Ambika Sharma on the sprawling Kasauli Club, which has readied itself with a new look in the 125th year of its existence, for the celebration on June 1
FEW would know that the Kasauli Club, the most important landmark of the town that gave the club its name, owes its survival to the efforts of Col Mohan Ahuja, an Indian Military Academy alumnus. The hub of social life, the prestigious Kasauli Club was saved from being sold to a buyer in Delhi soon after Independence in 1947. On the fateful evening when the club’s executive committee was to decide on the proposal to sell the loss-making club, the intrepid colonel, a member of that panel, pre-empted the quorum by prolonging his stay in the club’s bar. The sale, which had the support of Sir Maurice Gwyer, Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University and Chief Justice of India, who wielded considerable influence prior to Independence, was finally frustrated. The club has since then gained a reputation stretching far beyond the town.
Set up as the Kasauli Reading and Assembly Rooms by an enthusiastic group of service and civilian gentlemen of the cantonment town of Kasauli in 1880, it is now celebrating the 125th year of its existence. Later rechristened the Kasauli Club, it was converted into a limited liability company in January 1898. Meakins was the largest shareholder of the company. The club soon became the focal point of much activity. Its sports galas and social meetings were the envy of the Simla Hills. The tennis teas on the terrace became famous throughout North India and so did the Saturday dinner dances, where two bands entertained the gentlemen officers and ladies in attendance from the neighbouring cantonment.
The club has seen a lot of turmoil since its inception. Initially, with the entry of Indians to the club being barred, it was the British who enjoyed its varied sports and social activities. The membership of the club has always been a contentious issue with the waiting list running to hundreds. Surgeon-Major David Semple, the first Director of the Pasteur Institute at Kasauli, was a member of its first executive committee. He was the brain behind the manufacture of the rabies vaccine, called Semple.
The first meeting of the executive committee was held on May 17, 1898, when the rules and bylaws were discussed. A memorandum of articles was drawn up and seven members were elected for a term of one year. In April 1915, it was resolved that officers of the regiments stationed at Dagshai, Solan and Subathu be made honorary members of the club. Known for its khidmatgars, who were deployed one at every dinner table, old wines, exclusively carved furniture, rare prints adorning the walls, its china, silver and copperware are still remembered. Others associated with the club include General Dyer, father of the notorious perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
The club’s membership list reads like a who’s who with a number of retired Army brass, renowned sportsmen and public figures being its members. Some of them, such as noted writer and journalist Khushwant Singh, who has been made an honorary member, rarely visit the club. Former Indian hockey captain Ajit Pal Singh is another member, as is Maj-Gen Virender Singh, who is associated with Cheshire Homes in India.
The worst tragedy in the history of the club was in 2001, when it was burnt down for reasons yet to be established. The losses were huge, as the club had barely been renovated less than a year before. Also lost were the elegant, old-world furniture, precious and rare books and, above all, its charming British character. The enthusiastic members, however, got together and sat down to work out its reconstruction.
Chandigarh-based architect Namita Singh, also a member, had the challenging task of designing the new building. The club now sports a dash of modernity that can match any contemporary club, and yet retains its British charm.
Speaking of future plans, the club honorary secretary, Col R. K. Gautam, says a full-fledged gymnasium will be set up and a website launched.
Taking a stroll through the new-look club, one gets the feel of the British ambience as a deliberate effort has been made to retain the old character. The aesthetics, for example, in the use of stone masonry in contrast to the earlier wood and plaster of Paris, are also appealing. The fire-fighting mechanism, which was not around when the fire occurred in 2001,is now in place and that should add to the feeling of safety.
With summer at its height, there is a rush to the club for a healthy dose of recreation in its cool environs. This year, the gala night on June 1 would not only mark the start of the holiday season for the club but also the completion of the renovation.