”
Stung to the quick, Hanumanthaiah returned to his chambers and took a fresh look at the plans for the proposed two-storey building whose foundation stone had already been laid, in 1951, by the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Dismissing it as a ‘plain and simple type of American architecture’, the fierce nationalist, federalist, and champion of unification (of the Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka regions with old Mysuru) took an executive decision – the plan would be revised; the new building would be a magnificent expression of the power of the people, a work of art worthy of Mysore’s vibrant traditions, featuring local materials, architecture and craftsmanship.
Work on the new three-storeyed building, the largest of its kind with its 700x350 ft footprint and 175 ft height, began in 1952. The location was moved from the original site inside the Cubbon Park to higher ground, next to the Raj Bhavan and facing the Attara Kacheri. The design, described as Neo-Dravidian, included architectural elements from the Chalukya, Hoysala and Vijayanagara empires – columns, domes, latticed stone windows – and a soaring flight of stairs that placed the Soudha’s entrance way higher than the entrance to the Attara Kacheri, which emphatically achieved Hanumanthaiah’s purpose of dwarfing the latter into insignificance.
5000 convicts were put to work on the grand edifice, with the assurance that their sentences would be commutated post its completion. 1500 stonecutters and artisans worked tirelessly on granite quarried from Magadi and other sites around Bengaluru. Hanumanthaiah took a personal interest – it was on his say-so that the words ‘Government’s Work Is God’s Work’, and their Kannada equivalent, were emblazoned prominently over the entrance porch . As everyone raced against time to have the building ready in time for the birth of the unified Mysore state on 1st November, 1956, it became clear that the Soudha had spectacularly blown its budget, going from the estimated 33 lakhs to 1.7 crores.
All hell broke loose. Hanumanthaiah’s detractors launched a vicious attack, demanding an investigation, which the chief minister gladly ordered, into the ‘reckless expenditure’. The naysayers weren’t convinced. On August 19, just weeks before his grand dream was realized, Hanumanthaiah resigned. It fell to the interim CM, Kadidal Manjappa, to see the Soudha project through.
In 1957, the new Mysore government decided to erase Hanumanthaiah’s words from the entranceway and replace them with ‘Satyameva Jayate’. It never happened. Today, it is in those words, often ignored by those who pass under them, that Kengal Hanumanthaiah lives on.
(Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru)