In a pivotal moment in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), the yet-to-be Mahatma, played by Ben Kingsley, stands on the stage of Johannesburg’s imperial theatre – packed to the brim with Indian expatriates – and delivers a fiery speech claiming equal rights for Indians in South Africa and outlining his idea of a non-violent struggle.
At the end of the powerful scene, the audience seated in the three-story theatre is charged up for the righteous fight that lies ahead which they will finally win. The scene wasn’t shot at the now demolished iconic Johannesburg theatre or in South Africa but at an equally eminent meeting place: The amphitheatre of Pune’s Fergusson College.
“Someone approached me seeking permission for the shoot. I was very excited and gave the permission readily,” recalls V K Wagh, who was principal of Fergusson when the film was shot.
“We saw the Gandhi project being shot at FC as a historic moment. The scene required a great crowd and students – especially those staying in the hostels – pitched in. They got short roles in the crowd. We also provided hundreds of coats, shirts, and ties required for the costume. Students were glad to take part in the shoot that went on for 15 days and, besides, they got an honorarium of Rs 100,” said Wagh.
Constructed in 1911-12, the NM Wadia amphitheatre at Fergusson College has been witness to important political and cultural moments in the city, apart from being the go-to place for student gatherings in its history of about 111 years. The amphitheatre has seen stalwarts of the Indian social, political, and literary sphere including Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, V D Savarkar, Madan Mohan Malviya, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, P K Atre, Pula Deshpande, Rajiv Gandhi, and Narendra Modi take stage and share their thoughts with the audience. It is the place where the first All India Women’s Conference was held in 1927 and where the popular one-act play competition Purushottam Karandak was launched.
Before the amphitheatre came up in 1912, college functions were held on the first floor of the main building or in open spaces.
The idea to build an enclosed hall for college functions and gatherings was proposed by the then principal RP ‘Wrangler’ Paranjpye who wanted to have a structure of semicircular shape like one of those he had seen at a European university. The plan did not immediately materialise as other pressing requirements, such as the construction of additional classrooms, took precedence when the government grant was received. As per news reports of the time, the number of students at the college had seen a consistent rise between 1902 and 1912 from 263 to 835.
“Finally, it was resolved to push the scheme ahead and a special appeal was issued in January 1911, to a small circle of chosen friends of the Society, calling upon them to contribute Rs 1,000 each towards the cost of constructing the building. The appeal succeeded beyond the highest anticipations. The trustees of the NM Wadia Charities sanctioned a donation of Rs 25,000,” as per the History of Deccan Education Society (DES) written by PM Limaye in 1935.
This donation by the Wadia trust, headed then by Parsee businessman Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, was half of the total expenditure estimated at that time. However, by the end of the work, the total budget neared Rs 70,000. In recognition of the generous donation, the DES council decided to name the amphitheatre after the late NM Wadia.
The amphitheatre was inaugurated on October 5, 1912 by Bombay Governor George Clarke. Sir Jeejeebhoy, who attended the inauguration, praised the ‘cosmopolitan spirit’ displayed by the donors for the cause. “Though the temple of learning recognises no caste or creed, the Fergusson College may well be said to be an almost Hindu institution. Yet when it appealed for funds willing assistance was rendered from the wealth of a Parsee, and His Highness the Aga Khan came forward with a donation of Rs 5,000. Amidst much that is discouraging to the cause of Indian Nationality, incidents such as these encourage one to think that the day is not far distant, when the different communities of India will realize that their interests are identical and that the advancement of any one community is a step towards the advancement of the nation as a whole,” Jeejeebhoy said at the inauguration, as per Limaye.
The amphitheatre was designed by Diwan Bahadur Godbole and the 18,000 square feet neo-gothic structure is hailed as an architectural marvel for its windows and arcades. The building’s layout bears a stamp of colonial expression and was built using local stone (basalt), the main structure has a main auditorium and two balconies. It is a Grade-I heritage structure. In 2012-13, the structure was given a brush-up and its seating system was replaced by the college by spending Rs 1.75 crore. The renovated amphitheatre was opened by Narendra Modi who was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time.
“Amphitheatre is the pride of Fergusson College,” says Shivani Limay, who is part of the college’s history faculty and conducts heritage walks.
“Now, prior permission needs to be taken for student use because we must preserve it. It is a landmark in Pune and is a heritage building for us. We organise 45-minute-long heritage walks for Fergusson College. The very popular and renowned drama competition, Purushottam Karandak began from this very stage in the Wadia Amphitheatre. This is the place where past students come back and address present students, especially those who have cleared the prestigious UPSC or MPSC examinations,” she said.
Ravindrasinh Pardeshi, former principal who held the position from January 2009 to June 2023, said, “It earlier had three storeys, ground, first and second floor. During the renovation after the building turned a hundred years old, under the recommendations of the structural architect, we stopped using the top floor. The two floors that are presently in use have a capacity of around 650 people.”
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