It was King George V’s great surprise announcement at the end of his 1911 Delhi Durbar visit, that the capital of British India would move from Calcutta to Delhi, to which the Delhi Gymkhana Club owes its origin. With protests by the early nationalist movement shaking Calcutta, an exasperated Governor-General, Lord Hardinge, was only too eager to move to Delhi, where, the British Indian government got set up in Old Delhi’s Civil Lines area by December 1912.
The hordes of civil servants and military officers converging to Delhi needed a club to meet informally, to play sports, drink, dance and dine. In 1913, the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club’s memorandum of association was signed in Simla and Sir Harcourt Butler, member of the Viceroy Executive council assumed charge as its first President. The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, became the Club’s Patron. By July 1913, the Club too came up in the Civil Lines area.
Close by was the Polo ground in Kingsway that had come up during the 1911 Durbar and was made a separate polo club later. In the initial years, the Polo club was seen as a part of the Gymkhana Club until it was made a separate entity in the 1930s when the Polo Club moved to New Delhi. The construction of Delhi Gymkhana Club at Safdarjung Road began in the early 1930s.
The contract for the building was given to architect Robert T Russell whose other two buildings, Connaught Place and the Commander-in-Chief’s residence, later known as Teen Murti House the residence of Prime Minister Nehru, became landmarks in the city. Russell was keen that the design of the new structure should complement the flat-roofed bungalows set amidst green lawns that were coming up right across the road. Russell remained involved in the club’s management and refurbishment until the 1930s as a member of the General Committee.
Early days of the Delhi Gymkhana club
As a sporting club, the Gymkhana lacked a swimming pool and squash courts until the 1930s. The Viceregal House under construction had no swimming pool either. The Viceroy’s wife, Lady Willingdon liked to swim. Not happy about using pools in houses of wealthy Indians in New Delhi and getting restless with the contractors working in the Viceregal House, she finally found a way out and before her husband’s term ended she gifted Rs 21,000/- for the construction of a swimming pool. Two plaques, “Lady Willingdon Swimming Bath” and “The Willingdon Squash Courts” were quickly ordered and put up well in time before the Viceroy Lord Willingdon and Lady Willingdon visited the Gymkhana club for their farewell on 16 March 1936.
Membership was also built slowly with the expansion of the qualified people to include members of the Viceregal Staff and Imperial Agriculture Research Institute (now IARA, Pusa). The first Indians to become members of the General Committee were the Maharajas of Bikaner and Ratlam and Hon’ble SR Das in 1928. Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner was an active member organizing garden parties and hosting lavish dinner parties where the Viceroy and top British officials would be invited.
The first Indians to become members of the General Committee were the Maharajas of Bikaner and Ratlam and Honorable SR Das in 1928.
Gradually top Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers – the westernised Indian ICS officers being the obvious choice- were taken in as members. The Club became the informal venue for the British ICS officers to mingle with their Indian counterparts in ICS, to which only a few from privileged backgrounds could compete and get selected. After all, at no point did the total strength of officers in the ICS ever exceed 1300. Eggs, sausages and mash for breakfast, learning to do the foxtrot and ballroom dancing, emptying glasses of bloody mary’s on a Sunday afternoon had to be cultivated by the Indians to gain acceptability.
Tennis courts became places to network and move up the professional ladder. A strict code of conduct and dressing was enforced that guided the social space shared by the two peoples. Exclusivity would still be maintained and although these privileged Indians were given access to the Club where a “home environment” was sought to be created in the hot and dusty Delhi, at no point were Indian ICS officers considered as equals.
Even Lord Mountbatten, as the last Governor-General in 1946 who opened the Viceregal House to more and more Indians when hosting evenings for ICS officers, would split the party venue by keeping Indian civil servants in the lawns while hosting the English inside the building.
The royal heritage
The Memorandum of Association designated the Club as a “sporting club” open to “all members of the Garrison” and gradually opened to English civil servants. Officers working in the Viceregal establishment were given honorary membership just like the Maharajas. Seven Maharajas were made life members in 1913 for their “invaluable contribution” in setting up the Club. These were: The Maharajas of Gwalior, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kashmir, Udaipur and Kishangarh besides the Nawab of Bhopal. Over two decades later, the Club would give their successors honorary membership in recognition of their forefathers.
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What King George V and Queen Mary, who announced their coronation as the Emperor and Empress of India during the Durbar, obviously did not anticipate then-in 1911- was that two world wars won mainly owing to 1.5 and 2.5 million Indian military men respectively and an Indian Naval mutiny, their Empire would last only another 38 years. The ecstasy of India’s Independence was far overshadowed by the agony of partition-the worst, largest and bloodiest human cross-migration in history. However, undivided India’s military parted with those opting or being transferred to the military of the new and painfully born Pakistan, peacefully and emotionally.
In Delhi, the troops of the Sikh and Dogra squadrons of Probyn’s Horse offered a lavish banquet to the men of the departing Muslim squadron as Muslim regiments offered similar farewells to their Sikh and Hindu comrades leaving for India. One of the most touching farewells took place at the Gymkhana Club. Officers spent time reminiscing the ordeals and pleasures of their careers, the stories of officers’ mess life and drank together for the last time.
A new wave
Soon after Independence, the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club became Delhi Gymkhana Club. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru became club’s new Vice – Patron and Sir Usha Nath Sen, ICS was elected the new and first Indian President.
The Indianisation process that started with the change in name, in the coming decades permeated other aspects of club life too. Dress regulations became much more relaxed with dinner-jackets (tuxedos) becoming a rarity and jodhpurs, kurta-pyjamas and even jeans even the faded ones- and sandals getting accepted. More Indian dishes got added to the food menus and about fifteen years ago Chinese and Thai food got added with a separate dining room. However, the roast mutton sandwiches remained a rare item at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, not seen in many other clubs that sprung up in the capital/NCR.
What is not considered a pleasant change –to put it mildly – is the way politics crept into Delhi Gymkhana’s club life. The run-up to the recent elections saw many otherwise quite inaccessible burra-sahibs brazenly canvassing and doling out visiting cards with ballot numbers and what have you.
While electioneering ala political elections had over the years become a reality, the recent one hogged unprecedented media attention, which breaching the reasonably maintained ethos of the Club- as conservative and keeping its affairs and activities low key and inhouse. Despite the media cacophony, canvassing by Presidential hopefuls and counter insinuations from rivals, the good work done by outgoing President, Air Marshal Naresh Verma could not be forgotten.
The Delhi Gymkhana Club has remained a hallmark which scores of clubs mushrooming all over the capital and NCR, have tried to emulate at least some aspects of.
Conducting the affairs of the Delhi Gymkhana Club with grace and dignity, his hallmark was that he eschewed petty politics and ego clashes which are the bane of any high profile institution of this kind. To his credit, he carried with him the team of 16 elected members of the General Committee, comprising persons of eminence and stature, for two successive terms. With good leadership, he kept them well motivated to perform and showed visible good results in all spheres of the Delhi Gymkhana Club activities. With his sincere, honest, affable and helpful nature, he endeared himself to all members and the large staff.
One long-awaited move he initiated was to change the rule that government officers applying for membership not getting relegated to non-government category on retirement from service-quite like snakes and ladders. While it remains to be seen what the future of such a recommendation will be, the answer that those on the waiting list get from at least the clerical staff is as good as “you will not become a member in this lifetime”.
The centenary celebrations of the Delhi Gymkhana Club included visits by the President of India, Mr Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Mr Hamid Ansari, a brilliant performance by a visiting Royal Air Force Band, an exciting polo tournament and the release of the Centenary Souvenir covering 100 years in photographs and articles. Little surprise, the Delhi Gymkhana Club has remained a hallmark which scores of clubs mushrooming all over the capital and NCR, have tried to emulate at least some aspects of.
The premier armed forces club in Delhi Cantonment will do well by at least by coming back to the standards of catering and club management that matched the Delhi Gymkhana club’s many decades ago.