Saturday, January 19, 2002

When memories went up in flames
Ambika Sharma

YET another historical building — a much loved part of the Kasauli landscape— went up in flames in this hill cantonment last week. The Kasauli Club was not just a 122-year-old structure but a prestigious link that the town had to the elite from all over the country. Regarded by the members as a second home, the club was a favourite rendezvous for its members in the summer months when occupancy was always at a premium.

A view of the Kasauli Club in the good old days.
A view of the Kasauli Club in the good old days. — Photo by Pankaj Sharma

The club, which was set up in 1880 as a reading room, was initially open only to British civil servants and the Army officers posted here and in Dagshai cantonment. Seventeen years later at a meeting it was decided that the Kasauli Assembly and Reading Rooms Company would hand over the management of the rooms to officers and civil servants in the cantonments. With this objective in mind, the largest shareholder, Mr Meakin of the Dyer Meakin’s Brewery, was asked to agree to rent the Reading Room and the club premises on a lease of five years. In 1898, it was converted into a limited company and civilians began to get membership only after 1960. Obtaining membership to this club has since then been a matter of prestige. Registered as the Kasauli Club at the registrar’s office in 1898, it had a distinguished founder member, Major Younghusband, who was a valiant soldier, explorer and the Ambassador of the British community to Tibet.


In 1947 when the country gained Independence, the British members headed by Sir Maurice Gwyer were adamant on having their pound of flesh before they left the country — they wanted to sell the club. This decision did not surprise the Indians as other European and Eurasian clubs owned by the British were also being sold. The sale of the club was the main item on the agenda of the general body meeting. But the meeting had to be cancelled for want of quorum. In the meantime the chairman managed to get an interim injunction, forbidding the sale of the club. Faced with this legal writ, Sir Maurice Gwyer decided not to pursue the case. And that is how we inherited the Kasauli Club which completed 122 years.

The club has 400 permanent members and an equally long waiting list of people vying for its membership for as many as 15 years. This elitist club has members from various fields, including retired Army Generals, Supreme Court judges, Ambassadors, renowned journalists such as Khushwant Singh and artists like Bulbul Sharma.

Every year during summer the town hosts a cultural programme in the form of Kasauli Week. This much-awaited event brings to the town all its members residing in various parts of the country. This cultural bonanza was introduced by the club on May 5, 1922. The programme includes a tennis tournament, picnics, music bands, concerts and a host of sports events. The club had one of the finest billiards table which could not be saved in the fire. Renowned writer Khushwant Singh, whose association with this town dates back to more than five decades, recalls playing bridge, squash and tennis on the manicured lawns of the club in his younger days. Old timers recall the tennis parties, the annual tennis matches when players from as far as Delhi, Lahore, Ambala, Bombay and Calcutta came to play. The Saturday dances, weekend lunches and beer sessions were all reminiscent of the British era.

A former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, the late B.K. Nehru, was extended honorary membership by the club. The club, whose image had taken a drubbing due to factionalism among its members in the last few years, received a major impetus when the committee headed by Brigadier V.S. Tonk took over the reins of the club last year. They undertook overhauling of the entire club premises. The old furniture which had hardly ever been repaired was renovated keeping in mind the club’s heritage and the modern requirements. This led to an increase in socialising on the club premises, an activity which had dropped drastically in the last few years due to the vitiated atmosphere. The sheen of the old teak furniture was restored by removing layers of paint. The bar room was not only relocated but also decorated with paintings of gallant soldiers and kings.

From the rear portion of the club the valley below appeared resplendent. The club became a hub of activity as the sun went down. The library located in the centre of the building had a valuable collection of more than 4,000 books, some of which were rare and dated back more than 100 years, the club secretary, Colonel Karnail Singh says, adding that India’s Ambassador to Mexico S.S. Gill was so impressed by the club that he applied for its membership. He got the membership just a few days before the unfortunate incident.

The executive committee plans to rebuild the club at the earliest and efforts will be made to retain the British architecture, but this time fire-resistant material will be used. The biggest loss has been the burning of the entire collection of library books which cannot be replaced. It is lamentable that now when the club had been renovated after incurring lakhs of rupees such a tragic event should have occurred. It was only last year that the club’s magazine was released after 50 years by B.K. Nehru, who had commented that the present committee had restored the lost character of the club. Another old member, Major-Gen Virendre Singh, had also expressed pleasure at the new look that the club had acquired after the renovation.

Last summer had also brought an impressive gathering to the club to witness the coveted Kasauli Queen event, in which a Chandigarh lass bagged the title. In addition, a number of displays by the army band had enthralled the audience. It will be long before the same enthusiasm and celebration will return to the place. The members, however, hope to soon have their club again. To them the club is not just a place to get together but a home away from home.