The Ladies Recreation Club had some characters on board. There was on the rolls a Mrs Fernando who according to Mona Hensman was “a pillar of club life. Quietly, humbly and ever so gladly she would take charge of our small children when we were busy with a tournament on a Friday, or our parcels when we came on from shopping, or make pickles and her famous brinjal curry for some occasion”. There was a manager – Subramaniam who was the only man about the place – housekeeper, telephone operator, manager and clerk, all rolled into one. There were two ayahs – Pattu and Rajam, the former later becoming the soul of the canteen- doling out vadas and dosas. Savitri Rajan listed some of the colourful members – Lady Sankaran Nair with her dazzling huge diamond ear-rings, the graceful and charming Chinnamba, Maharani of Pithapuram, Lady Mangalammal Sadasiva Iyer, in her friendly simplicity and dignity, Lady Bazlullah’s humorous conversation, the Maharani of Travancore in mystic and wonderful whites, great names in a princely galaxy such as Vizianagaram and Bobbili, Mrs Krishnaswami Chetty, Radhabai Subbarayan, Mrs Alwar Chetty and Mrs Kanakammal Sitapati Iyer. She also included the fierce women of the Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar family such as Janammal and Ambujammal who were ardent freedom fighters and had been to prison for the cause.
The Victoria Technical Institute was a beneficiary of the club’s ladies. Lady Wright, Lady Todhunter and Mrs Sitapati Iyer served on its committee and the members manned the counters of the VTI on specific mornings, attending to the sales of laces and handicrafts.
Mary Clubwalla Jadhav remembered her introduction to the club shortly after she came to Madras as a bride in 1926. The first event she attended was an At Home hosted by Lady Goschen at the Banqueting Hall. Her name was proposed in 1931 by Mrs Ameen Khaleeli and she was inducted. On 2nd September 1939, the club members met to ponder over the announcement of the Second World War. Mary was one of the attendees and she was to recollect that the Nursing Division of the St John’s Ambulance was formed at the club. The members formed a division working the Air Raid Patrol Posts and they also served at hospitals. They took lessons in the use of fire-fighting equipment and trained other ladies in their use. The members attended to the needs of the sick and wounded soldiers and also ran canteens under the auspices of the Indian Hospitality Committee for the Armed Forces’ Welfare. Later, several of the club’s members became active participants in Mary Clubwalla’s Guild of Service.
The war unfortunately saw the club being turned out of its home, the Willingdon becoming a transit camp for soldiers. Mrs AA Hayles, wife of the editor of the Madras Mail, offered her home and tennis courts to the club and later, it shifted to Montieth Road where it became a sub-lessee of the National Indian Association. At the end of the war, the club hoped to regain its premises only to be thwarted by the Government, which made it the headquarters of the Prohibition Department. It was only in 1949 that the club, after much lobbying, managed to regain its old home. By then, most of the European women had left, leaving it to the Indians to run the place. Among the last celebrations was a Government House party organised by Lady Nye (wife of Sir Archibald, the last of the British Governors of Madras) for Christmas. “The gardens were tastefully illuminated and paths were laid out lit by concealed lights, through which children and adults wandered. One path led to the cave of a fairy; we had to cross a small bridge over a gurgling brook. At dusk Santa Claus arrived in a puss-moth amidst fireworks and the children shouted with pleasure and excitement, even we elders were entranced by the sight. Santa distributed presents according to sex and age groups” wrote Satya Srinivasan. By then, Christmas Day was an institution of sorts at the club.
In the years after independence, the club did much to foster an interest in sports among women. Badminton, snooker, carom, tennis, TT and bridge were all encouraged and the members participated in state and national level sports championships and brought back trophies. The golden jubilee of the club was celebrated with gusto in 1961.
But by then, a decline of some sort had already set in. The men’s only clubs had begun relaxing their rules for membership and the raison-d’être for the club received a beating. Membership began to dwindle. In 1971, when the club celebrated its diamond jubilee, an article in the commemorative souvenir reveals much. “Oh where are the open shuttle court, the badminton court and the tennis courts?” wrote T Satya Srinivasan. “ Grass has grown over the first two leaving no trace of them; and the one tennis court which put up a losing fight has had a natural death and is at the mercy of the sheep, cows and dogs”. Sheelu Ranganathan, who played a vital role in the development of women’s cricket in the state, remembers resigning from the club the day it was decided to scrap the tennis courts. “I was not interested in playing cards. You should have seen the grounds- full of trees and the three tennis courts” she says. “And the old building –so big and airy”. It was also, to judge from photographs, filled with classic art-deco furniture. It was perhaps reflective of changing times that when Mrs Madhuben Shah, wife of KK Shah, Governor of Madras in the 1970s visited the club, she remarked that surely such large grounds could be turned over to the slum clearance board and made into hutments for the poor! The club shortly thereafter gave up the tradition of having First Ladies as its Presidents.
Little remains to be told. Contrary to the prayers of Hamsa Doraikannu, (wife of the Manager of the Imperial Bank and better remembered today as the mother of cricketer CD Gopinath), that “Women may come and women may go, but let the LRC go on forever”, the club fell of lean days in the 1980s. It is ironic that at a time when women were finding a space for themselves in several walks of life, the club chose not to make much of the exclusivity which had been the cause for its success or market it. The Willingdon Trust, which for some reason came to be increasingly guided by the Chettinad family, decided to develop the grounds and the sports facilities became the victims. A whole host of buildings came up on the estate.
The club however still survives. As part of the new constructions, space was allotted on the ground and first floors of one of the buildings and there it operates from, cards being the sole recreation now available. It also gives scholarships to needy students. However, it is a mere shell of its former self. As this is the centenary year of the club it is to be hoped that it will rejuvenate itself.
Afterword: It is interesting to note that two formidable women of Carnatic music owed their careers to the LRC. The first was C Saraswathi Bai who shot to fame as the first woman Harikatha exponent after her maiden performance at the club. It was thanks to Bangaru Ammal Venkatamahipathi Naidu (wife of M Buchi Babu Naidu) that she was brought to the club. The second was DK Pattammal who in the early 1930s was asked to sing here and given a prize.