London's India Club, saved from developers, celebrates its history

London (AFP) - An exhibition celebrating the storied history of an Indian members' club in London opens on Wednesday, less than a year after the restaurant dodged being turned into a boutique hotel.

"A Home Away from Home", organised by British conservation charity the National Trust, tapped into a "treasure trove" of history on the India Club which emerged in part thanks to recent efforts to save it from eviction.

The month-long exhibition tells the story of the restaurant and bar venue on the Strand in London's West End, through the voices of those connected to it over its six decades.

"The history has always been there but the campaign unearthed it and brought it to the surface," Phiroza Marker, the club's manager, told AFP during a preview tour.

"People want to tell their stories," she added, noting that old customers and even relatives of those who helped establish the club came forward when it was threatened with closure.

In late July, the club was saved from developers who wanted to overhaul the building, which already has a budget hotel on its higher floors.

- Heart of the diaspora -

Now primarily just a restaurant, the India Club became the heart of the Indian diaspora in Britain after it was set up in 1951 by Krishna Menon, India's first High Commissioner to Britain.

It moved to its current location sometime in the late '50s or early '60s and was an umbrella organisation for groups serving the growing south Asian community in Britain.

Westminster Council rejected redevelopment plans last year following a high-profile campaign against them.

The campaign garnered the support of intellectuals, Anglo-Indian businessmen and lawmakers from both countries -- as well as more than 26,000 petition signatories.

"We followed the campaign with a lot of interest," said Laura Carderera, a creative programme leader at the National Trust.

The charity is more associated with running historic buildings in rural Britain, but has ventured into new conservation projects like this over the past six years.

"We felt that this place told a really important chapter in British history, about migration," Carderera added.

"It also tells a really important story about London's changing landscape -- places like the India Club are becoming a rarity."

- 'I made a connection' -

The oral history created by the trust, with the help of a bursary from the British Library, saw more than a dozen people interviewed, from the club founders' children to former staff and longtime clientele.

In keeping with the nostalgic atmosphere of the venue -- which has changed remarkably little over the decades -- Carderera's team bought old vinyl and cassette players on eBay to play the recordings.

Others are heard on vintage telephone handsets mounted on the walls.

"I was missing my home, my mum," recounts Krishna Ghosh, a trained Indian classical dancer who arrived in London in 1966 and began rehearsing at the club, in one of the oral histories.

"I made a connection culturally with the India Club," he said.

With a mandate to promote Indo-British friendship, the club built up a roster of regulars not from the Indian subcontinent -- particularly journalists working on nearby Fleet Street and at a BBC building opposite.

"It was one of those places where you felt: this is home, this is part of things," said Kieran Cooke, a BBC World Service journalist in the 1980s, in another oral exhibit.

In some of the non-audio elements featured, early 1970s clippings from the "India Weekly" newspaper serving the diaspora, adorn the walls.

Together with framed pictures, they show some of the dignitaries who have held meetings in the first floor lounge or dined at the restaurant above, including founding member Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

In his recollections, Cooke said: "The cliche is if only the walls could talk, but it's very much like that there".

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