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Training for fitness

Beyond Cenotaph Road, is Nandanam, home of the YMCA College of Physical Education, the first such institution set up in Asia.


BEYOND CENOTAPH ROAD is Nandanam, home of the YMCA College of Physical Education, the first such institution set up in Asia. Its numerous grounds and courts and its gymnasium are what its founder Harry Crowe Buck envisioned when he started them in 1920: "... the programme of physical regeneration should be carried out by the sons of India... the solution lies in training indigenous leadership."

It was with the mandate to launch such an institution, one similar to his alma mater, the YMCA of Physical Education in Springfield, Massachusetts, that the YMCA had sent Buck to India. When the tall, athletically-built Buck arrived in Madras in 1919, he found "a general disinclination to exercise, to develop hardihood."

Determined to change this, Buck set up an outdoor gym at the YMCA in Esplanade, where he gathered a large audience of young men, among others, willing to indulge in a spot of physical training. Within months he had drawn up a year-long course based on Springfield's syllabus, and the YMCA Training School of Physical Education got started. Only five joined that first course in 1920 — Jacob John, William Zaccheus, S.K. Mukerjee, Charles Simeon and G.C. Vergese.

Even fewer joined the next year, but the course had attracted the attention of the Government as well as schools and colleges. Soon, Buck was in demand to run short-term programmes for them, to train teachers in conducting physical education classes. As Buck became better known, the YMCA school's enrolment grew and bigger premises were needed. In 1928, Buck moved the school to the spacious surroundings of Wesley School in Royapettah.

Next, the `Y' acquired 53 acres in Nandanam and the school moved there in 1932. Not long afterwards, it acquired the status of `college', its programme not dissimilar to that of Springfield's. Buck persuaded the government to make Physical Education a compulsory subject in schools throughout the Madras Province.

Pics. by N. Balaji

Buck gained visibility in the public eye when India was invited in 1924 for the first time to participate in the Olympic Games. With the YMCA being the only recognised sports body in the country, the invitation had come to its head, Dr. A.G. Noehren, who had sought Buck's views. It was an opportunity Buck was not going to miss and he urged Noehren to get an Indian Olympic Association formed. Their approach to Sir Dorabji Tata was successful and not only was the Association formed but Buck was requested to select the first Indian Olympic team. Thereafter Buck was in the forefront of organising State-level and National Olympic Games in India.

The first major sporting event to be conducted at the Nandanam campus was the National Olympic Games of 1932. Buck was only 59 when he died of leukaemia in 1943. But for over 25 years, he had made both physical ideals and the Olympic spirit intrinsic parts of the nascent sports movement in India. Closer home, at Nandanam he supervised the raising of the College's buildings, drew up its courses, introduced co-education for the first time in the city and even pitched in with the painting of track lanes.

Marie Buck stayed on in India as much to be close to her husband's grave as to continue his good deeds for those less fortunate. Her contributions to Madras were no less remarkable. She joined Amalgamations in 1946 as Welfare Director - perhaps one of the first persons to hold such a post in emerging India. . She formed a medical centre, a family planning advisory centre - long before family planning was fashionable - other welfare facilities, like a farm shop, and drew up housing and farm plans.

She also conceived what was described as "one of the most grandiose welfare measures in Indian industrial history". It was a scheme United Nations experts studied and urged implementation, but for one reason or another it did not come off. In today's more environment-conscious era - though only lip service is paid to such consciousness - it might not have been the best of schemes, but in urging the reclamation of the Pallikaranai Marsh and the settling of 5,000 worker families on it midst farms, light industries and aquaculture units that were to be developed by the settlers, she demonstrated both concern and vision.

To demonstrate her dream, she bought land not far from the Marsh, reclaimed the soil and developed a model farm with diverse crops. This was to grow into the Amalgamations Group's well-known 200 acre J Farm where modern, intensive farming techniques are demonstrated to farmers.

But in its early days, it was best known for its car-load of vegetables Marie Buck would bring every day for Simpson's canteen and workers' farm shop. Deliveries made, she'd settle down to her day's work of caring for the Group's employees and their families. There were few more caring and giving persons in Madras of their era than Harry and Marie Buck.

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