BANKIPORE CLUB: BEATING COLONIAL ISOLATION
Famously fictionalised as Chandrapore Club by E.M. Forster in his novel A Passage to India Bankipore Club was meant for the elite among the Europeans residing at the civil station of Patna or visiting here from the mufassil. In the novel when Dr. Aziz escorts Mrs. Moore back to the club it is thus far and no further for him; he tells her that Indians are not allowed into the Chandrapore Club, even as guests. But Bankipore Club was no more racist than other such clubs under the British Raj and there was one at every civil station. George Orwell echoes the sentiment in his novel Burmese Days:’it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership’. While entry to Bankipore Club was barred for “Indians and dogs”, poor Europeans at the station - railway workers, British Other Ranks, and, as in A Passage to India, missionaries, were also kept out.
In 1858 Victoria assumed direct control of administration from the East India Company and assumed the title of Queen Empress. The number of government officers went up sharply at Bankipur as new departments became functional. Patna till then referred to what we now call Patna City. The area along the Ashok Rajpath from Patna Science College to Golghar was known as Bankipur, which the British preferred to spell Bankipore, with offices dotting the flanks. Patna did not extend further west until it became the capital in 1912. What is now Gandhi Maidan was then known as the Oval and later as the Lawn. The British civilian officers mostly had their bungalows around this vast expanse of greenery where Polo was played. It also served as the turf for horse racing. Nothing stood between the Club and the Maidan. For many decades the club remained a landmark along with St. Joseph’s Convent school and
Catholic Church, the Protestant Church and the Golghar.. Here and there and along the Fraser Road were spread the compounds of the indigo planters and businessmen.
Outside the working hours the Gora Sahebs had a pretty lonely existence. Most were either bachelors or had left their families behind. A club, a western concept, was replicated in India to compensate for this loneliness. Bankipore Club was thus born in 1865 as an oasis amidst the desert of colonial isolation. Members would gather here every evening for games and gossip, much as the Mess in Danapur cantonment provided an exclusive venue for Army officers.
Europeans could not have selected a better site for their club; it was high ground overlooking River Ganga. The river then flowed in full glory and its water lapped against the ramparts of the club. Steam ships and barges plying on the river presented a familiar and fascinating sight. One wonders why the British did not acquire all the land between the club and the Maidan; today’s congested access to the club would then have been avoided. Of course, it was not possible to get more space to the east because of the Antaghat Nala nor to the west because of the existing Dutch opium godown, today’s collectorate complex. The members did not have enough open space for outdoor sports but they could take a long walk in the Maidan, ride there or play polo. Though a social club rank and hierarchy mattered even inside the club with Commissioner and Opium Agent being shown due deference.
Opening of Suez Canal in 1869 made sailing between Home (England) and India smoother and faster. As a result Mem Sahebs and Missi Sahebs in search of husbands started descending on India in droves. As Patna got its share of them so did Bankipore club. Evenings at the club became livelier. Though extra-marital affairs were a taboo, mild flirtation was not frowned upon.
There were several eligible bachelors, young civil and military officers, who were a prize catch. Some of them met their future wives on the wooden dance floors of this club. Senior ladies too loved to play match makers and often succeeded. The newly-weds were feted at the club amidst much fanfare. The Civil & Military Store run by an Anglo-Indian catered to most needs of the members for indigenous and imported stuff.
Things changed for the club when Patna became the provincial capital in 1912. As the New Capital area came to life polo and other sports activities shifted west. Bankipore Club gained in membership and stature as all the big wigs of government flocked here in the evenings with their spouses. The club was incorporated as a public limited company in 1915. Young barristers educated and trained in England lay a claim to membership of the club which embarrassed the government. As a compromise was born the New Patna Club in 1918 to accommodate Europeanised Indians. Bankipore Club thus became to New Patna Club what Bengal Club was to Calcutta Club. But Bankipore Club could not retain its European exclusiveness for long. Once the Imperial Services, namely the ICS and IP, were opened to Indians in the early twenties their entry into this snootiest of clubs could not be resisted. Since their number initially was not sizeable they merely aped their white colleagues. Equations started changing from late thirties with independence looming large on the horizon.
When independence finally came in 1947 there was a last ditch attempt by the departing British members to wind up the club and liquidate its assets. Their game plan was frustrated by the now emboldened Indians. After initial hiccups the club settled down nicely to business under Indian
management. The membership of the club comprised mostly of senior government officers with a sprinkling of doctors but very few lawyers and businessmen. Membership of the Bankipore Club in those days was a status symbol, much as the Patna Golf Club emerged the favourite in the 1980s. Today businessmen dominate and manage the club.
In the nineteen fifties and early sixties the Companywallas were the crème de la crème of Patna’s westernized elite. MNCs such as Bata, ITC, Burma Shell and Dunlop became corporate members. Their branch managers and other executives posted at Patna wee invariably Indians. They were an intimate social group living in a world of their own. At the Christmas and New Year Ball at the Bankipore Club, while they danced to the tunes of Moosa Band, the uninitiated government servants and their spouses, too shy to shake a leg, watched and lamented. In March 1970 the East Zone Davis Cup Tournament between India and Pakistan was played for three days at the New Patna Club. The teams and guests were feted lavishly and the festivities concluded with a gala evening at the Bankipore Club with dinner and ball room dancing. Pakistan’s high Commissioner to India was so overwhelmed that tears came to his eyes.
The character of the club has changed over the decades as it was bound to. Successive management committees have brought improvements. While modernization is welcome care should be taken not to disturb the heritage look and character of the club. Unlike most clubs
there is no Chairman or President in this club. The Honorary Secretary, elected by members of the Executive Committee, is the Chief Executive Officer of the club.
It is a long chain of succession from Founder Secretary J. P.W. Johnston to the present incumbent, spanning one hundred and fifty years. This makes Bankipore Club one of the oldest in India. The sesquicentenary of the club is due next year. Planning must start now to make the celebration befitting the dignity of this venerable old man that is our club.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar)