In a league of their own

Madras Boat Club. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Madras Club

Established: 1832

It’s the second oldest surviving club in India, after the Bengal Club. In its present premises at the Adyar Gate Club Road, its third location since inception, the Madras Club is sprawling to say the least (about 13 acres) and continues to be one of the most prestigious in the city.

The story of the Madras Club begins in 1832 when it was established by the then ruling British elite at a seven-acre garden house off Mount Road (Express Avenue stands in its place now). Back then, it was a ‘whites only’ club that did not allow women, reveals historian S. Muthiah, who has been a member of the club for more than thirty years.

In a few decades, with its membership growing, the club realised the need for a bigger space and soon moved to a property at Branson Bagh opposite Church Park. It became an illustrious club, thanks to its high-profile members, and played host to many grand balls in honour of British royalty. It was only during these occasions that women were allowed inside the premises. The club grew in stature over time, came to be known as the ‘Ace of Clubs’ and drew comparisons with the legendary Melbourne Club in Australia.

In a decade of moving to its second home, the club started facing financial issues and was merged with the Adyar Club, founded in 1890. The club then moved to its new premises at the Mowbrays Cupola.

“Gradually, Indians took over the club,” reveals Muthiah, “The members were usually high profile; they were either chief executives of companies or leading personalities in their professions. The present trend is that children of members, in their 30s and 40s, are being taken in.”

The Madras Club has had many firsts to its credit; it was the first to introduce tennis and squash in South India. The library in its premises is one of the oldest private libraries in the city. Facilities such as a jogging track and state-of-art gymnasium are popular with members.

The club plans to spruce up its facilities; a shuttle and squash stadium are on the anvil. Of course, the old — which includes a grand entrance building and huge ballroom that has long old-style ceiling fans — is still very much intact.

Currently it has about 500 voting members and many other associate members. It also has short-term and corporate membership. The club has no waiting list; the application for membership is processed and approved by the committee, if it meets its expectations.

Madras Cricket Club

Established: 1846

Did you know cricket, the virulent orange tangy drink originated at the Madras Cricket Club? Oh, and it goes well with fish fingers — a hot favourite for almost a century. The kitchen here for the longest time served only Continental fare. And the oft-photographed MCC pavilion with a large clock that television cameras often zoom into when its lunch break during a Test match, has been here since 1927. Like these, there are many more charming facets to this two-acre club.

In its 170th year, this, no doubt, is one of the city’s most prestigious clubs and also one among the three built by the British in the city. It came into existence in 1846 when a British official Alexander Arbuthnot wanted a space that could cater to his cricket addiction. And so the Englishmen in the city got together here for the game.

The club house and pavilion of the 1840s were demolished in 1981. The reason being, in 1966, MCC gave the cricket field to the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association to construct the stadium. The ground and all the stands barring the pavilion belong to TNCA. Once the stadium came up, little was visible from the old pavilion. “Back in the day it used to be quite a long walk from the pavilion to the field for the cricketers,” says R. Ramesh, honorary secretary of the club.

The two squash courts that were built in 1899 are now the oldest part of the club. “They were the first in the city and built at a cost of Rs. 2,000. There is a glitzy new court now, that cost the club Rs. 10 lakh,” he adds.

The first floor of the lovely red billiards room, built in 1936, used to be the residential quarter of the secretary.

Till the early 1930s, the club was restricted to the British. It was in 1935 that Kumararaja Muthiah Chettiar became the first Indian member, while Mary Clubwallah Jadhav became the first Indian woman member in 1948. “As of now, we have 822 voting members. The memberships usually open once in 10 years. The last time it was in 2013,” says Ramesh.

Madras Cricket Club also has 13 honorary members. Sunil Gavaskar was the first in 1983, followed by Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar. The non-cricket playing ones include Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Vishwanathan Anand, Anand and Vijay Amritraj and Pankaj Advani.

There are many fourth-generation members in the club today. Sometimes there are visitors from Britain who come to see the club because their grandfathers were members. “We insist that anybody applying for a membership has to be a sportsperson… since this is essentially a sports club,” adds Ramesh. A residential membership costs Rs. 5 lakhs and an institutional membership costs Rs. 12 lakhs for 20 years. There is a painting of the Chepauk ground by artist Paul Raj in the Lord’s Cricket Museum, London. Luckily for those at the Madras Cricket Club, they’ve got the best view in the house.

Madras Boat Club

Established: 1867

At 8 p.m. every day, the head steward of the Madras Boat Club rings a brass bell. It’s a tradition that’s being followed since its inception. It calls for student rowers who are in the water to come ashore and men in shorts to change into formals if they are to stay on. Located on the banks of the Adyar River, the Madras Boat Club is one of the oldest rowing clubs in India.

One of the founding members of the Amateur Rowing Association of the East, the club is said to have been initially located by the Ennore backwaters and moved to its current location in 1892. “The club initially consisted of just the boat shed and a bar,” recalls Shakuntala Chanda, the president.

Over time, more structures were added. But even today, the Boat Club remains a quaint building by a river, where members sit on plastic chairs on the lawns at dusk, sipping tea and soaking in the quiet that’s rendered by the humid green cover and the grey waters of the Adyar River.

Rowing, as a sport, doesn’t have that many takers in India and the Madras Boat Club is trying to change that. Shakuntala says that members create awareness on the sport in schools and colleges and encourage students to take up rowing. But gaining a rowing membership in the club is not an easy task. Aspiring members are expected to complete 300 outings of rowing at the river to qualify.

The members of the club have been watching and experiencing up close the pollution of the Adyar River and have taken up the issue with authorities several times. But despite it all, the river continues to be degraded in front of their eyes. Shakuntala recalls seeing fishermen on catamarans fishing in the river some 20 years ago. “Then there was the pagal (crazy) regatta,” she smiles. Two people would be balanced on either side of a greasy pole, above the water surface. The last one to remain on the pole, would be considered the winner. “The cox, the only person on the boat who doesn’t row, but motivates the others, would sometimes be thrown overboard by the rowers at the end of a race,” she remembers and adds that they cannot even imagine doing such a thing now, given the condition of the river.

Several members from the club have gone on to win rowing championships in India and abroad. Their rowers have represented the country at the Junior Asian Rowing Championships in the years 2003 and 2005. With 1,723 members till date, the club has a one-year waiting list for memberships. Although there are no specific prerequisites for a membership (which ranges from lawn, rowing, independent lady, student, parent children, long term temporary and institutional members), there’s one important requirement from members: that they know how to swim.

Madras Gymkhana Club

Established: 1884

It stands across the Willingdon Bridge, enveloped in the muggy embrace of the Buckingham Canal that runs past it to meet the Bay. Shrouded from the busy Anna Salai by the green foliage of Island Grounds, the Madras Gymkhana Club (MGC) wears its Raj-era charm on its blue-blazered sleeve.

Founded at a time when the Ilbert Bill, a social leveller, was introduced by the Government, and sport and the good life were prized above everything else, MGC was one of those few places where Indians and the British met as equals. Brigadier-General C.B. Johnson and Brigadier-General Alexander Arbuthnot, two British officers, penned the proposal for the club that was built on land belonging to the army. It drew its first members from the garrison, Indian royalty who brought to MGC their love and skill for sport, and entrepreneurs who supplied commodities to British institutions.

“We have 2,025 members across various categories from resident-membership with voting rights to junior, corporate and temporary members. Considering the long-standing association with the Armed Forces, the GOC, Dakshin Bharat Area, is the ex-officio patron of the club. Over the years, the spirit of the club has remained the same — genteel; a member needs to blend in,” says P.V.S. Vencatasubramaniam, president, MGC, sitting across a baize-topped desk in the quaint club office. With membership becoming more egalitarian, potential members have no need to flash the old family tree; they need only to be proposed by an existing member.

Further inside the seven-acre campus, where the trees are hemmed in by red-brick fences and crows call out raucously, stands a white colonial lime-mortar-brick building with an imposing porch, deep verandahs, bay and French windows, colonnades and a creaking wooden dance-floor complete with a Yamaha piano. The lounge is grand, chandelier-lit and upholstered in peacock blue, with burnished brass boards bearing the names of presidents and secretaries of the club, silver trophies and a yellowing portrait of the Raja of Venkatagiri, who presented the club this building in 1886. It is a place high on social protocol — round-neck T-shirts are taboo in the lounge and shoes are de rigueur for men after 8 o’clock. “Photography without permission is still not allowed, and may invite a gentle rebuke from the stewards. But so many of the rules have been relaxed over time,” says Vencatasubramaniam.

Upstairs is the Island Lounge that overlooks the green lawns flanking the swimming pool, among the city’s first. Buttery Bar, once stern about entry to women and children, and the Mixed Bar, the haunt of old koi hais, now host dinners and buffet lunches with legendary drinks such as ‘hockey’ and ‘cricket’ being served by bearers in white.

It’s evening, and at the club it’s time for colonial nostalgia. Wicker chairs encircle tables with crisp white linen, ice glints and drips into salvers in the September heat, weathered novels fill the hushed library and only the sound of ball meeting racket echoes from the tennis court.

Sport has always been big at MGC (gymkhana is the Hindi term for a locale for sporting events). Pig-sticking and rifle shooting may have faded out, but billiards, golf, cricket and bridge tournaments are still popular.

So are MGC’s signature dishes — pineapple passion and rumpkin toast. “It’s the roast turkey dinner on Carol Night, a jacket and tie affair, that draws the crowds,” says Vencatasubramaniam. “The Boxing Day dance still registers a good show but we had to do away with the Derby Night where members once used to bet on wooden horses, because of poor attendance. Although there are many still wanting to be part of MGC, distance, traffic and apartments with their own club facilities have proved hurdles.”

Past the children’s play area, the Tom Thumb golf course, and beyond the cricket nets stands perhaps one of MGC’s greatest treasures — the uplifting vista of a skyline of domes that mark the University; a view across the canal unchanged these 130 years.

(With inputs from Srinivasa Ramanujam, Priyadarshini Paitandy, Akila Kannadasan and Deepa Alexander)

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 3:17:52 PM |

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