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The legacy of Indian rowing at the historic Madras Boat Club

The legacy of Indian rowing at the historic Madras Boat Club

Md Imtiaz

Published: 19 Oct 2020 7:23 AM GMT

Anyone walking around the Kotturpuram bridge in Chennai can chance upon the picturesque sight of rowers rowing their boats in the serene waters of the Adyar river, free from the hassle of the city life. You can see the happiness on the faces of the rowers training and flexing their muscles catching the breezing past the water. The Adyar river is the learning space for the rowers from the 150-year-old Madras Boat Club, one of the oldest and most premier rowing clubs of the country.

The 19th Century saw the Britishers start boating activity in many cities in India. This should come as no surprise considering their maritime prowess. Madras, being home to three rivers, i.e., the Kosathalayar, Cooum, and Adyar, was home to one of the first rowing centres started by the British. The Madras Boat Club (MBC) was formed by a small group of Englishmen in Chennai (erstwhile Madras) in 1867. There are records to show that the club was first started in the backwaters of Ennore, and pictures of the rowing course lying alongside the sailing course are still available in the club's archives. Later it was shifted on the banks of Adyar which lies around 25 kilometres away from its previous location.

The English sailors with some prior experience in rowing formed the club, which started with 32 rowing members and 24 non-rowing members. In a conversation with M.V. Sriram the Secretary of Rowing Federation of India, also a member of MBC, said, "When the Britishers left India after independence, it was handed over slowly to the Indians, particularly to those having close contact with the Britishers - the traders and businessmen, mostly."

Old picture of Madras Boat Club Old picture of Madras Boat Club

In 1898, the club adopted a new monogram which is still in use today without modification. Various inter-club and intra-club regattas were conducted quite regularly during those years, and the extensive press coverage that the sport received was indicative of its popularity. One name that figures often in the early records is that of F. H. Wilson for his sculling prowess. During this time, the club witnessed the first races between Madras and Colombo. This was the start of a rivalry that exists even today. 1900 saw the launch of the Merchants and Bankers Regatta with participation from British mercantile firms like Binnys, Parrys, Gordon Woodroffe etc.

By the early part of the 20th century, the Club was holding three regattas a year. These were the Cold Weather, Hot Weather, and Monsoon Regattas. MBC expanded its facility on the Adyar River to 5 boat bays during this time. By 1911, the sailing boats were handed over to the Yacht Club and MBC remained a Rowing Club. Over this period, Club steadily added more facilities like pontoon, landing stages, ladies room, bar and shower rooms. With gay bougainvillaea and large tree cover, MBC was a pretty picture.

In the year 1933, the Amateur Rowing Association of the East (ARAE) was formed. Madras Boat Club along with The Bombay Gymkhana Club, The Calcutta Rowing Club, The Karachi Boat Club, The Rangoon Boat Club and the Royal Connaught Boat Club became the founding members. In the first regatta held at Poona in 1933, the Fours was won by the Madras Boat Club and it is on record that a ‘Pair Oared Race’ was held, which was also won by Madras Boat Club.

The first Indian members were Dr K.S. Sanjivi, K.S. Appa Rao, K. Gopalakrishnan, K.M. Nanjappa, K.S. Ranganathan, K.S. Anantharaman (ICS), V.S. Shankar, N.S. Arunachalam, M.V. Arunachalam, M. Hussain, and C.V. Narasimhan (ICS). However, until the 1950s, rowing continued to be dominated by Britishers.

In 1933, the Amateur Rowing Association of the East was formed, and the Madras Boat Club was one of its founder members. In the inaugural regatta of the ARAE in 1933 at Pune, MBC won the Willingdon Fours and the Venables Pairs trophies. "Through these early years, the club maintained a commendable record of participation and performance in inter-club regattas. The club is still committed to the cause of promoting and encouraging the sport of amateur rowing and have done so for over 140 years. Our membership is a healthy mix of rowing and social members, who combine to make MBC one of the finest sporting clubs in this part of the world," says Sriram.

Madras Boat Club at present Madras Boat Club at present

In 1953, Janji Varugis and M.M. Muthiah were elected as Members. They both left a mark on the club in their own way. In 1956, Varugis became the first Indian to be elected to a Committee. In 1957, he became the first Indian Captain of Boats. Varugis named two of the boats, Buddha and Ganesan, in memory of the former Head Lascar and Butel respectively. In 1968, M.M. Muthiah became the first Indian President of the Club. Between them, they steered the transition of the Club from British led to Indian managed.

1957, at the instance of M.M. Muthiah, club doors were opened to student membership. This was a move that would bring a steady flow of talent that continues till date. In 1962, modernization of the club facilities was completed. Boat buildings were set back from the river and a lawn was accommodated between the building and the river.

Also read: What are the different types of rowing events in the Olympics?

In 1963, U Prabhakar Rao became the first Indian to win Challenge Sculls. In 1967, the 100th Annual General Meeting was held on 13th January. In the same year, Club also won the prestigious Willingdon Fours at the ARAE Regatta. In 1969, perhaps a first in the world of rowing, the Ramakrishnan sisters Vimala, Uma, Prabha, Gita and Rama (Cox), won the Ladies Fours in Madras-Colombo Regatta.

In the early seventies, Mr Borun Chanda introduced a pattern of organized coaching and training and this paved the way for better performances on the water. In 1972, MBC won the Willingdon Trophy and followed it up the very next year, 1973 by winning all the three trophies at the ARAE Regatta. Pervez Mulla won the Willingdon Trophy twice. He was one of the most notable rowers in club history and was honoured with life membership. Other notable oarsmen during the period were Pervez Raffath Sayeed and M.M.Sanyal.

In 1974, in order to take rowing beyond inter-club regattas, club members consisting of M.M. Muthiah, Borun Chanda, R.R. Bangara, Prabhakar Rao, J. Varugis, Mahesh Rao, Pervez Mulla, Masilamani, KR Ramachandran, Kapalisastry and Vijaykumar along with MBC, founded the Tamil Nadu Amateur Rowing Association (TARA). And very soon, along with Calcutta Rowing Association, they formed the Rowing Federation of India (RFI).

In 1977, the first Indian National Rowing Championship was held in Calcutta. Tamilnadu was represented by rowers from the Madras Boat Club. At the 1979 Nationals, at Calcutta, MBC rowers helped Tamilnadu win the Gold in the Junior Coxed Fours event (Naseer Khaleeli, Arjun Srinivasan, MJ Rajiv, Prakash Madhavan and Coxed by Sanjay Madhavan) and Open Single Sculls (R. Chandramouli).

The Merchants and Bankers (M&B) regatta was well alive in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Companies like Parrys, Metal Box, Dunlop Rubber, Best & Crompton, MRF, Sanmar and Carborundum Universal drove the competition. In another unique crew, the Kesavan family of Sheker, Mohan, Suresh, Pratap and coxed by their father Kesavan, won the Challenge Fours trophy in 1983 and 1984.

In the 1980 National Championship, MBC members representing Tamil Nadu, reached the finals of 6 events, eventually winning 2 golds and 3 silvers with the Crew of comprising of Chandramouli, Giri, Ajaz Sikander, Naresh Vasudev and Ramesh Guruswamy won the Gold in Open Fours. And Chandramouli successfully defended his Single Sculls title1981, MBC rowers had the most successful outing in Nationals winning 4 Golds and a Bronze (Vikram Venkataram (Open Single Scull), Ravindra and Ketan (Open Coxless Pairs), Sanjeev Kesu, Zarwan Patel, Bharat Vijay and G Narayan coxed by MV Sriram – Open 4+). This is the first crew from Tamil Nadu to win on a course of 2 Kms. Sanjeev and G Narayan also won the Junior Coxless Pair. 1982, performance would be repeated and Zarwan Patel would win Gold in Scull, Pair (along with Sanjeev Kesu) and Fours (with Sanjeev Kesu, S Sattanathan and Ramesh G and Coxed by Ravi.

Gopal Madhavan became the first Indian to be granted International Umpire License for Rowing. Later Sam Medora (1984) and Chanko Kandathil (2000) would become the second and third from Tamil Nadu to get earn this distinction. In 1982, MV Sriram coxed the Indian Fours in the Asian Games. Chacko Kandathil was the Coach for the Indian team. S Ravi was in Reserve. 1983 saw M.J. Rajiv selected to the National Team to represent India in the World Rowing Championship, Germany. Borun Chanda was the Coach and Abraham Kandathil, Manager of the contingent.

Towards the turn of the new century, the club embarked on a major modernization. In 1998, Mid Waters was opened. Stroke Side was opened in 2000. Club buildings were modernized extensively with the addition of Swimming Pool, Chambers and Committee Room in 2002.

Meanwhile, the next batch of rowers started making waves. Sneha, Sangamitra, Swathy, Swetha and Vandana started by winning Gold in South Zone Championship and National Sub-Junior Championship. On the boys' side, Sriram, Rohit R and Romit R started making their marks. Sriram became the youngest rower to win the Macklin Trophy. Swathy and Sriram were eventually selected to represent India in 2003 and 2004 Asian Junior Rowing Championship.

Swathy would go on to represent India in Asian Junior Championship, Junior World Rowing Championship, Asia Rowing Championship in 2005 and represent India in 2006 Asian Games. And Rohit Ravindra would go on to represent India in Junior World Rowing Championship 2005.

2005 saw Tushar Bansal winning National Sub-Junior Sculls. Tushar would form a formidable combination with Rohit Ravindra on the Pair to win Madras-Colombo and Venable Bowls many times.

2006 saw the club electing the first-ever woman Captain, Shakuntala Chanda. That year also saw the next team in Sneha Venkat, Pooja Balu and Rahul Baliga. Rahul Baliga would go on to dominate most, if not all, of his races in ARAE till date.

The club prepares young rowers for school, collegiate and national regattas, where rowers get to use a 1000m stretch of the river between the Kotturpuram Bridge and the MRTS Bridge.

The Club is equipped with 50 racing shells of all categories with latest imported oars. Ergometers are available for off the water practice. Two bank tubs provide the platform for basic training. The Club has a committed group of Lascars to care for the boats and other equipment. With their experience, they double as Coxswains, when required. They also teach the beginners in the pleasure boat and the outrigger. In addition, the Club has a dedicated Coxswain, a carpenter, and a physical trainer.

Sriram, who has been associated with the club for over four decades now, says, the time has brought a lot of evolution in the club. He concludes, "From a purely sporting club over the period of time just to survive, more activities were added period of time. And we have now swimming pool and we have other activities also added to attract members."

Also read: Forgotten Heroes: Pravin Kr Uberoi – India’s first Arjuna Awardee in rowing

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