Midnight’s Oarsmen

The British brought rowing as a sport and a leisure activity to India and their legacy continues to this day. Here, British Army Officers of the Chattar Manzil Club, coxed by a Miss Maxwell, pose in front of the Chattar Manzil or Umbrella Palace on the Gomti River, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India, in 1871. Picture: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program.

19 May 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch returns to India to make a correction.

Three years ago, I wrote From Empire to Independence: Indian Rowing Reincarnated, a piece that briefly looked at the legacy left by the British in India following independence in 1947 but (unsurprisingly) concentrated on the imperialist’s rowing heritage. I wrote that:

The legacy of Britain’s 350 years in India is still much debated. British imperial interests were prioritised over domestic interests and few Indians benefited from the wealth generated under British rule…

The British – but also some Indians – tend to dwell on the alleged positives. Notably, there is the English language… Many credit the British for giving India a legal system, parliamentary democracy, constitutional government, a civil service, police and army. However, some hold that an administrative structure that was designed to run an imperial possession is used now to run a modern democracy and that this has produced corruption and inefficiency…

Perhaps some of the less controversial legacies of the Raj include the (admittedly unintended) gifts of tea, railways, cricket – and a little bit of rowing.

When the British established rowing clubs, membership was rarely granted to Indians. However, the Royal Connaught Boat Club In Poona (now Pune) may have been more liberal than most and had by the 1940s a membership of eighty-nine, of which twenty-three were Indian (it also boasted of two lady members). In the 2010s, the oldest surviving Indian member recalled that “Indian membership was restricted and only those highly placed individuals who could assimilate the British etiquette and protocol…”

In brief, my article said that many rowing clubs originally established by the British still survive in the sub-continent today but are rowing clubs almost in name only; they are now mostly large country clubs for the country’s growing middle-class with rowing a minority interest offered only as one of many activities. For example, the Bengal Rowing Club has a membership of 2,600 and, apart from rowing, it offers a gym and swimming pool, badminton and squash, snooker and pool, and two restaurants.

The Calcutta Rowing Club today.

I also noted in my Empire to Independence piece that there was a lot of rowing activity in Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001), the capital of the state of West Bengal. The Calcutta Rowing Club (CRC) was founded in 1858 and is probably the oldest club in the east. Other rowing clubs in the city are the Calcutta University Rowing Club (founded 1918), the Lake Club (founded 1929) and the Marwari Rowing Club (founded 1929 but probably only active from 1935 and renamed the Bengal Rowing Club in 1948). What I failed to realise when writing my original article was that the latter three clubs were actually founded by Indians themselves.

This was not entirely without sporting precedent. Cricket is often described as an Indian sport discovered by the English and is the most popular game in the subcontinent. The first club in India, the Calcutta Cricket Club, was established by and for the British in 1792, but the first for Indians, the Oriental Cricket Club, was founded in Bombay in 1848.

The University of Calcutta the first institution in Asia to be established as a multidisciplinary and secular Western-style university. It was founded in 1857 though it did not have its first Indian Vice-Chancellor until 1890. I can find nothing about its rowing club save its founding year, but it seems likely that it was started by Indian students. However, if there were British academics on the staff, it is possible that they set up the club. More research is needed.

The Lake Club, Kolkata.

The Lake Club website gives a brief history. At the risk of sounding patronising, it is written in the delightful, rather formal, slightly old fashioned and flowery language that is often found in Indian English.  

On December 3, 1929, a few distinguished persons imbued with the idea of setting up a rowing club primarily for the Indians met together under the leadership of the great National leader Deshapriya Jatindra Mohan Sengupta and delineated the future course of action. A piece of land on Dhakuria Lake was taken on lease… (The) Club was inaugurated on August 27, 1932. True to the old Indian adage of left hand being ignorant about the munificence of the right hand, it is not known who all contributed generously towards the big building and the initial batches of boats, oars, pontoons and furniture.

Sir Biren Mookerjee and Lt. Col. RN Chopra through their untiring efforts, perception and sagacity helped building up a strong edifice based on sound tradition, thereby ensuring a unique character for the Club, which could withstand the vicissitudes of our times and could sail through gloriously all these years…

Some pictures from lakeclub.in:

I particularly like this picture of some locally made bank tubs. I wonder if the oars originated in Putney? 

Today, the Lake Club bans T-shirts and also some traditional clothing:

Round Neck T-shirts / Guru Shirts / Panjabi with trousers / Half–sleeve Panjabi and Chappals are not allowed inside the Club premises. Staff have been instructed not to provide any service to any members or their guests who would not follow the dress code of the Club.

Further:

Ayahs or Maidservants are not allowed inside the Club with members’ children.

Two of the younger members of the Bengal Rowing Club, Kolkata. Picture: Telegraph India.

The Lake Club’s neighbour is the Bengal Rowing Club (BRC) originally founded as the Marwari Rowing Club. The Marwari are an Indian ethnic group that originates from Rajasthan, a state on India’s northwestern side (Calcutta/Kolkata is sited in the country’s eastern region). According to Wikipedia: 

(Marwaris) have been a highly successful business community, first as inland traders during the era of Rajput kingdoms, and later also as investors in industrial production and other sectors. Today, they control many of the country’s largest media groups. Although spread throughout India, historically they have been most concentrated in Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Delhi, Nagpur, Pune (Poona) and the hinterlands of central and eastern India.

I get the impression that, historically or not, in parts of India, Marwaris have been treated much in the same way that Jews have in Europe and elsewhere. Some people are jealous of their success and suspicious of their close-knit community and have treated them as “outsiders” no matter how long they have lived in a certain place.

A scene at the BRC. Picture: Wikipedia/Snehalkanodia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2016, Firstpost, an Indian news and media website, ran a story titled, Marwari City: Stories of Kolkata’s heritage often exclude its prominent community:

Stories about Kolkata’s cosmopolitan heritage rarely include the Marwaris, invoking instead its vanishing Jews, its fading Armenians and the countless sahibs buried in Park Street cemetery, felled by gout and malaria… 

Marwaris were rich but often shut out of Calcutta’s snobbish elite clubs or only allowed in after great scrutiny. So they created their own clubs — Hindustan Club and the Marwari Rowing Club now re-christened the Bengal Rowing Club. Black and white portraits of the old presidents line the (BRC) walls — a somber who’s who of hoary Marwari surnames… Marwari Rowing Club was set up by GD Birla (who) wanted a club that would welcome him in his dhoti-kurta and chapkan coat…

(A dhoti-kurta and chapkan coat is a sarong tied in a manner that resembles loose trousers, a collarless shirt and a knee-length jacket.) 

The article later hints that the founding ethos may have changed:

(Today) there are no dhoti-kurtas and chapkans visible among the families enjoying breakfast… on the club lawns overlooking the misty lake. 

A scene from the 2015 BRC Students Rowing Championship.

The Facebook page of the Calcutta Heritage Collective says of the original Marwari Rowing Club:

Unlike the other Westernised clubs of the city, this club maintained its traditional roots. Unlike other clubs it did not have a traditional dress code, did not serve alcohol and allowed women rowing members. Umaraoji Kheruka was the first woman rowing member in 1937. It was a home away from home for the prosperous business community of the city. Because of its ambience, persons from other communities became members too. 

Today, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Bengalis are also members of the BRC.

Two of BRC’s boats. They are made in India by the Sunny company based in Pune (formerly Poona) who seem to be able to make anything that floats.

The Bengal based news and features website, NoiseBreak, has a fascinating series on “Heritage Clubs of Calcutta” which shows that many clubs in Calcutta started by the British still survive, albeit adapted to modern India. One story tells is of the exclusive Bengal Club, founded in 1827. 

Lord Minto, Viceroy of India 1905-1910, invited Rajendra Nath Mookerjee, a distinguished Bengali industrialist, to dine with him at the Bengal Club but those in charge would only serve the future Sir Rajendra in a marquee erected in the grounds. As a result of this blatant prejudice, the Calcutta Club was established in 1907 with The Maharajah of Cooch Behar as its first president and with a non-discriminatory membership policy. 

The Bengal Club, c.1910.

Amazingly, the Bengal Club maintained its “Europeans Only” rule for another sixty years. The club’s website reproduces some fascinating historical press coverage of the place. It reveals that in 1958 the Government of West Bengal threatened colonial-era clubs that still had race-based memberships with the cancellation of their liquor licences. Remarkably, it was only when the number of British residents in Calcutta was steadily declining in the mid-1960s that the Bengal Club finally allowed Indians to become members. Nearly twenty years after India’s independence, the sun had finally set on all parts of Britain’s Indian Empire.

2 comments

  1. Another fascinating article by Tim Koch, thank you.
    I seem to remember an Indian sculler competing in the Diamonds, early seventies, and I think he was a Calcutta R.C. Member but, his name escapes me.

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