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History

The last remnants of British Colonialism in India are undoubtedly the Colonial Clubs which dot the erstwhile cantonments of Indian cities. They came into being out of necessity when the sun never set on the British Empire. After much metamorphosis some thrive in a world where the sun never rises on the British Commonwealth. It is hard to describe in words the world as it was when the East India Company handed over India as the brightest jewel in the crown of the Queen Empress. Was it a world full of prejudices, racial discrimination, oppression, hatred, petty animosities, moral hypocrisy, more particularly sexual hypocrisy? Or was it a world rich in quality of life, forbearance, fairness, justice, a benignity toward art and culture and overall of peace? Like the opening passage of Charles Dickens ‘Tale of Two Cities’, the truth was that it was both of these.

The origin of the Cantonment Clubs was essentially in the desire of the Englishmen to create a little bit of England in the heart of India where they could retire and make believe that they were actually in England. This they did by adopting every one of the lifestyles they left behind in England which would be impractical outside the walls of the club, like dress observations, regular dances, dinners, polo, racquets, horses, dogs and of course courting the beautiful fresh English blossoms that set out with hopes in their hearts from far-away England, 6000 miles away on a three month long journey toward a strange and mysterious land in search of the eligible bachelors who presumably thirsted for them in the British cantonments. The astonishing thing is that they were able to sustain a lifestyle which was totally alien to the world they lived in, in the India of that day as has been aptly described.

For those who loved India it was a gigantic humming chromo-scope providing endless, delightful, exotic sights and sounds : the sullen red glow growing in the bazaars and the little compounds crayoned with light at dawn, and equestrian statues of British generals staring blankly at the alien sunshine, the rhinestone eyes of plodding bullocks and chuprassies fussing busily about in their gold-frogged chamras, and red tikkas on the foreheads of Brahmin women; dholl banyas beating on their gongs and chewing blood-red pan supari; the fierce dadu wind blowing down the Himalayas and the contrasting hot puff of a sultry loo breeze; the fabrics of Mysore silk and Travancore coir and khuskhus screening from Bombay; the strumming of sitars, the quiet green maidans, the pye-dogs, the ita’at festival of holy sadhus, the did-you-do-it- did-you-do-it of lapwings perched on the branches of gigantic haldu trees, and the choruses of doves weeping piteously in scented foliage overhead, throbbing like a fever in the night.

Britons who had found a home here (“Ah India, my country, my country”, Kipling had scribbled in the middle of an essay) rejoiced in the land’s eccentricities: the sacred elephants with their embroidered howdahs, the big fruit bats which flapped home at daybreak and hung upside down in trees by day; the fields of steaming white where dhobis’ sheets lay drying; the native railway engineers who rode around seated beneath umbrellas on their little inspection trolleys; the paddle-wheelers of the Ganges; the “kala memsahibs”, or black ladies who could be just as arrogant as the most insensitive English mems; and the obscene carvings on the Nepalese temple of Benares, which Murray’s Handbook chastely observed, “visitors need not see them if the attendant is discouraged from pointing them out”.

Visits to rajas palaces could be stunning; one might see strutting peacocks, figures of four armed goddesses in marble court-yards, gardens of brilliant melon-flowers, displays of star rubies, Kashmir sapphires, and emeralds like eggs visions of the ancient, merciless India of priceless jewels and slave girls. Performing scorpions were to be found in the streets. So were snake-charmers, and fakirs, and freak shows, and the indescribable scent of communal India, a complex compound of kerosene, burned ghee, rose, dung and dahlia. Excitement could be found just sitting on your veranda at teatime, sipping whiskey in the heat, your legs propped up in the long arms of your wicker chair, awaiting the first mango showers and watching the fading of daylight, so unlike the long blue twilights of England, when the sun plunged behind the Arabian sea with dramatic swiftness, and darkness fell on the vast Hindustan plain before you could grope your way inside”.

Into such a world stepped Lt. Winston Churchill at the age of 22, in 1896. In the three years that he was a member of the club, he spent more time away than in the Station. Part of the 4th (Queen’s own) Hussars, he participated in three battles and while in station played Polo and read books. Apart from battles, books and polo, Churchill in India had one other interest – a beautiful young English girl who lived in Bangalore at the time called Pamela Plowden. The romance ended when Pamela back in England chose to become Lady Lytton.

Obviously of a typical garrison mentality, the wonder that was India did not touch him. As an indelible mark of his Indian days, he left behind a debt of Rs. 13/- at the Bangalore  Club which was written off by the committee on 1.6.1899 as an ‘irrecoverable sum’.

Three miles away from the settlement of Bangalore, the buildings that now house the Bangalore Club came into existence. The buildings were occupied by the Polo Club who moved out in the beginning of the 1860’s. In 1863, some officers of the United Services started their informal club in the premises. For reasons which are not very clear, they did not formally announce the existence of the club till 1868, which they deliberately nominated for the formal inauguration of the Bangalore United Services (BUS) Club. It is not known whether any records were maintained for the club before 1897. However, from 1897 till 1946 when the club became the Bangalore Club, records in the form of the Minutes of the General Committee, the Sub-committee and later the Finance Committee, the Entertainment Committee and so on exist. In 1897, the club as it exists now, i.e. the main building including the Club House and Colonnade, the bachelors quarters (Room 1, 2, 3 and 4), the cottage housing the present library and the racquets (the present squash) court existed. The main Club House was being used much as it is being used today except that cards were also being played there. The cottage was lovingly named ‘DOVECOT’, (actually Dovecote). Though the cottage was an isolated one, it obviously did not have nests for doves. Presumably, since the cottage was meant for the exclusive use of the ladies prior to 1899, the men chose to call it the ‘DOVECOT’.

In 1899, it was decided to house the library which was inaugurated that year, in the ‘DOVECOT”. The annexe was built in 1907, as an annexe to the ‘DOVECOT” and not to the Club House. Frequently referred to as the Ball Room, the annexe thereafter was the place of entertainment. Dances were held there, cinema shows, magic shows, musical performances, flower exhibitions, cabaret, private parties, and later, even weddings. After the construction of the annexe, ladies got to be elected formally but their election was specifically stated as “elected to the annexe” and not to the Club. With the construction of the married quarters, the entry of ladies on specific occasions and for specific purposes in specified areas of the main Club became inevitable. This was gingerly acceded to with admonitions on time and passage restrictions. However, the First World War and the World Economic depression, not to speak of the ardent desire of some determined young officers, changed all that resulting in the inauguration of the Mixed Club in June 1939, after elaborate discussions lasting over a whole year. Men still got their stronghold like the Men’s Bar which continues to date and the Men’s Card room and Men’s bridge room. But the Main Club House had a mixed bar, mixed card room, mixed lounge and mixed billiards room where certain tables where reserved for men.

The obsession of the members in the Club Committee over ladies can only be matched with the obsession of keeping the Club white. Throughout the minutes recorded of that era, from 1897 till 1946, there is a stream of consciousness, often unspoken, of the existence around them of the WOGS, i.e. Worthy Oriental Gentleman. The very first Indian who was invited to use the Club was of course the Maharajah of Mysore. On his accepting the invitation, he was entertained to tea at a formal function in the Club’s lawns to mark the occasion. The First World War saw the advent of Indian Officers who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the British and hence could not be ignored. After considerable discussion over a period of time, the Club rules were amended to provide for the admission of Indian Officers in 1915. Col. Des raj Urs was the first Indian Officer to be formally elected to the membership of the Club on 25.1.1918. The inevitable soon happened and an Indian Officer was also elected to the General Committee. A Club that had pulled up a member for introducing a ‘native gentleman’ had now come to realise that Indian gentlemen who may not be in the services could not be kept out for long.

While this is the history of the discriminatory attitude during the period, if an injustice was done to an Indian, the Committee, well in fact individuals as Presidents showed remarkable sense of justice. Sir Harold Colam, who otherwise was a deep dyed English conservative who stoutly opposed the entry of Indians into the club and indeed was the sole opponent of the B.U.S Club becoming the Bangalore Club in 1946 acted with a high sense of justice when he was President in 1941. He summoned an emergency meeting because the secretary, an Englishman had slapped the head cook in front of the other servants. He asked to Committee to decide on appropriate action against the Secretary. When the Committee decided to uphold the action of the Secretary, Sir Harold resigned as President stating that ‘he considered the findings of the Committee disgraceful’. He never relented. Sir Leslie Miller as the President of the Club in 1921 presided upon a ballot of the first two Indian gentlemen (non-officers) to be elected as members of the Club. Captain Kerkbridge and Mr. Keyworth misbehaved while balloting by handling the ballot box to effectively blackball the Indian gentleman. Sir Leslie called a special meeting where the two English members were asked to apologise and were severely reprimanded. The two Indian gentlemen Sir, M. Kantharaj Urs and Raj Kumar C. Desaraj Urs were unanimously elected.

Aside from incidents of which the Minutes abound, the progression of events stamp each era with a historical significance. The years at the turn of the Century before the First World War are marked by a spirit of ebullient self-confidence which is crystallised forever in the magnificent Ball Room designed in 1905 and completed in 1907. The pride in this achievement lasted a long time through the depression years as can be gleaned from the remark of the ladies almost thirty years on, in their letter to the E.G.M called to convert the Main Club House into a Mixed Club that they be left in possession of the ‘more modern and beautiful building’ and the proposed change was uncalled for. It was truly a golden period evoking waves of nostalgia all their lives in those who had known it.

The War years see the depletion of the garrison. There are constraints that the members are clearly not used to. Soon after the War, one can discern the advent of management science and parliamentary procedures. Enquiries are held, justice dispensed. The Club’s management undergoes a sea change of management through Sub-Committees which continues to date and of course, the Great World economic depression makes the integration of the ladies into Club life complete on the eve of the Second World War. The bleakness of the War years faced with greatly depleted garrison leads to the inevitable with the greatest of ease-the conversion of the Services Club into a Civilian Club. An era comes to an end and another begins.

The Club’s Minutes are a treasure house of character and study. Col. Reynold Taylour, Fletcher Norton, Col. Grant, Col. Gaunt, Sir Leslie Miller, Col. Standage, Col. Sparks, Sir Harold Colam, come through as distinct characters in an ongoing play. Once could visualise them and predict what their reactions would be to given situations.

However, the personality that hovers over the Club is overwhelmingly that of Brigadier Hill. From his first appearance in 1924, as a Committee Member, he is the voice behind the right decision. The early entrants to India postings were not particularly well educated. The manuscript minutes are full of misspelling and bad grammar. And yet, they are quaint material eminently worthy of calligraphic studies. As the first time President in 1927 Brig Hill switched over to typewriting whereupon the English language got its due respect. He was the true modernist. In a club that balked at electricity, refused telephone and looked down on the motor car, it was tough to be a modernist.

His greatest achievement with such odds against him was his piloting of the Bangalore United Services Club from the Old world to the New India by changing its very character from a Services Club to a Civilian Club – the Bangalore Club. But for him, we would not be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Club.