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Chronicles of a colonial club

The Cochin Club is one of the last bastions of the Raj in the city. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  

Fireworks lit up the night sky; revellers danced to Usha Uthup’s husky voice; members clinked glasses cheering their Cochin Club score a 100 years last Saturday, but there were voices in the merriment that said the club was older; much, much older.

Sitting tony, right opposite the 400-year-old St. Francis Church that goes back in time to the formation of the Portuguese-built Immanuel Fort, the existing club premises most agree, would have been part of the latter day Dutch Stromberg and the Gelderland bastions on its sides.

A document in the club office dates the handing over of the club premises by the Volkart Brothers to the Hon. Secretary H. Baechtold on October 29, 1914. It also speaks of this “parcel of land” as being part of Schuler’s Ship Building Yard and later Grieve’s Beach Yard in 1821. “Going by that we should be celebrating 200 years in another five years time,” says a club member with much reason.

Former president of the club MKK Menon, who has researched its antecedents, refers to a 1948 book by T.W. Venn, Cochin Malabar- Palms and Pageants. Venn writes about Ibrahim Khan, a seven-year-old ball boy, at the club, who at superannuation, which makes him 50, narrates to the writer about the men whose portraits hung at the picture gallery in the forties. After calculations Menon dates the club to the turn of the century, “definitely 1890s”.

Filmmaker Tom Peirce, descendant of the Peirce family, which had significant holdings in British Cochin, and later, schooled at the club in the sixties guesses, “The United Club across the Parade Maidan was built for the Indians in 1890, so this is definitely before that. Besides, the Lower Primary School on Elphinstone Street came in 1817, so the club would definitely be prior to the school.”

Despite the desire to precisely date its antiquity the Cochin Club remains, without contention, a precious piece of colonial heritage, the only remaining social link, in the city, to British Cochin.

The club has had a few seminal moments in its chequered history. To begin with it was a true-blue English club, so much so that in the 1930s it black balled none less than Robert Bristow, the revered engineer who gave Kochi its port and bridges, on account of his wife’s ancestry. The act labelled the club as snobbish, a tag that it wore even long after Independence. Royden D’Rozario, who joined the club office in 1974, recalls it being mentioned as an European Club in the Village Office documents. There were five English members the year he joined, he says.

Eighty-two-year-old Sally Peirce fondly recalls the flowers arranged in the bar by Sally Bowman who lived in the house right across from the Club, and Dougie Price’s cottage in the premises, on the side of Napier Street.

Seniors recall their inclusion as members in the 60s, on account of the company they worked for or because of their sporting abilities.

One of the most exciting pieces of historical data that the club has maintained are the minutes of the committee meetings dating back to 1941. Written in impeccable language and cursive style, the books mention typical English indulgences like game of skittles, croquet, the ladies powder room, the tennis marker, the squash court and such. It also mentions raising a war fund.

As decades distanced themselves from Independence, a scene at the club on August 15, 1947, is replayed as part of conversation. N.K. Shashi, member, remembers head barman P.M. Manu narrate the night when Englishmen sat huddled around a radio listening solemnly to Nehru’s ‘Tryst of Destiny’ speech.

But the sixties and seventies that followed reveal themselves as charming years of an ‘Indianisation’ of the club that in culinary term would be a perfect Mulligatawny. Justice P. Govindan Nair became the club’s first Indian president and Lily Koder, the first lady member.

Royden says with incertitude that the club also doubled up as the venue for the Cochin Gymkhana, the Golf Club and the Malabar Sailing Club. Affiliated members met here and went to Bolgatty for golf or to the channel in their skiffs.

The club was synonymous with the game of cricket and men in white flannels on its lawns remain a lingering image. Stories of Christmas parties, staging of plays there abound but with more Indian members joining local celebrations like a Diwali night and Onam lunch dos have become marked events in the calendar.

Says a member humorously, “I remember a tea on the lawns, a farewell do, when tangy ‘ chaat’ was served. We thought of Englishmen turning in their graves.” But the club has witnessed a progressing perestroika, a shift in accent. In the late 90s the distinguished library-cum-card room was the setting for the Ivory-Merchant production Cotton Mary. Sara Kurian recollects the day as she sat with five others dressed in period saris and puff-sleeved blouses from 10 in the morning to early evening dealing and shuffling cards but not playing. “It was frustrating but we were acting you see,” she says. Today, the club’s premises are a much sought-after film locale. Its main elongated building with a portico harbours the bar, a lounge, a library and a smaller ante room.

A shuttle court, two active tennis courts, a squash court, cricketing nets, and club chambers that earlier housed bachelors, are located within its walls, which were once hedges. The shiny teak bar counter with high stools, its walls decorated with mementoes from visiting ships, silver trophies won over years of sporting activity and a few sepia photographs comprise the simple elegance that meets the eye on entrance. The lounge with a billiard table, there were two in living memory, and cues with names of members etched at the ends, wooden corner stands and such English remnants make perfect period backdrop.

Abraham J. Tharakan, president, has further opened the club sharing its historicity. It is now a collaborative venue for the art exposition, Kochi Muziris Biennale; its chamber rooms redone and three fine-dining restaurants to open in the offing. The sea that once lapped at the club’s wall has receded, the gin and bitters afternoons not as commonplace as before, the palm tree that stood so conspicuously behind the building, in Venn’s book, struck down by lightning, but the Cochin Club has weathered its 100 years, shedding in the process its stiff upper lip and acquiring instead a global outlook.


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