Anusha Parthasarathy runs through the history of the campus set up by Harry Crowe Buck
Beyond the basketball courts and the swimming pools, the tree-lined campus of YMCA College of Physical Education is a Salvador Dali painting come alive; butterflies flutter past in slow motion, an abandoned dock awaits its boats, barren trees pose dramatically against an overcast sky, deer strut away with their heads held high and founder Harry Crowe Buck's presence lingers on in the oldest physical education college in Asia.
Buck was an American from Springfield College, Massachusetts, who arrived in Madras in 1919. He began the YMCA Training School of Physical Education in the Esplanade buildings in 1920 with five students. “He was the one who introduced basketball to Madras,” says R. Sweety Prem Kumar, correspondent and secretary.
“He had come here to develop our youth and was a visionary. The institution offered a one-year course in physical education.” The training sessions were conducted on the ground next to the Fort station. Their only reference books were the ones that Buck and his wife Mary owned.
In 1922, Buck was appointed as advisor to the Madras Government on Physical Education and in 1924, the first Indian Contingent for the Olympics was selected from the school. Buck was the official starter at the Paris Summer Olympics and he managed and coached the Indian team. As the school began to grow, there was a need to expand the space. According to Madras Rediscovered by S. Muthiah, the college moved to the Wesley School grounds in Royapettah in 1928 after which, in 1932, they shifted to a larger campus by the Adyar River in Saidapet.
“They say Crowe travelled up the Adyar river in a boat, looked at this particular place and decided he wanted to build the college here,” says Prem Kumar. “In this 65-acre campus, he built his house in such a way that he had a full view of the grounds no matter where he stood. We've kept the house as it is, with its Burma teak panelling.”
Buck also started the first sports journal Vyayam in 1928 and had thatched huts built to house classrooms, office, hostels and kitchens temporarily. In 1933, the foundation stone of Massey Hall, the main college building, was laid by Sir George Stanley, the then Governor of Madras. In 1940, ten hostel units for men were constructed along with barracks that were used by the soldiers. Women were admitted for the first time and the college became a co-education institution.
“Madras's first swimming pool and boxing ring are here,” says S. Johnson Premkumar, Assistant Professor, “and we have retained the same purification methods that were used then. Even the drainage system is the same. A lot of yesteryear film stars would use this pool since it was the only one in the city. Also, when Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was built, they used the sand from here to lay the grounds there since this was the first-of-its-kind.”
In 1971, a one-year Masters degree was started, four years after which the Ph.D. programmes began functioning. In 1977, two schools (a primary and higher secondary) were opened. It was only in 1985 that the BPES (Bachelor of Physical Education) came into functioning. In 2006, a third school, one for the differently-abled was also started as a project by the YMCA College.
Now, the college has facilities for basketball, volleyball, shuttle, tennis, cricket, beach volleyball, table tennis, hockey, and even conducts martial arts classes. It offers undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate courses in physical education apart from overlooking the functions of three schools within the premises. There is even a women's fitness centre, wading pool, gym and their ever popular adventure camps. “We're in the process of setting up a camp site with tents. For now, we conduct summer camps and some regular courses for the public. We have planned a lot of renovation and new additions to our college and hope to get them done by this year,” says Prem Kumar.
The college now has 490-odd students and classes start as early as 6 a.m. The courses are all residential and the campus houses 30 to 40 spotted deer, apart from its students. But the half-hour tour of the canopied campus ends in a small mausoleum by the entrance. This is where Henry Crowe Buck was laid to rest on July 24, 1943, followed by a couple of his successors. Engraved on a simple tombstone at the head of his grave, his epitaph reads ‘They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint'.