Why Bengaluru’s club culture endures

The last remnants of British colonialism are undoubtedly the British Clubs that dot the city's cantonments. They came into being out of sheer necessity, in the heyday of the British Raj when Englishmen desired to create a little bit of England in the heart of India, where they could retire each evening, to actually believe that they were home and could follow English lifestyles, impractical as they were to adopt outside the walls of the club. It’s been a long time since the British left, but Bengalureans have taken to club culture like ducks take to water. The city is dotted with clubs -- Bangalore Club, Century Club, Bowring Institute -- and since the demand for membership is sky high, residential areas now boasts of their own clubs, such as Indiranagar Club, Koramangala Club, and so on.

The Bangalore Club recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, having been established in 1868. It boasts of an association with former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a member for three years during his stint in India, and talks of an indelible mark of his days at the club when he left behind a debt of Rs 13, which had to be written off by the club committee as an “irrecoverable sum.” A ceremonial lounge, the ‘Mysore Room’, is dedicated to the Maharaja of Mysore, the first Indian invited to this club. Another heritage club is the Bowring Institute, whose foundations were laid by the then Director of Public Instruction in Mysore and the author of the Mysore Gazette, B L Rice.

Meanwhile, the Century Club has the celebrated Bharat Ratna Sir M Visveswaraya as its visionary founder. Located amidst the luxuriant green landscapes of Bengaluru’s iconic Cubbon Park, the club, to this date, embodies the memory and essence of the excellence of its founder. Likewise, in the sylvan surroundings of present-day Bengaluru’s upscale tony areas are the Indiranagar Club and the Koramangala Club, competing to be the best residential area clubs in the country.

What most clubs have in common are sports and gym facilities, banquets, bars and accommodation. Equipped with tennis, squash and badminton courts, a health club, swimming pool and a library, these facilities form a mosaic interspersed with green lawns, trees, shrubbery and flowers where movie screenings, entertainment, literary and cultural activities are patronized by members and their families. It’s a matter of prestige to be office-bearers and committee members, and club elections are keenly fought. Club AGMs, too, are enthusiastically attended, with member after member keenly questioning the management committees that proudly present the achievements of their respective departments.

British customs and mannerisms, nevertheless, come with their own baggage. All members have to follow a strict dress code, part of an outdated and meaningless British practice, yet something that clubs are unable to say goodbye to. This is one key reason why incidents keep happening and specially when somebody important is barred from entering the club for being inappropriately dressed, public pressure and media attention are heaped on the club’s practices. What’s more, invitees to functions in the club are also turned away, making it very embarrassing for the accompanying club member. Restrictions on the use of mobile phones in the main dining rooms and permission for children below a particular age are amongst regulations that members must put up with, in the interests of maintaining the decorum and dignity of the club.

Yet, why is there such a demand for memberships to these clubs? Why are Bengalureans willing to wait for 20 or more years just to become part of this colonial legacy? In today's digital society, where the norm is to spend time either commuting or attending to one’s cell phone, why this desire for old-fashioned interaction festooned by a club culture, requiring you to meet other members, to be civil to each other and to converse together?

More so because clubs are unwilling to alter their rules, insisting that they are private institutions and not public bodies to listen to the government or to public opinion. Others feel that clubs own huge public land and avail many facilities from the government and can't claim to be private institutions. The way forward is obviously somewhere in between. Clubs should shed their elitist image and become more inclusive of society at large. Without losing their appeal, they should cast off outdated British customs. They should also adopt Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs similar to those undertaken by corporates to bolster their image.

Clubs do have a charm of their own, as thousands of Bengalureans waiting patiently for decades to become members will testify. Perhaps, the exclusivity inherent in membership status is the cause for this attraction. Or, do people perceive that amidst the city’s chaotic traffic and diminished atmosphere, clubs are islands of peace where, at least in the evenings, you can create a little bit of the Bengaluru of yore similar to the make-believe of the British period?

(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)

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