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Dancing but no dhotis
As far as British institutions go, the Madras Gymkhana could be the Colonel Cuthbert of colonial clubs, a grand old figure that might have once been all brass and bounce, but is now a bit slow on the go and perhaps all the more charming for it. The Gymkhana which was founded in 1884, was originally instituted to accommodate the social needs of the growing British regiments of the Madras Garrison. "They were serviced by the regimental mess, which had irksome limitations such as strict timings, limited access to family and guests, and offered very little amenities for civilized socialising and dancing. The lack of a convenient club and congenial company was sorely felt' explains a passage in the Gymkhana's book commemorating its quasquicentennial year.
After it pitched its tents on Island Grounds, on land leased from the army, the club gained a reputation for being one of those rare reserves of gentility where Indian royaly and British forces could socialise and stick pigs as one. Naturally, folks wanted in. The gymkhana's membership in 1885 stood at 228, with four life members, 90 annual members, and 134 monthly subscribers. Membership fees went at Rs 3 a month.
Today, the roster counts 4, 000 members, and the going price for life membership - were it available - is Rs 2 lakh. "I get about three membership-related inquiries a week, " says PVS Vencatasubramaniam, the president. Some of the callers cajole, some threaten and some even lie about their connections, but the president emphasizes that rules are rules and no one can slip through the turnstile once it's closed - and in the case of politicians and filmstars, not even when it's open.
Another passage in their memorial book refers to the Gymkhana's stringent rules of admission and calls attention to that profound question that determined passage into the club - 'Is this gentleman Clubbable?' 'What they were essentially asking was whether he could drink without getting drunk, string sentences together, and play a sport? If he could dance it was a bonus. ' Apparently, the dancing skills of 'Kollywood' won't cut the Tewksbury mustard here.
The only time in recent past that a rule was bent was in 1989, ironically for a politician. The club needed a favour and it had approached Karunanidhi, after which some politicians were due to arrive for a confab at the club. It was the only time they turned a blind eye to the rule, 'No dhotis allowed'.
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