The Ace of Clubs

JUST PAST Gove Building, referred to in this column as Cuddon Building last week, is another bit of early 20th Century Indo-Saracenic. Madras's first 100-foot tall building, this long three-storeyed building, its handsome lines now disfigured by a rash of signboards in a variety of styles, was built by one of the old merchant families of Madras, the Khaleelis, and was known as Khaleeli Mansions. The Khaleelis, with Persian roots and kin of Sir Mirza Ismail, the famed statesman and dewan of the pre-Independence era, are a family with connections in Mysore, Bangalore and Madras, in all of which the name remains in buildings. The Khaleelis' pioneering `highrise' in Madras was bought by another old Madras family, the Agurchands, and the building is now known as Agurchand Mansions.

Stretching behind Khaleeli Mansions to General Patter's Road and across the road was the vast estate of the Kushaldoss family, perhaps the richest family in 19th Century and early 20th Century, Madras. The richly ringed, ear-ringed and turbaned Lodd Govindoss Chatoorbhooja Doss was the best-known of this family. All these old families are little remembered today, and deserve a researcher looking into their roots and recording their contributions to Madras from the 1820s onwards.

Alongside Agurchand Mansions is Club House Road - though of clubhouse there is, at the end of the road, only a neglected mansion. Still handsome even in its derelict state, it cries for restoration as a convention centre. This was the first home of the Madras Club and a description of that period says, "Madras being the headquarters of Headquarters, the Madras Club is naturally the Ace of Clubs. It is said to be the best club in India."

The splendid Palladian-style main building that was later developed with Pantheonic overtones had its beginnings in the White House, built as a typical garden house here by J.D.White around 1810. It was bought with its seven acres by the Club, on its founding in 1832, from its owner at the time, a Mr.Webster. With a membership of 1500 and still growing, the Club needed more space - and over the next few years added acreage. In 1852, it bought the four-acre Waller's Garden to the west of the Webster-White property and the original clubhouse. The next year, it added Devenish's Garden and its four acres to the north of the latter. To the north of Waller's Garden was the home Col. Archibald Patullo of the Governor's Bodyguard bought from a Mr.Hick in 1872. The name Hick's Bungalow was, however, retained even after its five acres were bought by the club in 1898 following its lease of the property for 30 years. Thus, between 1832 and 1898, the club acquired 20 acres of garden space in the heart of the Choultry Plain, just off Mount Road, and built in the campus a clubhouse, rooms for members' accommodation and several bungalows.

Developed by member-engineers from 1832 and then between 1865 and 1867, the club got the huge building that survives precariously today. Fronted by Chisholm's colonnaded portico was a long room above a long basement bar and stores. The long room was divided between a 75' x 33' reading room in front and a 65' x 27' dining room. Jutting east from the main block was built a long two-storey chambers' block with 22 rooms, jutting west was built a square block with a strangers' room, changing rooms and the library. A covered corridor leading from the dining room linked the main building with the Octagon - a smoking room and office block - on either side of which were built a two-storey billiards block with six tables, and a card room. In the gardens were an enormous racket court, 75' x 45', several tennis courts in later years and a covered swimming `bath' built in 1855 and Madras's first. What was called the `Hen House' was condescendingly built in 1898 by a club which did not let women set foot in the main premises; the `Hen House' was as much space for the memsahibs to wait for their sahibs as it was to slowly become a place to meet each other. And there were `bungalows' for the expat chefs and managers. The club also maintained the kennels for the Madras Hunt - and was not only headquarters of the Hunt but also the meeting place where Madras's other sports institutions, like the Cricket club, gymkhana club, race club, rowing club and Yacht club, were founded. All of which offers a restored building another alternative use - as a sports museum.

With the expat exodus after Independence, the `whites only' club was in straitened circumstances. Nor did it need such a huge property. So, in 1947, the 20 acres and all the buildings on them were sold to Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express for Rs.13 lakh and became Express Estate. In 1948, the club moved to new and smaller premises it built further up Mount Road and the newspaper moved in. The paper functions from buildings that were in Devenish's Gardens; the swimming bath, which if restored could be recreated as a Roman Bath, is used to store stacks of old newspapers, the `hen house' was rented to the Max Mueller Bhavan, and now, after restoration serves as the Express Estate Office, and Hick's Bungalow, tastefully restored, became Ramnath Goenka's home and later his daughter-in-law, Saroj Goenka's. The splendid maintenance of Hick's Bungalow and its gardens are reason enough to hope that such care will one day be lavished on the main building too.

The Indian Express dates to Madras's first morning paper, the Daily Express, a lively daily started in 1921 by R.W.Brock who was Editor of the Madras Times when it was taken over by J.O.Robinson and merged with The Madras Mail. Brock founded a paper to entertain, with a daily magazine section, women's pages and children's pages. But when he returned home, his successors failed to make a go of it and the paper folded in 1927.

From the Englishman's Express there emerged the Indian Express in 1931/32, founded by an outspoken Ayurvedic doctor who was described as the `Tilak of South India'. Varadarajulu Naidu, the irascible doctor, had founded a Tamil weekly, Tamil Nadu, a decade earlier and had made it a daily in 1927. And to speak in the same angry voice he founded the Indian Express. But within a year he was in difficulties and the Express was taken over by Sadanand of the Free Press Journal, Bombay, who left it to S.V.Swami, his manager from Bombay, and K.Santhanam, whom he appointed Editor, to run. They borrowed money from Ramnath Goenka to modernise the press in Mooker Nallamuthu Street and start a Tamil daily, Dinamani. But they too could not sustain both papers and the modernisation never took place. In 1939/40, Ramnath Goenka took over the Indian Express and Dinamani - and began to build an all-India newspaper empire, publishing from several centres in a number of States and Union Territories. To headquarter this empire and to serve as its flagship's offices, he bought the Ace of Clubs' property.


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