“ Address: The Mall / Shimla / 171001 „
~A Missing Attraction~
If you have seen Michael Palin's excellent series about his journeys through the Himalaya, you'll maybe have an idea why we keep going back again and again to experience the mountains. One of my favourite episodes is the one where Palin goes to Shimla to soak up the atmosphere of old English gentility and performs in the Gaiety Theatre. On our first trip to Shimla about six years ago, we saw most of the attractions in the city centre but I was left with a niggling sense that I'd missed something important. Despite wandering up and down the Mall and all around the centre, I hadn't seen the Gaiety Theatre and being a typical Brit abroad, I didn't ask anyone. This time I was delighted when we were walking up the Mall and we saw the signs offering tours of the theatre. We realised that we HAD seen the theatre on our previous visit but just hadn't realised that the large, grey building with all the renovation work going on was it. After several years of meticulous work, the Gaiety is now open again and it must surely be one of the best attractions in town.
~Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington~
Way back in the early 19th century, British people living and working in India discovered that one of the few ways to survive the heat of the summer was to head for the hills and Shimla became a firm favourite, later getting the name of the 'Queen of the Hill Stations'. Wherever the Brits went in the days of the Empire, they took favourite aspects of their home culture, like dressing for dinner, taking afternoon tea, gossip and snobbery and most relevant to the Gaiety, they imported amateur dramatics. There was nothing your posh Brit missing his or her home enjoyed more than dressing up in silly costumes and prancing about on a stage. The first 'am dram' performers used the Assembly Rooms which were probably quite a lot like an English village hall but over time, as Shimla became more important and more British ex-pats made it their home, it was decided to build a proper theatre as part of the Town Hall complex. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's jubilee, the Town Hall and the Gaiety Theatre opened in the city. It occupies a city centre plot sandwiched between the Mall and the Ridge. The theatre became a key gathering point for the community especially in the summer months when the government and all their hangers-on decamped from Calcutta and later Delhi to the hills, making Shimla the official summer capital of the Raj. In those days anyone who was anyone was hanging out at the Gaiety.
The building is a fabulous grey stone construction in Victorian Gothic style. I'm pretty good at spotting Victorian Gothic and its indigenised version which is known as Indo-Saracenic architecture. It's a style that's very common in India's cities, especially ones where the British held sway. When a local guide asks you "Do you know what this sort of architecture is called?" stick your chin in the air and say confidently "Indo Saracenic" and nine times out of ten you'll probably be right (especially if it's got lots of arches or looks a bit like Manchester Town Hall). This however is not so at the Gaiety which is pure Victorian Gothic.
The building as it is today is not as it was originally built. It had five stories but was found to be structurally unsafe and the top two floors were lopped off and the building strengthened. The architect was Henry Irwin, a man also responsible for the Shimla's massive great eyesore which was the Viceregal Lodge (now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study) as well as many other significant Indian civic buildings such as Mysore Palace, several railway termini and head quarters, the government museum in Chennai and the High Court in Chennai.
~Taking a Tour~
Tours of the renovated building are available for a very cheap price, even cheaper if you are Indian. The price for locals is 10 rupees each or 25 rupees if they have a camera. For foreign tourists, the fee is 25 rupees each and we paid and additional 25 rupees for my camera permit. The total of 75 rupees is less than £1. The guy who took our money asked us to go and sit in the theatre and make ourselves at home and said the guide would be along in a few minutes. We expected to have to wait for a few more people to join us but it soon became apparent that we were going to get our own private tour.
Tours run every 45 minutes through the day starting at 11.00 with the last at 18.15. We must have just got very lucky with our timing although since our tour was significantly longer than 45 minutes, I suspect we might have got a 'special'.
Our guide was a very smartly dressed chap in a blazer and crisply pressed slacks who was clearly a big fan of all things British and delighted to discover that we were from the UK and really pleased that we'd seen the Palin programme that featured the theatre. "It has changed greatly" he told us and went on to describe the dreadful state that the place had been in until the money was raised to renovate it. The work started in 2003 and everything has been restored to as close as possible to the original conditions. Paint was peeled off layer by layer to identify the original colours, traditional materials were used to match those of the original builders and it took 6 years and 11.5 crore rupees (approximately one and a half million pounds). I felt a little uncomfortable that he and the restoration team had gone to such extremes and such expense to preserve a little bit of old England so far from home but it was clear that they were deeply attached to the place and very serious about preserving a building that was so important to Shimla's past.
We started the tour in the theatre where we learned about the restoration work, about the famous people who'd acted there (including Baden-Powell and Rudyard Kipling) and about how important the place had been to the local community. Our guide was one of the most interesting and understandable we've ever had in India and we really enjoyed the stories he told us. He explained about how the building was heated during the freezing winter conditions, how the stage sets were worked, about why the trap door no longer works (someone fell through it and it had to be blocked up) and about who sat where within the building. There were three large 'boxes' with the best views of the stage. The central one was for the Viceroy and the two either side were for the Governor General of the Punjab and for the Commander in Chief of the army. These three were the only people allowed to ride a horse down the Mall, Shimla's otherwise pedestrian only street. He also explained that the local Indian princes sat in the seats at the side whilst the British had the better seats in the middle. In total the theatre holds 320 customers.
We heard that during the days of the Empire, there were hundreds of small theatres like the Gaiety all over the world and only the one in Shimla remains.
The main colour inside the theatre is an unusual shade of Wedgwood green. The plaster work is picked out in gold and the ceiling is a deep midnight blue. The seating has been completely replaced and the seats are unusually large and comfortable, especially when I compare them to a lot of old UK theatre seats that seem to have been built for tiny Victorian backsides. The stage is not very wide but is very deep.
After hearing about the restoration project we were taken to sit in the Viceregal Box which was quite fun and showed that even though lots have work has gone into the theatre restoration, they're not being to precious about the place. Before heading upstairs to see the theatre from the circle, we visited some of the other areas of the ground floor, seeing the impressive hot air system that heated the theatre and the old Tavern Hall which is rented out for art exhibitions.
Heading upstairs we looked at the theatre again and were taken to see the backstage system for controlling the sets and the curtains. Our guide left us for a while- I think to tell his colleagues that he was going to be late because we were asking him so many questions - and he left us in the first floor area in front of the theatre where there was a fabulous exhibition of old photographs of the theatre and her performers as well as plans of the original building before the top two floors were removed. When he returned we were taken to see the Art Gallery, a beautiful bright, domed room which used to be the Viceroy's drawing room and the place where he 'held court' in the city. At one time there was apparently a ramp running from Scandal Point to this room so that the Viceroy could ride directly to the door on his horse.
The top floor of the building contains the 'Multipurpose' Hall which, as the name suggests, gets used for many different things from business presentations to fashion shows and probably wedding parties as well. It's an enormous, impressive, modern space that's makes up for what it lacks in atmosphere by being very functional - a bit like the opposite of the old theatre downstairs. In addition to these two indoor theatres, there's also and small outdoor 'amphitheatre' that can be used for concerts and small performances. All of the theatres and gallery spaces can be rented out in order to ensure a good continuing income to secure the financial security of the theatre. Apparently Michael Palin is going back in 2013 to perform on the new stage and make a TV show to further publicise the theatre.
In total our tour took more than an hour and if we hadn't needed to move on as we were running short of time, I think we could have happily stayed even longer. Our guide was absolutely outstanding and incredibly knowledgeable. We were planning to give him a substantial tip but he shook our hands and left us so quickly that we didn't get a chance to.
The dedication and hard work of the people who have restored the Gaiety to its current glory and who offer tours to publicise their work and share the building they love is impressive. I strongly recommend a visit to what's now called the Gaiety Heritage Cultural Complex for anyone visiting Shimla and I'm sure it will soon become one of the city's top attractions. I would only recommend skipping it if you are the kind of person who hates to be 'shown' things and likes to wander around on their own. If that's you, then you'll also need to skip Henry Irwin's other Shimla building, the Viceregal Lodge. For everyone else, this is one of the most interesting and atmospheric tours I've taken in India and an opportunity to learn about the life of the British who chose to make Shimla their home.