A club with character
The presence of Masti Venkatesha Iyengar is still palpable in the 103-year-old Basavanagudi Club, which is belatedly celebrating its centenary now
Masti Venkatesha Iyengar's presence in this 103-year-old club is still palpable. Till his death in 1986, he visited it every evening.
NO OTHER club in Bangalore, perhaps, carries as much literary aura as the Basavanagudi Union and Services Club does. Which other club, after all, has the distinction of being nicknamed after a literary giant?
Better known as Masti Club after the father of short fiction in Kannada, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, its most cherished member the 103-year-old place preserves his memory in many corners. A huge portrait of the Jnanpith-award winner hangs in the library named after him. On the other wall is the framed poem on Masti by K.S. Nissar Ahmed, which talks at length about his regular visits to the club for 30-odd years. A hall in the first floor too is named after Masti. A small bunch of friends, who played cards with him, run an annual cards tournament in his memory. Old timers tell you that other literary luminaries such as Bendre and D.V. Gundappa also visited the club once in a way. The club has the distinction of hosting a lecture on Vendanta by Ramana Maharshi.
So, it's not surprising that the valedictory function (tomorrow at the club, at 6.30 p.m.) of the belated centenary celebrations will be presided over by two men of letters lexicographer G. Venkatasubbiah and Nissar Ahmed.
Not that the club set out to be a cultural and literary centre when it was started in a rented building in 1901 by a retired professor, Bellave Venkatanarayanappa. It was an attempt at providing "club amenities" a colonial idea not familiar to those who lived beyond Cantonment area to South Bangaloreans retired from Government service. The club rules were amended later, though, since there were no takers among the old for tennis. The club shifted to its own building (the existing one), in 1912. T.R. Raghavendra Rao, the present Secretary, remembers the contribution of one of the early members, K.S. Aiyar, who built a hall as an "octogenarian's tribute to the climate and the amenities of the garden city of Bangalore".
The oldest rule book available in the club office, dating back to 1940, documents some interesting historical details. It condoles the death of Yuvaraja Kanteerava Narasimharaja Wadiyar and Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar, and says that some members of the club participated in the coronation ceremony of Jayachamaraja Wadiyar. It carries a message from Mirza Ismail, the Diwan of Mysore, on the occasion of the opening of the hall built by K.S. Aiyar, who, incidentally, passed away that very year. The list of newspapers and journals that the club got then makes for an eclectic range Harijan, Vedantakesari, The Indian Theosophist, The Animals' Friend, The Indian Concrete Journal, The Co-operative Productive Review, The Oriental Watchman, Herald of Health, and so on. That was also the year the subscription fee of the club was hiked by four annas, from Rs. 1.
An important landmark in the club's history was Masti becoming a member of it in the late Forties. Masti came to the club everyday to play cards at 6 p.m. and left for his home in Gavipuram at 8 p.m., till he died in 1986. "I might miss the day's Sandhyavandane, but not the visit to the club," the devout man often told his friends. He never lingered, though, beyond the appointed time.
K.R. Venkateshaachar, who has been a member since 1953, was one of those who shared the table with Masti. "You could set your watch by the time of his arrival and departure!" he recalls. "He came in his signature attire overcoat, cap, umbrella, and shawl and had a smile for everyone." He played a game called 28, with half paisa as stake. "But we played with such seriousness that you would think we were playing for thousands!" In his poem, Nissar talks about how Masti pulled up those who didn't play the game in the right spirit, with a: "Let us play the game for the game's sake."
Mr. Venkateshaachar also remembers Masti as a generous soul who always helped fellow club members. "He would order dosas from Vidyarthi Bhavan for everyone whenever there was a committee meeting. `Two each, Acharre!' he would insist. Those were days when we didn't have a canteen or a bar," recalls Mr. Venkateshaachar.
It's interesting that Masti, who retired as the Excise Commissioner, fought tooth and nail against the setting up of a bar at the club. "The members had to convince him that it was important for revenue generation," remembers Mr. Venkateshaachar. "But he never stepped into the bar even once."
Is it true that the club, in the initial years, was called "Brahmanara koota", because of its location in a predominantly Brahmin locality and the fact that a good number of men in service during the Raj days were Brahmins? Mr. Venkateshaachar vehemently denies it, saying that the club welcomed people from all sections since the days he can remember.
The club has, in any case, come a long way since then. It has most of the amenities that normal clubs have. A centenary building will also come up on the premises soon. But some things have remained constant down the ages. "It is still a middle-class man's club," say a long-time member, K. Visvesvara. The club has, undoubtedly, managed to hang on to its South Bangalore character. After all, at Tagore Circle, where the club is located, you can still hear the chirping of birds above the din of passing vehicles if you strain your ears hard enough!
(The valedictory of the centenary celebrations begins at 6.30 p.m. at the club tomorrow.)
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