Nothing about this squat, grey, block of a building would have it marked as a venue that has graced not one, but two Nobel laureates. Once the home of the Rangoon Times, the first all-English language newspaper in Myanmar that ran from 1856 to 1942, it was also visited by the great writer Rabindranath Tagore in 1932, during his third and last visit to the city. Apparently, he spoke and read from his work.
In 1951, the first Indian ambassador to Burma (and with assistance from then Premier and playwright U Nu) bought the building and renamed it Gandhi Hall. It was used for social and religious gatherings for the downtown Indian community. After the military coup of 1962, and the nationalisation of all property owned by foreigners the building was entrusted into the care of a board of trustees.
The property, like so many other buildings, fell into disrepair during the next few decades before experiencing a brief renaissance in 1990, when the NLD met at the hall to consider their next steps after their lawful election victory was denied by the military. After two days of deliberation in the building, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD issued their famous Gandhi Hall Declaration demanding the military recognise their victory and cede power in a peaceful transition. The military did not.
The building continued to rot. I lived for many years on the street the Hall backed onto and by 2011, plaster and paintwork had peeled away leaving the grey masonry underneath exposed. Any glass in the windows had long since disappeared. Trees had begun to sprout in cracks on the second floor. Lacking the architectural grace of similarly aged buildings around it and with no hint of its history.
Sitting on a prime piece of real estate on the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Merchant Street, its survival wasn’t good. In 2013, the board of trustees that was set up to protect the building had put in motion a plan to demolish it and sell the land to a developer. The family of the owner, now in India, reached out to the Indian Embassy who intervened and have taken over guidance of the building’s future, promising to turn the Hall into a permanent cultural heritage centre for the Indian community – though the current renovation of a much larger colonial building further west in Pabedan township with a large banner exclaiming the exact same promise doesn’t bode well for the future of Gandhi Hall.
For now, it remains the same as it did when I first saw it in 2011.
Address: Corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Merchant Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon, Myanmar.