A 75-year-old legacy

Sir Mohamed Usman, who became the Rotary Club's first Indian president  

THE ROTARY Club of Madras (Main), the first in the South and the third in India, recently got off the ground celebrations of its 75th year of founding. The Club has, to mark the occasion, brought out a slim history by Deepika Davidar, A Timeless Legacy: 75 Years of Service, and to it I owe this historical note.

Rotary, born in Chicago in 1905 from the loneliness of a New Englander in harsh new surroundings, Paul P. Harris, had a dedicated `missionary' in James Wheeler Davidson, a Canadian, who visited Madras in 1929 and found here a Calcutta Rotarian Frederick E. Wheeler (later Sir), who was at the time the vice-president of the United Planters' Association of South India. Together, they met 29 other Madras business and professional leaders individually - and the Rotary Club of Madras was born. It was a 30-member - including Wheeler - all-white institution, which first met on May 10, 1929, at the Connemara Hotel, still its meeting venue, though between the first meeting and 1937, it met at the Madras Gymkhana and the Madras Cricket Club for short periods. In 1937, began the second association with the Connemara, which remains an unbroken one for over 65 years. The Club had representation from every major business house and profession in Madras. The only names among them still not surviving in even memory are A. Brunnshweiler & Co, Madras Hotels, The Bombay Co. Ltd and Messrs. Jackson & Baker.

A few months after its founding, the Club invited M.A. Muthiah Chettiar and Sir Mohammed Usman to become members - thus having an Indian membership almost from its inception. In an era when invitations to join the Club were extended only to the city's Indian European-leaning elite, Indianisation and a great cosmopolitanism beginning only after Independence, they were followed by Dr. P.V. Cherian, M. Rathnaswamy, Dr. P. Rama Rau and D.C. Kothari. The last named was in 1985, the first from the Club to be honoured for having been a member of it for 50 unbroken years, the only one so far to have achieved that distinction. Curiously, he became a member by accident; the invitation to his father came with the son's initials, and so `D.C.' turned up - and as a 24-year old, acquitted himself so well amongst his elders, he was made a member. In 1935, Sir Mohamed Usman became the Club's first Indian president. James was the first District Governor from Madras (1936) and Dr. P. Rama Rau the second and the first Indian to be so honoured (1943).

As early as 1937, when James was at the helm of Rotary District 89 (of which the Rotary Club of Madras was a member), the District called for women who were professionals to be admitted to Rotary. Nothing came of this appeal to Rotary International, but when 40 years later the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, acting on its own, admitted women to membership, the first steps to what was inevitable in a changing world were taken. Rotary International revoked Duarte's charter of membership for this challenge to Rotary tradition. But Duarte took the matter all the way up to the Supreme Court till, in May 1987, it got a favourable verdict. In 1988-89, women were admitted to Rotary for the first time - and Meena Dadha soon afterwards became the first woman to join the Madras club. A woman who joined not long after, Rekha Shetty, became in 1999 the first woman District Governor outside North America. And in 2000, Sudha Umashanker became the first woman to serve the Rotary Club of Madras as its Secretary.

Starting with sponsoring the Rotary Club of Nilgiris, the Rotary Club of Madras has sponsored several other clubs. But in the city itself, it was long reluctant to give up its sole occupancy. It was only after several discussions in 1960 and a report by M.V. Arunachalam and K.V. Srinivasan that the Club agreed "to release territory to facilitate the formation of one or more clubs in Madras City". And so, it sponsored the Rotary Club of Madras South whose charter was signed on June 30, 1960. Today, there are over 50 Rotary Clubs in Greater Madras, ten of them sponsored by Madras Main. The Rotary Club of Madras today, however, remains not only the largest in the State, with 240 members, but also the second largest in the country after the Rotary Club of Bangalore. Befitting such a club, it has had over the years a distinguished record of service to the city.