WHEN THE BRITISH RULED INDIA, they established clubs in India that were based on the sort of clubs frequented by upper class gentlemen in London (e.g. the Reform Club, the Athenaeum, and military sporting clubs). Like their counterparts back in the UK, the clubs in British India were subject to rules and strict dress codes. And, apart from servants, Indians were not admitted. There were a few exceptions. The Bangalore Club allowed some high ranking Indian military men as members, and also the Maharaja of Mysore.
Even after India became independent in August 1947, some of the British colonial clubs in India denied membership to Indians, a few of them until the late 1960s or after.
The Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta, founded in 1895, was one of the institutions that ddidnot admit Indian members until long after 1947. When my late father in law, an Indian and distinguished professional, was offered membership of this club in the 1960s because they needed to replace the dwindling number of ‘white’ members with Indians in order to remain solvent, he turned it down because he felt it wrong that he should join a club that had refused membership to him long after his country became independent.
It may seem surprising that the Indian authorities tolerated the continuation of this racial exclusivity long after independence. It was not only these clubs that denied access to Indians even after 1947, but also some hospitals and schools. This illustrates a certain tolerance amongst Indians to their foreign invaders. Remember, the Taj Mahal and the Victoria Memorial remain unscathed long after their foreign builders left the country.
The Tollygunge Club has its own golf course, a magnificent stretch of parkland where there is much wildlife including jackals, who watch the golfers seemingly unconcerned by them.
While staying at the Club, we noticed large boards on which the names of high achieving golfers are listed. For example, there is a board listing the Club members who have achieved a ‘hole in one’.
What particularly caught our attention was a board listing winners of The Public School Competition. A public school in the UK is actually a private, somewhat elitist, school. The winners of the Public School Competition on the list are not names of individual players but names of British public schools listed alongside the dates of their achievement for example: Rugby, Fettes, Felsted, Winchester, Eton, Marlborough, and many others. The competition continued until the late 1960s, by which time most of the European members of the Club had returned to the UK or elsewhere.
It would seem, although nobody has confirmed this to me, that during the Public School Competition teams of players who had all attended the same public school would compete against teams of other players each containing men who had attended this or that public school. It was a competition between school alumni teams and the winning school was listed on the board of honour.
The colonial clubs continue to thrive in India, the vast majority of their members being Indian. These pleasant establishments, often housed in colonial era buildings and set in lovely grounds are still elitist and retain some of the rules and traditions that were formulated by their British founders.
Like the gated residential communities that are springing up all over India, the formerly colonial clubs are havens where the better-off can relax, separated from the ‘madding crowds’.