In 1865, when Mangalureans felt the need for a good school, they decided to do something about it. A number of residents formed a committee, raised Rs 65,000 from donations, gave it to the government and then asked for a school to be established.
The proactive group included N Gundu Rao, Mangalore Narayana Pai, Sadat Khan, Srinivasa Rao, I Ramachandrayya and other city grandees. In response, the British Government (Mangaluru was then under the Madras Presidency) made a matching grant and the Provincial School of Mangalore opened in September 1866.
After a slightly shaky start, the government-appointed W E Ormsby, who had a BA and an LLB degree from Trinity College, Dublin, as principal. Under his steadying influence and with help from his able staff, the school began attracting more students and quickly added more classes and courses.
In 1879, it was renamed Government College. Much later, in July 1992, it became a constituent college of Mangalore University and was renamed University College Mangalore.
A major influence on the institution was the poet, writer and thinker Govinda Krishna Chettur who became principal in 1922, when he was just 24. Chettur had been inspired to join the Indian Educational Service after his MA from Oxford.
“Is it not possible for Universities in India to exercise a similar ennobling influence on students?” he wrote. “One wonders whether our Universities have always been the dry, uninspiring official institutions that confront one today in India.”
Chettur served as principal till his premature death in 1936.
An important event in the college’s collective memory occurred in October 1922, when Rabindranath Tagore addressed a gathering in the Academy Hall of the College. The Nobel Laureate had been on a lecture tour of south India and was probably invited to the college by Chettur, who knew him. In memory of Tagore’s visit, the Academy Hall was renamed Ravindra Kala Bhavana in 1996.
Some people believe the Academy Hall was built for Tagore’s visit. However, based on archival records, the style of its architecture, comparisons with similar buildings of that time period and so on, it seems likely that the Ravindra Kala Bhavana is the oldest building in University College, and so probably dates to about 1870.
Dr Uday Kumar, who served as Principal of University College when the renovation work was being carried out, says the laterite building has some unique features including no external plastering, high ceilings and wide doors that ensured proper air circulation.
Over the years, the building had suffered from ad hoc additions and poor maintenance. “For a long time, I never even saw the entire structure because things were dumped everywhere,” Kumar says.
In 2017-19, Ravindra Kala Bhavana was restored with a grant from a UGC scheme that granted Special Heritage Status to University College, supplemented with funds from the University.
The restoration was carried out under the guidance of Harish Pai. “There is a strong influence of the Basel Mission on the structure,” says Pai, “especially in the use of the thin, cast iron columns that support the mezzanine and the wooden roof trusses as well.”
Architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi, who was the expert from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in the committee overseeing the restoration work, finds similarities with church architecture: “The Latin cross plan with the nave and transept, the large arches, the vast interiors, all give the building the look and feel of a church.”
Some details in the building are intriguing. Pai points out that while the mezzanine balconies are very elegant, except for a single row, people seated here would not be able to see the stage below at all. He also speculates the stage might have been an afterthought; it is very well designed, but there are “compromises” in its construction, he says.
The restoration has largely remained true to the original structure. One modification introduced a lean-to roof and corridor along the western wall to save the woodwork from the brunt of the fierce southwest monsoon.
The restored building was inaugurated early last year.
Kumar hopes that the hall will continue to be used for cultural and acoustic performances, and will not be rented for other frivolous purposes such as weddings or clothes sales. He suggests that there should be a local committee comprising eminent citizens from different fields to oversee the use of the stunning, beautifully restored building.
After all, he says, “it is the property of civil society.”
(The author is the convenor of INTACH's Bengaluru Chapter and author of Discovering Bengaluru)