Monday, July 13, 2015

Heritage Clubs - the last bastion of ''gentlemen''

Dolphin Bar at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club

I won't get into the time  worn argument about clubs being a colonial hang-over and the last refuge for the dying elite who still pine for the Raj. I am an unapologetic Clubby (if there is such a term, like the now ubiquitous Foodie). Friends and family tease me — saying my hobby is to ‘collect’ Club Memberships. But, I leave that for pop-psychologists.  While travelling — both within the country and abroad — I try to take time off to check-out clubs of that city.  

Clubs provide a unique insight into the local gentry. The best dip-stick of a club’s culture is the bar. A good barman has a Jeeves-like quality. He not only knows the favourite tipple of the regulars but is also able to guess the likely preferences of an outstation guest and remember the choice even on the guest's next visit, several months later.

The best way to befriend people is to stand or sit at the bar counter perched on a high stool. Do this even if you are with a companion, especially a lady — it’s the surest way to get people talking to you. All clubs have groups and cliques  — who are standard fixtures in the coffee room or the verandah — but  they  sometime tend to be snooty, incestuous and insular — therefore, better left alone.
The Men's Bar at The Calcutta Club

All about Men

Call me a pig or take me to the gallows of social media, but clubs were conceived for men — or to be more precise, gentlemen. So the character of a pedigreed club is essentially male (quite distinct from masculine — male being a mental attribute whereas masculinity is a function of muscles and hormones). Even if many clubs have opened their doors to women and the “Men’s Bar” is becoming progressively extinct (at  last count, the Bangalore Club, Calcutta Club and Ooty Club were a few remaining with exclusive “Men Only” bars) they are far from gender agnostic. And, “real” social clubs generally do not have sports facilities (best ones don’t even have a gym) — those are meant for Gymkhanas or Sports Clubs — like golf, cricket, football, swimming or tennis.

But, surely like all institutions, clubs need to evolve — without compromising their unique character — otherwise, they go into decay. Many clubs have been ruined by indiscriminately increasing the membership base — in the name of commercial viability — yet some have changed beautifully with the times. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club (RBYC) is one of them.

Bar Night at RBYC


I am 'Royal' and I'm a Club

Until a few years ago it stood like a beauty well past her prime peering over Apollo Bunder (Colaba)  into the Arabian Sea  pining for the good ol’ times. The dining room had a forlorn look with very ordinary fare and the dimly lit Dolphin Bar had a few committed old drinkers. The residential floors seemed haunted at night with cats running amok and the rooms were depressing. But, over the last couple of years RBYC has not only undergone a physical transformation — by restoration experts (not “renovation’’ — as most clubs tend to do) but has also been able to attract young professionals as members, who have made the place “happening’’.  The F&B has improved dramatically with a vastly enlarged menu and even on a regular evening the bar — now emboldened with the finest wines and spirits from the world over (including imported ales and craft beers) is throbbing with life. The refurbished residential rooms appointed with modern amenities, have the feel of a heritage hotel in a prime location at one-fourth the price. To see the sunrise over the Gateway of India — the sea dotted with fishing boats and anchored yachts makes for a truly great start to the day. With increased footfalls the service has also improved, one feels a new energy among the old staff who are always unfailingly courteous and friendly without being over familiar. Yet, with a relatively small membership base (of just around 1400) it still retains a cosy atmosphere with  an appropriate air of exclusivity.

Another Universe

Far away — in another part of the universe — is the Bankipore Club in Patna. The BCP established in 1865, originally called the "European Club’’ in Bankipore (then Civil Station of Patna District) was out of bounds for Indians. Even now, some say in jest it is ‘out of bounds’ for NBIs (Non-Bihari-Indians). But, that’s just a joke. On any evening it has a mela like atmosphere — with litti-wallahs, kebab, chaat corners and the bar resembling an upscale version of a TASMAC outlet down south or Bara-duari in Calcutta’s Jaan-Bazar, for those who know.

The Ranchi Club

In contrast, the Ranchi Club, a wee bit younger, established in 1886 is a pleasure to visit. They have been able to maintain standards not only by restricting membership through discreet screening but also informally discouraging non-member local residents from coming in as guests. The food is good — generally a mix of Indian and desi-Chinese — with some local specialities thrown in like hara mattar (green peas) with roasted chivda in winter. Apart from a daily needs store, there is also a small organic vegetable counter at the entrance — least expected in a small town like Ranchi.



The new Pool Bar at CCFC



A Cricket Field with a Bar attached

Calcutta was the original ‘club’ city of the Raj. Here, the club that has transformed over time (much  for the better) is The Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC) — allegedly the oldest Cricket Club outside the British Isles set up in 1792 (just five years after the Marylebone Cricket Club). Once known as the club of tea company executives and often jokingly described as “a bar with a cricket field attached”, CCFC is now everything a nice club ought to be, with the old and the new co-existing beautifully. The mahogany-panelled bar with the old staff is an entirely different world from the boisterous sports arena outside where football, cricket, rugby tournaments are held according to the season.  Now that it has a swimming pool in addition to the tennis courts, CCFC has the feel of a gymkhana in the heart of the city. There is also a multi-cuisine restaurant and glass-panelled bar overlooking the sports field on the upper-deck. Members’ Nights and Ladies Evenings with live music in the old Club House are as much of a tradition as the series of musical soirees and concerts on the open grounds through the festive winter season running up to Christmas and New Year.

The future is in the past


So do clubs have a place in today’s world — where leisure is at a premium and tradition at a discount? A club they say is a state of mind between work and home. The President of an iconic club — that still carries the “Royal” insignia — told me that only those clubs will survive the test of time that realise “the future lies in the past” — meaning they have to build on their heritage and tradition to move forward.  Otherwise, they will fade away over time becoming undistinguished and indistinguishable. 

Article originally published in Businessworld India (click here for link)

Also read my earlier blog on clubs Raj Redux