IN THE eye of a storm, with its management at loggerheads with the bureaucracy, the 141-year-old Bombay Gymkhana, currently sprawled over 30,000 square metres of land in Fort area, is one of the oldest clubs in the city. Many of the structures within its premises date back to 1907. Most of the facilities, including the cloak room, the lockers in the changing room, the chairs in the siesta room as well as the dining area, date back to the early 1900s and have been retained to preserve the historical appeal of the Gymkhana.
The Gymkhana administration has past records that indicate the idea of setting up a central sports club was first conceived in 1872, a time when there were separate clubs for sports like cricket, polo, football, gun and golf. Any individual interested in a variety of sports would have to join different clubs. Three years later, two officers of the Royal Engineers, one of the corps of the British Army, drew up a blueprint of the club. The Bombay Gymkhana club came into being on June 19, 1875, and it incorporated cricket, polo, football and gun clubs.
Within a few days of its inception, the club had at least 150 members and the entry donation was fixed at Rs 10 and the monthly subscription at Rs 4. The first committee of the club included famous names like Sir Philip Wodehouse, then Governor of Bombay, and Justice Bayley, then acting Chief Justice of Bombay as well as a former cricket captain of Eton. The first construction was the pavilion, a temporary structure, which was completed by March 1876. The cost of construction of the pavilion came to Rs 15,625 and among the donors were Parsee philanthropist Cowasji Jehangir who presented Rs 1000 to the club.
At that time, the pavilion was a one-storey construction which measured at least 100 feet by 50 feet, along with a central hall, mainly used for badminton, members’ locker rooms and a general club room fitted with a bar. After getting additional land in 1877, the committee built a roller-skating ring and a garden where ‘Ladies’ Night’ was held every Wednesday. Even though cricket is the most popular sport in the country, cricket matches were only played at the Gymkhana during the monsoon since the grounds were used for Army parade at other times. It was only after 1901 that cricket started to be played during the winter months. Now, cricket matches are only played over the weekends.
Rugby, another sport which is very popular at the club, made its debut in 1890. Fifty years after its inception in 1875, the Bombay Gymkhana has covered a variety of sporting activities, including archery, athletics, badminton, baseball, billiards, bowls, boxing, cricket, equestrian sports, golf, gymnastics, hockey, polo, racquets, roller skating, rowing, rugby, skittles, soccer and tennis. In July 1904, the committee decided to reconstruct the pavilion which was not big enough for the growing number of members.
Also, a part of it collapsed on some members and injured them. After a series of short leases, in 1905 the government agreed to grant the club a 99-year lease of the land at a rental estimate of Rs 2000 per annum. Later that year, an architect named C F Stevens designed the new pavilion which has been retained as the central portion, till date.
Club officials stated that apart from minor repairs and alterations, no major structural changes have been made to the pavilion, overlooking the grounds, or the main building since 1964. The ground floor still comprises of the entrance hall, with the men’s dressing rooms on the left and a room with the billiards, easy chairs and a bar. The first floor of the building retains the reading room and the ladies cloak room. The club currently has at least 6,000 members under various categories, including short-term, temporary, permanent, life members as well as honorary memberships of former sportsmen.
Gymkhana officials said that the grounds were recognised as a heritage structure. “The Bombay Gymkhana premises are recognised as a 2A heritage structure and we have to seek permission from the heritage committee before we make any modifications to the structure,” said Chief Executive Officer R N Renjen. The club currently has three badminton courts, five squash courts, six tennis courts, six tables for billiards and snooker, one swimming pool and a fitness centre. Out of the various field games, Renjen said Rugby was the most popular. “The Gymkhana was constructed for the promotion of sports and there are training programmes for all kinds. Rugby is very popular since there aren’t too many clubs in the country which offers training for it. Tournaments are held every alternate year at the Bombay Gymkhana and the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club,” he said. He added that when the grounds were not in use, these were given out to the Cathedral and John Connon schools.