The 170-year-old building of Alfred High School, the alma mater of Mahatma Gandhi, is a landmark in Rajkot’s Jawahar Road. But for various reasons, the school campus is not a tourist hotspot as it should be.
The state government shut down the historic school in 2017 and converted it into the Mahatma Gandhi Museum (MGM) the following year, among other things, to draw tourists. The quaint building stands out amid hotels, banks, restaurants and a vegetable market in its surroundings but the footfall is not encouraging.
Established in 1853, the institute was initially known as Kathiawar High School, the first English medium school in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. In 1875, the then nawab or ruler of the princely state of Junagadh got the building – which is the western wing of the present-day structure – constructed and the school was rechristened as Alfred High School in honour of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Later on, the northern, southern and western wings were added as the school grew.
In 1971, the Gujarat government renamed the school Mohandas Gandhi Vidyalaya in memory of Gandhi, arguably the brightest alumnus of the school.
Gandhi enrolled in Alfred High School in 1880 and graduated in 1887. It was here that he refused to correct the spelling of the word ‘kettle’ during an inspection despite being prompted by his teacher as a young Gandhi believed it was inappropriate to copy it from students sitting beside him while there was someone supervising the exercise to prevent copying.
The two-storey sandstone structure has 40 rooms and two halls. The compound also has other buildings including the principal’s bungalow and laboratory building. As the number of students started dwindling in the early 2000s and classrooms started getting empty, they were turned into local offices of government departments.
Now, the main building is MGM, the principal’s bungalow is a VIP lounge and conference hall and the lab houses a library. The rooms have been converted into 39 AC galleries. One room has been converted into a control room for multimedia systems spread across the gallery as well as for CCTV surveillance.
The hall on the ground floor was converted into the Gandhi Smriti Hall when the building was still a school. Now, it has been converted into a gallery exhibiting statues of the Father of the Nation as his favourite bhajan “Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye” plays on an audio system.
The classrooms on the ground floor depict Gandhi’s journey from his birth in 1869 to Bapu leading the nation to Independence in 1947. A replica of South Africa’s Pietermaritzburg railway station, where Gandhi was thrown out of a train for refusing to move out of a compartment reserved for white people, adds to the experience.
The displays include replicas of pamphlets drafted by Gandhi, photographs of people associated with or inspired by Gandhi, etc. One also has the option of reading about the Mahatma’s life using digital interactive kiosks placed in galleries.
Galleries on the first floor depict Gandhi’s 11 vows, his days in jail, his association with spiritual mentor Shrimad Rajchandra and Sardar Patel. One can also listen to some of his speeches and see stock videos of narration of the Gandhi Katha by late Narayan Desai, son of Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai.
In one gallery is preserved a report card of his days at the school, arguably the only original artifact belonging to Gandhi in this museum. A souvenir shop sells books penned by Gandhi, comics about him, replicas of the three wise monkeys, and products of daily use manufactured by Gandhian organisations.
The school building was converted into MGM at a cost of over Rs 25 crore and is managed by the Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC). But Deval Bariya, manager of the museum, says the number of visitors is hardly inspiring. “Not many are keen to visit this place, not even residents of Rajkot,” he shares, adding that the average monthly footfall is around 2,500.
RMC officers say the average annual cost of operating and maintaining MGM is around Rs 2.5 crore. “It is true, tourist footfall is low and there are demands for certain sections to allow activities, including wedding photography, on the compound to keep it teeming with life. But we have to maintain the dignity of this place and cannot allow activities that are not in sync with the place,” explains an RMC officer.
The museum remains open from 10 am to 6 pm with a light and sound show beginning at 7 pm. It is closed on Mondays. The entry ticket costs Rs 25 per person for adults.