Pune Campus: SPPU’s iconic building completes 151 years, rare paintings restored to add opulence

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As he stopped in front of the high main building of Savitribai Phule Pune University, Vice Chancellor Dr Nitin Karmalkar, who served as a guide for the participants of the heritage walk, started again after the pandemic on Thursday, informed attendees that the structure had recently completed 151 years.

Once the residence of the Governor of Bombay during the British Raj, the main building was constructed in 1871. Designed by James Trubshawe at a cost of 1.75 lakh Sterling Pound, its construction cost was heavily criticized by members of the British Parliament of the time.

“The town was then called Poona and the main building was built on the outskirts as the governor’s monsoon residence while Mahabaleshwar was the summer residence. Work began in 1864 when Sir Bartle Frere was Governor and took seven years to complete. The British Parliament strongly criticized it because building such a lavish house right after the Bombay cotton crash was considered extravagant,” said Shraddha Kumbhojkar, head of the SPPU’s history department.

The university’s website also reports on the history of the main building. “The cost of the residence was nearly six times the amount raised by the sale of the Governor’s previous residence. The British Parliament called him “a typical example of the extravagance and insubordination of the governors of Bombay”. Sir Frere fiercely defended his action, the house was not habitable when he left India in 1867. His successor, Sir Seymour FitzGerald carried out the furnishing and decoration, and he in turn was criticized for its extravagance, particularly for the £500 chandelier in the ballroom – which still sparkles, adding to the grandeur of the ballroom,” the website reads.

In June 2008, the then Vice Chancellor of the SPPU announced that restoration work on the main building, estimated at Rs 8 crore, would commence. It took several years and Rs 14 crore had been spent by the time the A-listed heritage structure was restored to its former glory.

Inspired by Prince Albert’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, architecturally the building defies classification although its spiritual ancestry is Italian and the 80ft flag tower has been described as a “Victorian interpretation of ‘an Italian bell tower’. Made from basalt, the structure is an imitation of the original Gothic style and is adorned with distinct Gothic features like gargoyles, arches and pointed towers.

While the upper floor houses the offices of the vice-chancellor, the ground floor now houses several meeting rooms where meetings such as the senate are held and a museum of rare artifacts from the Shivaji era now open to people. and below is an underground tunnel that connects the main building to the Potdar Sankul, then the kitchen of the Governor’s house. The tunnel was used to transport food from the kitchen to the ballroom during feasts, serving to prevent food from being tampered with and also ensuring that servants “served but were not seen”.

Various specimens of interest from geology, anthropology, history departments such as coins and currency, swords, shields and armor from the era of Shivaji Maharaj, several types of stones rare, scrolls and other items of heritage value can be seen inside the museum.

As the university resumed its heritage walk on Thursday, it added some precious treasures to the list of things to see in the main building – paintings by artist and antiquarian James Wales, a Scottish painter who spent nearly four years in Poona in the late 18th century, based at the British residence.

“The Wales paintings are an important link in documenting Maratha history from this period and his rare work of Maratha warriors and statesmen such as Mahadji Shinde and Nana Fadnavis now hangs in the main building after being restored. I had the privilege of working in this heritage structure and we invite people to come and walk and be part of its history and journey,” said Karmalkar.

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