THE India Club, a London landmark with links to VK Krishna Menon, the India League and the fight for Indian independence in the UK, is to close permanently.
The historian Kusoom Vadgama, who frequented the India Club on first arriving in London from Kenya in 1953, said: “I went there in the search for Indian faces. Its passing is like a death sentence for the Indian community. It’s like a murder.”
The India Club, with old style furniture, recalled a bygone world. Its canteen, with an affordable menu that includes masala dosa, bhuna lamb, chilli paneer and yellow dal, had a devoted following from the Indian High Commission, students from the London School of Economics and King’s College London and the High Court in The Strand.
Yadgar Marker and his daughter Phiroza, who have held the lease on the premises at 143-145 The Strand, last week announced its demise as almost a death in the family: “It is with a very heavy heart that we announce the closure of the India Club, with our last day open to the public on 17th September.”
Phiroza said: “We have run the place for 26 years. I have been helping here since the age of 10. This is heartbreaking.”
Marston Properties, the freeholders, have waged a long campaign to evict the India Club from the premises despite its historic, cultural and emotional attachment for Indians. In court documents, they revealed they intend gutting the place and putting up a luxury hotel.
Author and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has been among those – Indian and English – who have supported Yadgar’s fight stretching over a decade to keep the India Club open.
Tharoor has spoken of his late father, Chandran Tharoor, whose photographs donated by his son hang in the first floor lobby of the India Club (the much-patronised restaurant is on the second floor): “Dad came here as a student. Krishna Menon was the founder and head of the Indian League, when where he was here in 1928, and then becoming India’s high commissioner after independence. And so he took this young Malayali student under his wing. And my dad helped him: he (Krishna Menon) was really the moving spirit in creating a club where Indians would get together.”
He added: “I am sorry to hear that the India Club is to close permanently in September. As the son of one of its founders, I lament the passing of an institution that served so many Indians (and not only Indians) for three-quarters of a century. For many students, journalists and travellers, it was a home away from home, offering simple and good quality food at affordable prices as well as a convivial atmosphere to meet and maintain friendships. The loss of a beloved institution is always regrettable. I was there this summer with my sister and am sad to realise that that was my last visit.”
Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer and former president of the Confederation of British Industry, told Eastern Eye: “I’m obviously very, very sad to hear this news. What a shame. It is such an important institution with so much history attached to it, going back to India’s independence.
“I used to go to the India club as a boy, when my father (Indian army officer Faridoon Noshir Bilimoria) was posted to England as Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1970s. I remember him taking me there. I remember what an institution it has been for so many years.
“It’s one of the first places I went to when I started Cobra Beer 33 years ago. And they’ve been a loyal customer of Cobra Beer from day one. I helped them a great deal over the past few years because their landlord was trying to evict them.
“I personally intervened to try and help them as much as possible and fortunately managed to get them a few more years. But now they’re having to leave.”
The Markers are saving some of the furniture, fittings and photographs from the India Club. Bilimoria said: “The legend has to continue.”
In 2018, Westminster City Council’s planning sub-committee turned down proposals from Marston Properties to demolish the India Club bar and restaurant. The four councillors, who discussed the planning application, were unanimous in rejecting proposals from Marston Properties to get rid of the India Club and replace the modestly priced Hotel Strand Continental with a much more expensive hotel. There were plans to put in rooms with en suite bathrooms on the various floors, including the two occupied by the India Club.
The council was impressed that the “Save the India Club” petition was signed by 26,000 people, including prominent personalities from both India and the UK.
Councillor Tony Devenish, chairman of the committee, said in a statement: “Westminster Council refused permission for the redevelopment of 143-145 Strand due to the potential loss of an important cultural venue located on its site, the India Club. The India Club has a special place in the history of our Indian community and it is right that we protect it from demolition.”
Devenish said he had once lived in India – “it’s a great country” – and also complimented the Indian community in London.
Councillor Timothy Barnes declared an interest in the India Club: “I have been eating there for 20 years and look forward to doing so in the future.”
The councillors urged Marker to apply to the council for designation as an “Asset of Community Value” to give it greater protection. A third councillor, Tim Roca, acknowledged Marston Properties were free to lodge an appeal against Westminster’s decision.
“They have taken legal advice and we have taken legal advice,” he said. “We will defend our decision robustly.”
He added: “It was right for myself and fellow councillors to refuse planning permission which would have seen the loss of the historic India Club. Not only is the club an embodiment of Indian-British history, with key links to the independence movement, but it is also a thriving present day cultural destination.
“Instead of appealing against the decision, which I’m sure Westminster Council would contest vigorously and confidently, the developers should be working with the India Club in securing the next chapter of its history, for the benefit of generations to come.”
Marston Properties, which claims to respect heritage, thought it had won when Historic England recommended to the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) that the India Club should not be granted listed status because it allegedly lacked architectural merit – not everyone agreed with this view because the India Club had retained many of its colonial features.
Westminster Council was severely critical of Historic England for not having taken into account the India Club’s cultural values and its historic links with the India League. The latter was set up in the 1940s by VK Krishna Menon as the vehicle to fight for Indian independence. In 1947 he became independent India’s first high commissioner in London. His portrait hangs in the India Club restaurant.
When headwaiter Gyanaprakasam Joseph died in 2010 after 37 years of working at the India Club, he merited an obituary in the Guardian, which said “he was incredibly popular with the customers, who loved his warmth and charm”.