And it burns.

The iconic Secunderabad Club was established on the 26th day of April in 1878 and that makes it today about 144 years old. What a figure for a building! That number itself catapults it to the echelons of history, making it a part of the rich heritage of Hyderabad and in turn of the country. Though the present building or the anchor of buildings, began with a generous donation of Sir Salarjung Bahadur II, it stood the test of time, till now, surviving, playing host to various turns of events, morphing itself from a humble hunting lodge to a prestigious club with world-class facilities. From being called first the Secunderabad Public Rooms, to the Secunderabad Garrison Club, the Secunderabad Gymkhana Club, the United Services Club, before finally being named the Secunderabad Club it has donned several hats in its hundred year old history. Built then of massive wood-work, the club’s form boasted of cutting-edge construction techniques of those times, when massive building spans and heights were maintained through stone pillars and wooden trusses, supported my iron and steel before being finished off with stone slabs for the floor. Set in about 22 acres of lush greenery, the club also comprises of several structures in the compound serving as additional facilities added over time. The main hunting lodge remained ever since as the main colonnade topped by a ball room, fringed by a heritage billiards room, administrative offices and chambers for the club’s elected President.

History has it that this Club was formed by the British Army Garrisons that were stationed in Secunderabad under an agreement with the 3rd Nizam – Sikandar Jah. The Club was then known as Garrison Club. Over a period of 15 to 20 years the British presence in Hyderabad increased and the British brought in their civilian officers to look after the Nizam’s Railways, as well as the judicial system to administer the cantonment area. The Nizam also requisitioned the British Officers to help him set up the electrical, waterworks and various revenue reforms in the state. During the late 19th century, the name of Garrison Club was changed to United Services Club representing the membership from all parts of the services. The Club was no longer an army club and it served all the services represented by the British. As time went by, the officers later changed the name to Secunderabad Club since it was situated in Secunderabad. This name change coincided with the presentation by Salar Jung I who was the Prime Minister of Hyderabad State to the resident at that point of time of his hunting lodge. The club came to the current location on March 1903 growing into several structures across its extent.

It is an icon for several reasons, because of its excruciatingly exquisite history, because of its distinguished people, because of it’s progressive attitude, because of it’s exceptional facilities, because of it’s insightful insignia and mostly also because of the superlative stories it’s walls tell. Layered with the past and laced with the vagaries of the modern, the building that was once a simple hunting lodge festooned by man’s conquest in the wild, one that stored the past on its walls but has always been poised stoically in the present, at the same time raring to go forth into the future has been popular generation after generation, decade after decade and that my dear readers, is no mean feat. To remain timeless and faultless, embracing the need of every member, charming with the old wooden panelling or chiding with the pendulum of the clock, providing enough room for the celebration of every festival, be it the chaos of Holi or the joy of Christmas, or simply for allowing a drink or two under the gaze of a star-lit sky, it has shown what classic in architecture really is. I could regale you with stories of how my ninety-one year old grandfather and my four year old son relate to the club’s aura in their own capacity not to mention my sixty-something parents or my brother and me at half their age. I for one have fond memories of participating and winning (no wonder I said fond) several drawing and painting competitions that every child is subjected to, once winning by the choice of the very famous illustrator R K Laxman! There are some buildings that make one’s heart swell with pride, some buildings that make one’s heart feel safe and sound, some buildings are that encourage intelligent conversation, some buildings that in-still a sense of propriety, some buildings that make one feel royal, some buildings that install in one a sense of leisure, possibly deep relaxation, still other buildings that infuse a heart of joy, but this one, it does it all. Am sure there isn’t one soul who has seen this building in real and not felt the same, member or not. From setting me on a path of growth as a little impressionable girl and later as a young buoyant architect, this magnificent building always made me feel great, we never do forget how something makes us feel, do we? And today, out of the blue, the visuals of the iconic main building, one that survived, two World Wars, one Cold War and one non-violent struggle for independence, retrofitting over the years to fit the British sensibilities and then the Indians of free India, to see this masterpiece of a building on fire is shocking.

I feel shaken even now writing this, recollecting for myself what the building meant to me as a child. It obviously inspired awe, but also was a home away from home, it always felt like a safe haven, where we spent hours whiling away time or learning something new, always besotted with familiar faces, the colonnade, from where came incessant chatter or at times guffaws of laughter, where my father introduced me for the first time to the various types of alcohol by name, I never drank of course and have continued to be a happy teetotaller, where an odd old gentleman or two would fall asleep on generous plantation chairs, (I could never imagine such gay abandon in a seemingly busy place!) where we could in a mobile-less world, que up to call our parents on the landline to pick us up, later lapping up food as the colonnade served the club’s varied cuisine that is extremely singular to its space, why it was also the place where I gave my first magazine interview and being published! Though little did I know then of the travails of fame. Retrospection is always a side effect of nostalgia. 🙂 The main ball room, well that played canvas to my forays into acting, played host to several summer camps, and the terrace that adjoins it played backdrop to our childhood charades. The administrative chambers is where we’d go when we irresponsibly lost our club cards, the grand staircase is what took us there. At his point I must admit that I was always spooked by the animal heads, or rather the taxidermy mounts on the walls. It always is spooky no matter which part of the world and I wonder what makes one embalm such creatures (!), but then I would never hunt, so the conquests of the game is past me. The building on fire, gutted to the core, is another level of spooky altogether, or must I say how unimaginable it really is. My social media walls are full of stories paying tribute to the burnt out building, leaving so many broken hearts that it feels like a person has died, but then it only is a building, housing no one at the time of fire, costing no lives. As an architect I am certain that it can be rebuilt, even incorporating what the older one missed, read recent amenities. I always wondered how the club has a petrol station and no elevator, seems wondrous isn’t it. It comes at a cost though, I am told the damages to the club are worth over thirty-crores, but when we are looking into the future there is really no time to lament the past.

And this I say with utter confidence as while interning in 2008, I had the chance to work on a part of the building, thankfully untouched by the fire last night, under the able guidance of architect Yeshwant Ramamurthy of Studio One, approved by the then Works Committee Chairman of the club Mr Vijay Sree Ram, where we worked on the design of the Dining Hall and restored the facade of the dining room, stone block by stock block, and with that experience of restoration I am glad with the certainty that this is an accident that can be set right. Helmed by a very proficient President and a suitable committee, there really is no member who has not got a vested interest in the Club. Like a doting child, every member means well, and every brick in the wall says the same thing, a story of Agathism, it will all turn out well in the end. A short-circuit is what set the building abuzz, bit by bit, but eventually decimating every part of the superstructure, it is a very unfortunate event, an accident that would better off be not, but it is and whether we build it up exactly as it was or something different, build it we will. And that is the spirit of the Secunderabad Club, or call it by any another name, with all the name changes of the past, it doesn’t matter what we call it, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, those who have witnessed this piece of history will remember it fondly for eons to come, the next generation will see glimpses of it in the sketches that notable artists have made in the past, but the building itself? Well, like a Phoenix it shall rise, from the ashes, in that I implicitly trust.

And it burns on in our hearts, making us forever grateful for the memories. After all for all that we cannot see, we can feel.