The following is a post by Rama Kulkarni, great grand daughter of B N Bhajekar, founder of Deccan Gymkhana. An article in Marathi by Neelima Raddi, grand daughter of B N Bhajekar, can be read here
The population of my hometown, Pune, is roughly three million. It would not be a stretch to say that most of those millions know of the area called Deccan Gymkhana, if not the actual sports club that lends its name to its surroundings. It would also not be a stretch to say that not one among the said millions would be able to name the chief founder of that illustrious institution. Hardly a surprise, when the club itself has apparently forgotten to whom it owes its existence!
Today, on India’s Independence Day, I salute a visionary social reformer who was responsible for creating the Deccan Gymkhana- my great grandfather, Balkrishna Narayan Bhajekar , also known as Bandopant Bhajekar.
As a child, I’d often heard from my mother how her grandfather was one of the founders of the Deccan Gymkhana and that his portrait once graced its walls. What I didn’t know, was that he was its chief founder- a fact we recently discovered in an original document dated 1928, found carefully preserved in my late father’s papers. It is an official Deccan Gymkhana publication on the occasion of the Foundation Day celebrations, when Bandopant’s portrait was unveiled as a tribute to his memory . I have used this document throughout as a reference.
B.N.Bhajekar was born in Pune in 1861, and educated at the Government High School , St. Vincent’s School and subsequently Deccan College and St.Xavier’s College. He excelled at sports, English and Latin. He was a man of many accomplishments, a well-known lawyer and social reformer. An active member of the Bombay Presidency Association, his political views aligned with those of Mr. Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Sir P.M. Mehta. After the passing of Justice M.G. Ranade (whom he greatly admired), he worked as Joint Secretary of the Social Conference with great zeal and dedication. Later in life, he served as Chief Judge and eventually as Chief Minister of the erstwhile Dewas (Junior) State.
Bandopant Bhajekar worked actively to enhance adult literacy initiatives and preschool education among the disadvantaged. He promoted women’s education and was noted for furthering the cause of widow remarriage. He himself married a widow (my great grandmother) and was instrumental in bringing about scores of widow remarriages, often at great personal cost. ( Orthodox Hindu priests refused to perform any religious ceremony at his home thereafter, but Bandopant remained steadfast.)
His keen interest in sports led to his starting the Poona Young Men’s Cricket Club in the early 1880s, with Mr. Keshavrao Puranik. Through diligent and ceaseless efforts by him and his cousin L .R. Bhajekar, this eventually developed into the Deccan Gymkhana. Bandopant secured donations from H.H. Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur and Sir Parashuram Bhausaheb of Jamkhandi, who became the first patrons of the Gymkhana. B.N.Bhajekar was also one of the founders of the P J Hindu Gymkhana, Mumbai.
Established on Oct 5, 1906, the Deccan Gymkhana was the first cosmopolitan, democratic sporting institution in the Deccan region. Bandopant and the other founders felt there should be no distinction based on creed, caste or race. Their chief objective was to promote sports, sportsmanship and Indian games. The number of members in 1908 was sixteen! It has been gratefully acknowledged in the 1928 document that B.N. Bhajekar, L.R.Bhajekar and S.R.Bhagwat were the individuals most responsible for the remarkable level the club had reached at that time.
Bandopant Bhajekar was the moving force behind the introduction of Indian wrestling tournaments at the Deccan Gymkhana . As a staunch supporter of women’s rights, he viewed women’s physical health to be just as important as men’s , and was responsible for creating some of the first women’s sports tournaments in the country. In 1920, they were held under the patronage of Lady Lloyd. His progressive mind firmly believed that a nation’s future depended on the physical and mental well-being of its women.
Moving on now to the present day : my mother, his granddaughter, had been enquiring politely (for years) of the Deccan Gymkhana management, about the whereabouts of his portrait and if we could possibly replace it if lost. The official response remained consistently indifferent (with the exception of a few who tried to help). A servant finally told her it was probably flood-damaged and thrown out during renovations. When this rare 1928 document was found (even more precious now, considering most of the club’s old documents were destroyed in the Panshet floods), our family readily shared it with them. Apart from a few individuals, official interest in it was tepid.
Today the Deccan Gymkhana Club proudly proclaims its history on its website but you will not find a single word on any of its pages about the man who founded it. A small forlorn plaque in the old pavilion (now a Deccan Gymkhana police station) is the only testament that remains today, hidden from the public eye.
On this Independence Day, as I pay my respects to this inspiring man who was so far ahead of his time, I hope that Bandopant Bhajekar’s creation will remain worthy of his selfless hard work. The citizens of Pune have always revered integrity, intellect and public service. Let us not allow apathy to break that tradition. As his anniversary approaches in September, we, the family, hope to reinstate his portrait in Deccan Gymkhana, a small gesture of recognition for the monumental work of a great man.
Dr. Rama Kulkarni
August 15, 2017