The sport of kings
Today virtually every sport dates to the British era and introduced in the port cities by, as in Madras, clubs like the Madras Club, the Madras Cricket Club and the Madras Gymkhana Club. But long before these sports were introduced by such clubs, there was horse racing...
THE ROAD south that we have been following, except for an occasional diversion, ends with the venue of perhaps the first formalised sporting activity in the city. Before the British, wrestling, archery, bouts with maces and other weaponry, stick-fighting and other martial arts, bullock-cart racing, variations of polo etc. were the sports of India. Today, virtually every sport dates to the British era, most of them taking root from the late 18, early 19th Centuries and introduced in the port cities by, as in Madras, clubs like the Madras Club, the Madras Cricket Club and the Madras Gymkhana Club. But long before these sports were introduced by such clubs, there was horse racing. And it is with the Racecourse in Guindy that we virtually reach city limits.
Given the transport needs of the British in the days before motorisation, horsepower was literally the favoured mode of transport. And it was only a step from transport to seeing the horse as a vehicle of competition. Hunting, perhaps the earliest `sport', was upgraded to pig-sticking, riding to the hounds, galloping after the hunting cheetah and similar activities calling for horses. It wasn't long before young Company Officers and officials were writing about racing each other down Mount Road and Poonamallee High Road on their horses. This informal activity got a slightly more formal look in 1780 - though one school of thought holds it to be 1776 - when the first race meet was held on the Island Grounds, then the maidan for the British in Madras. The sport appears to have moved from here to Guindy within the next decade.
A famous painting by Thomas Daniell and nephew William dated 1792 is titled The Assembly Rooms on the Race Ground near Madras. The Daniells noted that the race grounds were to the left of the south-facing Assembly Rooms, which would place them approximately where the Racecourse still is. The Assembly Rooms, a handsome Palladian building with a fine flight of steps that divided the building in two, not unlike Banqueting (now Rajaji) hall, survived, decrepit and abbreviated though it had become, till the 1980s and, sadly, was pulled down in 1985. In its heyday, it must have been one of the most lively places in town, to read between the lines of the Daniells' footnote. "The amusement (racing) takes place in the cool season, when the ladies of the settlement are invited to a splendid ball" (no doubt in the Assembly Rooms). Other accounts speak of racing, beginning at 6 a.m. to enable many an enthusiast get to work by 10 a.m. The gallop back from Guindy is stated to have been as thrilling as the action on the track. On weekends, the gallops back in time for late lunches more often than not usually demonstrated how skilled the riders were in keeping their seats!
The Mysore wars put a stop to racing and it was revived again, only to fade once more before it was revived in 1887 and run by a Committee of Stewards elected for the purpose by those "subscribing to the conduct of racing", many of them Indian zamindars and Rajah,s making the sport the first non-formal event in which European and Indian intermingled in the more racially divided era of 19th Century British expansionism. These Stewards in 1895 discussed forming a Madras Race Club and got it going in January 1896, but restricted its membership to fifty members of the Madras Club, with the management committee to be elected from amongst them!
Much of 1896 was taken up with the debate over this controversial decision "the management of turf affairs resting in the hands of a small body of gentlemen who... excluded the public from any voice in those affairs." Words like "cliquism" and "cronyism" found their way into the editorial debate, until "the house was at last put in order," with the Madras Mail fervently hoping that "(the Club's) affairs shall be so conducted that it may take as an appropriate motto: All are equal under the turf and on the Turf". It's a thought not out of place even today.
Once the matter of the Club's management was sorted out and racing became an established sport in the city, it was time for V.H. Shipley to sing in his Madras Madrigals (1928):
Hindu, Parsi, Brahmini, Muslim, Malayalee, Cook and matey, clerk, dubash, Peon and syce and mahli, Crowding to the Guindy Races fast As Wheels will turn, To spend in one short gamble, what it took an age to earn.
Europeans, Indians, Both are just as funny, Bound beneath the self-same yoke, Gambling with their money. The ladies merely go to see and show their "latest cries" - The London new, the Molyneux - (if hubby knew the price!)
It was around this period that the Madras Race Club improved the amenities in Guindy and raised its first grandstands, the Bobbili and Venkatagiri stands in 1932. These facilities were further improved in 1960 with first floors and a second grandstand in 1976, which was further improved in 1996. Despite developing the best racing infrastructure in the country, the quality of racing is not of the same quality these days. The crowds have, therefore, been waning after the club won back its supremacy in 1996, following a decade of litigation subsequent to a Government takeover in 1986 and brief attempts to abolish racing, events still marked by the statues of two horses being led by syces raised on the Gemini roundabout.
Across from the Racecourse is what was another landmark in its time and a path-breaker in Indian industrial history, the Thiru vi ka industrial estate in a 450-acre campus. Started in 1958 with 30 sheds, it was State industries Minister R.Venkataraman's brainchild to provide a Government-sponsored estate that offered integrated amenities for small-scale industries. With over 400 units, it had a billion rupee turn over in its heyday. Alas, that day is over and it is neglected bit of real estate headed for decrepitude. The two campuses across from each other are quite a contrast in the attention paid to each of them today.
Referring to a reader's contribution to Madrascapes on October 23, Reader C.T. Vairavan says that the Indian sage whose vision drew Mme. Blavatsky to India was Vallalar Ramalinga Swami.
And Lt.N.Sharavana, i.n. (the ADC to the Governor of Tamil Nadu) adds to Madrascapes of November 1, the following:
The present main Raj Bhavan building was once three single-storied bungalows, which, were made one between 1830 and 1863, by when the unity began to take its present shape, Governors Sir Henry Pottinger and Lord Harris adding to Lord Elphinstone's contribution. In the 1890s, Governors Lord Wenlock and Sir Arthur Havelock made further improvements and, in 1937, Lord Erskine added the wings. Raj Bhavan today is set midst 156.14 acres having transferred to Government departments 9.27 acres in 1954 for the Gandhi Memorial, 388.32 acres for IIT Madras and 624.76 for the Deer Park and Children's Park in 1958, 2.28 acres for the Rajaji Memorial in 1974, 6.04 acres for the Kamaraj Memorial in 1975 and 87.96 acres for the National Park in 1977, a total of 1118.63 acres making the original property nearly 1300 acres.
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