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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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Aging Remarkably Well

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Sir James Donald Lancelot Hare

Few institutions have the privilege of celebrating their 97th anniversary without showing the obvious signs of aging. Which is why the almost golden jubilee of Dhaka Club on August 19 is so remarkable. For one thing it is one of the most important icons of our colonial past, a legacy of our British rulers who tried their best to recreate a piece of good old England without the presence of the brown natives that they ruled. For another, it is a living example of how an institution transforms (with considerable effort, no doubt) itself according to its socio-political surroundings, from European to West Pakistani to finally Bangali and Bangladeshi, from a symbol of imperialism to a family club that celebrates Bangali culture and Bangladeshi nationalism with great fervour. There are concrete examples of this coming of age; apart from the foundation stone laid by Sir James Donald Lancelot Hare in August 1911 in the Club's ballroom, there is a picture of General Niazi surrendering to the Indian Army's General Aurora, a historical event signifying the end of a war and birth of a nation, that took place at the racecourse under the management of Dhaka Club. Thus, unlike the innumerable relics of our colonial past that lie derelict in the wake of unforgivable apathy, Dhaka Club has thrived and continued to evolve with the rolling wheel of history.

This August 19, marking the Club's 97th birthday, along with all the grand celebrations that have become characteristic of this vibrant institution, the highlight of the festivities included awarding a "Lifetime Achievement Award" to Tagore exponent Kalim Sharafi, an Ekushey and Swadhinata Padak winner as well as a member of the club since 1963. Setting free 97 coloured balloons in the sky, the club's present president Sadat Hossain Selim, inaugurated the weeklong grand celebrations along with members of the executive committee. Eminent members of the country's intelligentsia attended the award giving ceremony that included a musical soiree with well-known Tagore artistes Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya and Sadi Mohammad. Theatre personality Ramendu Majumdar as the master of ceremonies, welcomed the audience recalling the club's change in image from a negative one at the time of inception to a positive one after independence.

The club's president also announced the "Club Legend Award 2008", to 22 senior members who have made significant contributions in enriching the club's traditions. Awards of Excellence were also conferred to 14 members of the club in various fields including club publication, cricket, golf, snooker, tennis, squash and more at the programme. Litterateur Syed Shamsul Haque recited two poems of Rabindranath Tagore in honour of Kalim Sharafi and other award winners.

(L) Dhaka Club in 1880 at Johnson Road (near the recent Bahadur Shah Park) (M) in 1911 at the present site and (R) the current main building.

Time has a way of diluting even the most painful memories and today as one enters through the grand gates greeted by salams from solicitous guards, doormen and smartly clad staff, it is hard not to be enamoured with the old worldly charm of the place. Certain characteristics have remained the same over almost a century. This includes the gentlemanly exchanges of senior members, many of whom like to sit at the bar with old chums to have a drink or two. There is still the excitement of Housie Night on Mondays, the sound of catchy beats from the ballroom on New Year's Eve, the delectable smoked hilsa, the barbar waiting to give a long-time member his favourite haircut unchanged for forty years and the quaintly titled 'powder room' where it is now silk saris instead of gowns that now swish past. There is camaraderie among gentlemen, an age-old tradition that has been preserved over the decades, the quirky dress codes (no sneakers or collarless T shirts, no awami suits and definitely no shorts) are strictly maintained and the billiard room continues to be an attraction.

While the tranquil elegance of the colonial times may be sampled on a quiet afternoon, the changes in the ambience and look of the club are all too obvious. The composition of the members is the most conspicuous, evidence of change reflecting the country's political transitions. From an all-European membership in pre-Partition days, to majority West-Pakistani and a few sprinklings of Bangali, the Club, after independence has become a Bangladeshi Club with a sprinkling of foreign members.

A bird's eye view of the present Dhaka Club.

The club's seven founder members were all Englishmen, mainly bureaucrats and traders. The first 'native' member was Nawab Habibullah who was elected in 1914. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s more natives were inducted including Judge Bobby Sen, K Shahabuddin M Idris and Nawab Khwaja Hassan Askari. In the 1950s a good number of Bangalis became members including Justice Amin Ahmed, M A Abdullah, A M A Kabir, Barrister Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Dr J Ahmed, Justice M Ibrahim, Sir K G M Faruqi, Rai Bahadur R P Saha, Abdul Hamid, Khan Bahadur Chowdhury Labibuddin and ambassador K M Kaiser. In the 50s and 60s however, only about 20 percent of the members were Bangali, the remaining majority being West Pakistani and Europeans.

On March 26, 1971, after the horrific massacre, the club was closed although several staff had to bear the brunt of the Pak Army's wrath. On that night, some Pakistani officers ordered for the gates to be opened. Madhuraj, the Nepali security guard refused but the army personnel forced it open, lined up Madhuraj and a few others and shot them. Madhuraj and Ahmed Bhuiyan, a bar bearer were killed on the spot while the remaining two survived with injuries by pretending to be dead. Another staff member survived by hiding in the bathroom. Later, Madhuraj's wife was given a job at the Club.

With independence, the Club took on a more Bangali flavour. In 1973 a Bangla letterhead was introduced for club stationary and it began to hold programmes to commemorate major cultural festivals and national days.

Physically, the land owned by the Club, has dramatically changed, from 524 bighas that included a huge racecourse, golf course and courtyard, to fifteen bighas. Which is just as well considering the acute shortage of land in this country. Incidentally, the land on which Hotel Sheraton and the Broadcasting House have been built also once belonged to the Dhaka Club. After independence the land where the racecourse and Gymkhana were situated became what is now known as the Suhrwardy Uddyan.

The premises however, have gone through major renovation. Originally the club was housed in a tiled roofed bungalow. Now the main club building is centrally air-conditioned with newly done up lounges, lobby, billiard room swimming pool and bars with additional family lounges, TV room, library, gym, card room and rooms for private functions. Upholding its tradition of promoting sports, the club has its own tennis and squash courts from where many champions have been groomed.

Perhaps the most dramatic break from tradition was when this typically all men's club allowed women to be members. In 1978 Geetiara Safya Chowdhury, a businesswoman became a member and later other women were inducted into this exclusive society. Later Chowdhury served three terms as the first woman president of the club.

While many of the club's over 2500 members are business people, government officials and senior executives of corporations, there are also people from other professions such as doctors, architects, artists, teachers, journalists, theatre and film artistes, creating a vibrantly mixed membership. There are also Honorary Members such as Kalim Sharafi, Jyoti Basu and late Shamsur Rahman.

These days the club is as busy as ever. With a membership that spans quite a few generations the Club's president and management are constantly racking their brains to come up with new ways to entertain and inspire the members. National days such as Ekushey February, Independence and Victory Days are commemorated with great enthusiasm, as are celebrations for Pahela Boishakh. There are art competitions, swim meets and puppet shows for the young ones, classical music soirees as well as band shows, fashion parades, holidays abroad and mezbans, catering to all tastes and generations. Yet the club is not just for providing different forms of entertainment for the young and old. It is a place where families can spend time together, where old friendships grow deeper and new ones are formed. Many may decry it as a symbol of elitism and a classist society as only the privileged classes can benefit from it. Elitist or not, it cannot be denied that Dhaka Club is a tangible icon of our history and will continue to evolve with each era and the people who will be part of each transition.

Photo courtesy: Dhaka Club

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