By Vishal Gulati
Shimla: once a village that served as the summer capital of British India between 1864 and 1939 and as the seat of the Himachal Pradesh government subsequently, is all set to walk down memory lane of being known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’ for 150 years.
The ‘Queen of Hills’ moniker was given to the hill station by the British colonial rulers and the town still has 91 British-era heritage buildings.
To recreate the past, the state government and other cultural agencies like the National School of Drama have lined up a series of celebrations beginning from next month.
“We have chalked out a series of programmes which include theatre festivals, mythological ballets, film festivals and display of army bands to showcase Shimla’s glorious history,” Principal Secretary (Language, Art and Culture) Umpa Chaudhary told IANS.
She said the programme, named “Shimla Celebrates: 150 years of Summer Capital” would begin with a state-level theatre festival from March 21 to 27.
Theatre groups from the state would stage plays at the British-era Gaiety Theatre, where Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling and legendary actors Prithviraj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni once performed.
From April 14 to 20, a national-level theatre festival will be organised. It will mark the birth anniversary of famous theatre personality Manohar Singh.
During the festival, plays by Neelam Mansingh, Rattan Thiem, Naseeruddin Shah, Waman Kendre and the National School of Drama would be staged.
Delhi’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra will present mythological ballets from May 23 to 25, while a film festival in collaboration with the information and broadcasting ministry will be organised from June 18 to 25.
A music festival would be held from Sept 21 to Oct 4 in collaboration with Punjabi Academy of Delhi.
In May, August, November and December, an Indian Army band will perform to commemorate ‘Shimla Celebrates’.
A coffee table book, ‘Har Ghar Kuchh Kehta Hai’ – literally meaning ‘every house tells a story’ – published by the state tourism department in 2010, says the first house was built in Shimla, then a village, in 1822 and it took almost 44 years for the number to grow to 290.
“Till 1841, there were only 100 houses. The population in 1881 was only 13,258 that increased to 4,803 Europeans and 38,539 Indians in 1921,” says the book.
It says the first house built by a European in 1822 was Kennedy House, which was the residence of Charles Pratt Kennedy, the newly-appointed political officer to the hill state.
It was located in what is now the parking lot of the state assembly complex.
In 1827, Lord Amherst, the then governor-general of India, visited while the following year, the commander-in-chief, Lord Combermere, paid a visit.
Combermere ordered the first bridge in the town. The bridge, which still bears his name, provides a vital connection between the main town and Chhota Shimla.
He also ordered a large water tank at the place where the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex now stands. This was the town’s primary source of water before the piped variety became available.
The book also narrates the bravery displayed by Major Roy Alexander Farran, a British-Canadian soldier born in this town who became a highly decorated officer during World War II.
There is also a mention of Wing Commander Guy Gibson of the Royal Air Force 617 Squadron that earned the “Dam busters” sobriquet for his successful raids against a string of major German dams during the war.
The book also throws light on major historical facts like the Simla Agreement signed between then prime minister Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Z.A. Bhutto in 1972, visits of Mahatma Gandhi before India’s independence and India’s long-standing connections with Burma, now Myanmar.
Mahatma Gandhi visited the town several times in the days leading up to the country’s independence. On some occasions, Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai accompanied him.
It also brings forth facts about Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s stay at Woodfield, a wood and mud house at Boileuganj.
The book also narrates how the town got its name.
“The name of the original village is variously reported as Shimlu, Shemalaya, Semla, Shumla and Shemla. As the ‘summer capital’, the spelling was Simla and official addition of ‘h’ made it Shimla in the 1980s,” says the book.
The British-era buildings include Ellerslie, housing the state secretariat, Peterhoff which was completely renovated after being devastated in a fire nearly two decades ago and now serves as the state guest house, United Services Club, Town Hall, Barnes Court housing the Raj Bhavan, the Viceregal Lodge housing the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and Gordon Castle.