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On the wall of the facade of Mathuradas Vissanji Memorial Hall is a marble plaque. Once white but now weathered and brown, it reads in engraved block letters, “On the 28th December 1985, a band of gallant patriots laid the foundation of the Indian National Congress, which has built up, stone by stone.as the pledge and symbol of the invincible purpose to secure to India their motherland their legitimate birth-right of Swaraj – placed to commemorate the occasion of it’s Golden Jubilee, 28th December 1985.”
The landmark meet convened here by Allen Hume is considered the birth of the Indian National Congress and it set the tone for the subsequent struggle for freedom from the British rule. But like the meeting, the history and the legacy of the hall that hosted it have been lost to generations of Mumbaikars.
The entry to the building is guarded by a bust of its founder, Sheth Gokuldas Tejpal, as is the entrance to the hall. Large and airy with a high ceiling, the hall has retained much of its vintage structure, except for the electric tube lights and air-conditioning fitted in the recent past. The aged wooden doors, the fans hanging from above, coupled with an ancient, dusty clock and a hand-painted sign above it helps give a sense of how old the hall is.
At one end of the hall, there is a small stage for religious functions, an ornamental curtain pinned up as a backdrop. The hall opens up to a courtyard fenced with shrubbery and its stone floor is overlooked by residential buildings.
On the sloping road leading to the hall, sit a few men, having their afternoon tea.
“We don’t know of any Congress meeting,” they say, adding, “All we’re aware of are the shaadis and the pujas that happen here.”Standing here, it is now difficult to imagine seventy-two intellectuals and political representatives convening meetings to discuss resolutions that changed the course of Indian history. Where one would expect flags of political affiliation, colourful decorative streamers and brown plastic chairs are found. The group of buildings, sitting atop a hill, is managed by the Sheth Gokuldas Tejpal Charities and was then the Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College and a boy’s hostel. It was left to the disposal of the First Congress after a chance shift from the original venue in Pune by managers of the college and the Hall was set aside as a symbol of India’s growing stand against the British government.
The hall is now rented out for religious ceremonies, wedding receptions, and a variety of exhibitions.
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The adjacent auditorium hosts numerous vernacular stage performances. It is visited every year by the Congress leaders on the anniversary of the first meet to pay homage to the birthplace of their party and ideology.
That more people need to be aware about the architecture and the events significant to the history of the country is a view of Usha Thakker, president of Mani Bhavan Sangrahalaya and director of Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum.
“We try keeping the spirit of history alive. Little children are engaged and taught. Through them, their parents and teachers are engaged as well, spreading the knowledge.”
The memorial hall overlooks August Kranti Maidan where 74 years ago the All India Congress Committee met and passed the historic ‘Quit India’ resolution. The hall stands as a sombre, august reminder to where it all began, one afternoon of December 1885.