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Bengaluru's Bowring Institute gets a modern update

The colonial club has been reinvented for the 21st century to appeal to young and old alike

An adherence to traditional conservation methods in restoring the building has been paired with daringly contemporary interiors.
An adherence to traditional conservation methods in restoring the building has been paired with daringly contemporary interiors. (Photographs by Shalini Sehgal)

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The collapse in 2012 of part of Mysuru’s Lansdowne building, built by the Wodeyar dynasty in the late 19th century to honour the then British viceroy, created aftershocks in Bengaluru. None were more keenly felt than in the Bowring Institute, a club from the same vintage whose main building was dilapidated.

H.S. Srikanth, the club’s honorary secretary, describes Lansdowne’s sorry plight as “a wake-up call” for the club. He promptly wrote to the members saying they had collectively not paid sufficient attention to protecting the club’s main building while enjoying using it. “We must approach (restoration) on a war footing,” he said at the time.

Galvanised by a sense that the Lansdowne catastrophe was an omen, the club sought advice from the Karnataka archaeological and heritage department in Mysuru. One of the Bowring’s members, the architect Sriram Krishnan, was appointed project manager. He recalls that because of leaks “during the rainy season you had to put pans out to collect the water.” The building had developed cracks and the effects of water seepage were visible. “Bandicoots had dug up holes in many places,” says Srikanth.

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A decade on, this story of the building’s slide towards possibly being declared uninhabitable sounds as implausible as any urban legend. Today, the Bowring, both in its exteriors and interior, resembles a swank boutique hotel as much as it does a club. An adherence to traditional conservation methods in restoring the building, at a cost of 11 crore, has been paired with daringly contemporary interiors and lighting as well as lush landscaping and other changes across the club premises that cost about three times that. The bar is replete with plush leather couches from European designers and chairs from Italy and Austria that reflect the modernity of the 20th century rather than the Victorian colonial era. One of the most popular design flourishes is, of all places, in the men’s washroom. A floor-to-ceiling mirror is illuminated along its perimeter with small bulbs, making whoever is framed by it a star for the moment. Ravindra Kumar, who heads Pragroup, the firm that is working on Bowring’s redesign, describes it as the “selfie mirror”.

These are pivotal times for clubs across India. Politicians are becoming impatient with the privileges and prime land occupied by so many colonial era clubs. The ministry of corporate affairs takeover of the Delhi Gymkhana club is a stark example. It is also true that committees of retired grey eminences running India’s best clubs seem out of step with the younger generation and our more egalitarian times, and impatience with decades-long waiting lists for membership is growing. By contrast, the Bowring this year offered five-year and 15-year associate memberships in return for paying an infrastructure fee ranging from a couple of lakhs to six lakhs. A mirror in a washroom that regularly pops up on Instagram and fast-track memberships suggest the Bowring committee is comfortable with reinventing the colonial club for the 21st century.

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But, there is also an adherence to tradition. Staying true to the main building’s historical roots during the conservation process involved, among other things, tracking down two families in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu who specialise in lime plastering from that era. The families are in demand for restoration work at various temples in southern India. The special bricks used for restoring the so-called Madras terrace roofs were of a special size not used anymore and had to be specially made. “When restoring the building we have not used a gram of steel or cement,” Srikanth says. There was no blueprint of the building so the architects resorted to satellite images instead. The most complicated challenge from returning to the building techniques of the 19th century turned out to be the 3.8 million eggs needed to make the lime plaster. This created a unique problem: Disposing of that many yolks because only egg whites are used required tracking down a small Tamil community in Bengaluru who use the yolks in food and medicine. Restoration work that included redoing the plumbing and restoring the timber ceilings cost about 11 crore. As the club building is a heritage structure, the Bowring committee could have received funding from the state archaeological department but elected not to because it was confident it could raise the funds from its membership.

Brightly coloured, geometric Athangudi-styled tiles have been used in the library and the reading room.
Brightly coloured, geometric Athangudi-styled tiles have been used in the library and the reading room.

Through the restoration, the committee appears to have been that rare mix of being detail-oriented while giving the architects extraordinary latitude. It helps perhaps that the president of the club, Roop Goklaney, is in his early 50s; the average age of the committee is 48. Everywhere one looks, there is something eye-catching and engaging. The front verandah with its bright yellow walls seems as if it were an invitation to a hotel designed by the great Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. Brightly coloured, geometric Athangudi-styled tiles along the main building’s corridors and in its library and reading room are a reminder that sometimes old Indian traditions can seem modern. Insulation built into the walls magically retains the cool of Bengaluru’s civilised night-times even if the afternoon sun is blazing. A 12-meter-long table from Indonesia hewed out of a single tree is a feature of the outdoor dining area just feet away from a tree whose branches have been allowed to go through the roof of dining area. The Chivas bar is a jewel box, with a Timothy Oulton bar with a brass countertop, sloped to enable easy draining if soda or ice is spilled. Nearby stand a couple of chairs inspired by a James Bond film. Not everything is so elegant, of course. Even a teetotaller would find the bar wildly over lit.

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On a recent Saturday, I came away from tennis on some of the loveliest clay courts in south India, with a viewing gallery from another age. Gardeners were adding to the Japanese-styled dense planting methods, extending along the path to a lotus pond nearby. The architects were at the club meeting senior committee members and executives from Diageo to discuss plans for a new outdoor bar. Phase two of the Bowring renovation is currently unfolding.

Today, the Bowring, both in its exteriors and interior, resembles a swank boutique hotel as much as it does a club.
Today, the Bowring, both in its exteriors and interior, resembles a swank boutique hotel as much as it does a club.

Across from the Indo Saracenic main building are lawns that used to be an al fresco food court. The garden was roped off to allow the grass to grow back. The compound walls were restyled to look like those outside houses in Karnataka’s temple towns with screens that allow for distilled views of the streetscape beyond. Set against the boundary wall is a new 16.5-meter stage for outdoor events that looks more spaceship than stage. Pragroup’s Ravindra Kumar says, “It is a feat that modernity can create.”

In many ways, it is more than that because the steel stage sits across the large lawn from a 19th century building not far from the tumult and ugliness of what was once an elegant shopping promenade on MG Road. The futuristic stage set in a club that was founded in 1868 is a uniquely harmonious conversation between Bengaluru’s growth on steroids—thanks to information technology and start-ups of the 21st century—and its need to preserve some of its past.

Rahul Jacob is a former South China correspondent for the Financial Times.

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