With its charming stone-and-stucco portico, red-roofed cricket pavilion and expansive lawns ringed by some magnificent trees, the Poona Club has an old world elegance that only heritage can bequeath.
Occupying as it does, a prime position in the heart of Pune, the Club’s location provides a fair indication of its antecedents. Indeed it began as the place where British troops stationed in the city came for some recreation.
Little is known of the Club’s beginnings, thanks in most measure to a devastation fire on August 29, 1945 that destroyed not only the stately Club house and the library, but all records, photographs or any such reference material that would assist in reconstructing the original structure, or the exact chronology of events that led to the evolution of the present day Club. The source of the fire too is shrouded in mystery and lore, being variously attributed to the open fire in the kitchen and a cigar tossed carelessly by a merry tippler. What is known is that the clubhouse was predominantly built of wood, and had a three-storey wedding cake design.
Information gleaned in bits and pieces from a host of sources reveal hat back in the 1860s, the site of the present day Club as known as the Edwards Garden. Recreation rooms, essentially for the use of the military garrison stationed in the city, were constructed here in the 1860s, laying the first foundations for a larger establishment. Around 1880, the name of the institute was changed to Poona Gymkhana Club. Gymkhana, incidentally, is an Urdu word referring to any form of sporting contest. In the Indian context, it leans towards racquet games, squash and badminton in particular and the British nuance tips towards equestrian events especially polo and show jumping.
The Club’s edifice is believed to have been built sometime in the year 1982. Some years on, thirteen and a half acres of land, leased to the Trustees of what had come to be known as the Poona Assembly Rooms, at a princely annual rent of Rs 13 and twelve annas, laid the foundation for what is now the Poona Club. Around 1890, the main Club and Golf Course lands were delimited from the Cantonment limits, and were included within the limits of the Poona Suburban Municipality.
By the late 1880s the Club had acquired a sport air and much snob value, meant as it was, for the rich, the royals and high placed British officialdom. By the time American litterateur Mark Twain visited Poona in 1896 (posters around the town suggest he also visited the erstwhile Poona Gymkhana) the Club had grown considerably in facilities, style, and stature. It had a ground so large that two cricket games could be played simultaneously, numerous tennis and squash courts, two polo pitches and the beginnings of what is now an 18-hole golf course.
Off-fielders could enjoy a snack in the day and a cocktail in the evening, served as they were, on wide, airy verandas by uniformed bearers, in the true blue tradition of the Raj.
The bearers and the other staff were the only non-royal Indians allowed into the Club. Royal Indians, with their fabulous wealth and, tending to be more British than the British, were more than welcome; the founding fathers of the Poona Gymkhana Club were indeed the great and the good old Anglo-India society.
Given the flavour of the time, it bears witness that the list of founder patrons of the Poona Gymkhana emerges as a compilation of the Who’s Who of the 1880s: the Aga Khan, Nawab Shah Rookh Yar Jung Bahadur, F E Dinshaw, the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Rajpipla, the Gaikwad of Baroda, Sir Dorab Tata, Sir Cusrow Wadia, Sir Victor Sassoon, the Nawab of Junagadh, Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Sir Nusserwanji Wadia, Aga Kasim Shah, Aga Jalal M Shah, Sir Jehangir Kothari, Sir Dhanjibhoy Bomanji, Sir David Sassoon, CD Dady and Victor Rosenthal. The grand Institute that such illustrious members of Society had established was not one to be quelled into obliteration by man-made travesty. A plan was made to resurrect it, in all its past glory.
In1953, the revivified Poona Club was inaugurated by Morarji Desai, the then Chief Minister of the erstwhile State of Bombay. The Poona Club breathed again, re-kindling memories of an era that had gone with the wind.