Mohun Bagan Villa – Gone, But Not Forgotten
Photographs sourced from Facebook
Mohun Bagan Athletic Club occupies a pride of place in India’s sporting history. But few are aware that the club was named after a beautiful garden-house where its footballers practised in the initial days.
Steeped in the spirit of nationalism the club’s founders and office-bearers moulded the young footballers in the same fire and they in turn, broke the myth of the superior physical prowess of the British. Read on to explore the history of a brick and mortar structure which came to be associated with nationalist ideals of a race eager to throw off the foreign yoke, long after the mansion ceased to exist.
Mohun Bagan, the garden at 1 Phariapukur Street, originally belonged to Raja Gopimohun Deb, the eldest son of Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar . Later, his descendants sold the plot to a leading jute trader, Kirtichandra Mitra in the 1880s. Mitra then engaged the first Bengali civil engineer and architect, Nilmoni Mitra to design and build a magnificent palatial mansion. The house, built entirely in white marble, lay nestled within the garden after which it was named “Mohun Bagan Villa”. Spread on nearly 13 bighas, the property was marked by Phariapukur Street (now Shibdas Bhaduri Street) in the north, APC Road in the east and (presently) by Kirti Mitra Lane and Mohun Bagan Lane in the west and south, respectively. However, Kirti Mitra could not enjoy the fruits of his labour for long and died soon after, leaving Mohun Bagan Villa to his son, Priyanath Mitra, more popularly known as P Mitra. The football club was established at Mohun Bagan Villa on 15 August, 1889 during the heydays of P Mitra. The portion of the vast ground which lay near the intersection of the Upper Circular Road and Phariapukur was used by the club members to practice and hold matches. The garden was fenced by high walls and quite a few ponds dotted the vast property. According to historian and chronicler, Radharaman Mitra, the villa had a number of marble courtyards which were used by club members for skating. “However, the house was humongous in size and club members seldom ventured inside, apprehensive that they would get lost in the maze,” he wrote.
However, according to some, the formation of Mohun Bagan Sporting Club took place at Bhupendranath Basu’s residence. He was the first president and Jitendranath Basu, the first secretary of the club. In 1891 the term “Sporting” was dropped to be replaced by “Athletic” after it was pointed out to the authorities by a grammarian from Presidency College, Prof FJ Rhow that the club did not indulge in either angling or rifle shooting which come under sporting activities.
Radharaman Mitra dismisses this popular version about the club being formed at Bhupendranath Basu’s residence. According to him the club was founded in 1889 at Mohun Bagan Villa and hence it was named after the famous garden-house of the Mitra family. Priyanath Mitra was one of the founders and benefactors of the club along with barrister, Haridas Bose. P Mitra had even got jerseys stitched from Messrs Rankin, the famous tailoring shop, run by Europeans at Old Court House Street for the players of the club.
Apparently, the club gained a few wealthy patrons who showed a lot of enthusiasm in its activities. It was at the premises of Mohun Bagan Villa that the club played its first game with Eden Hindu Hostel and was defeated (0-1) by them. The side was captained by Manilal Sen. In those days natives were not allowed to participate in games played by the British; but by the end of 19 th Century a section of the Bengali elite who sought to associate themselves with the rulers by adopting English ‘virtues’, introduced football to Bengal. Soon it was adopted by the plebeians due to the game’s simplicity yet competitive appeal. The game’s immense popularity can be gauged from the fact that by 1885 four of the native clubs were invited to play at the Maidan with English clubs. Fledgling display of national pride was evident as the barefooted boys took on the English clubs though Bengalis were often dismissed as a non-martial and cowardly race by the colonial masters.
It was Mohun Bagan among the Indian clubs that came to symbolize the true nationalist response to the wounded self-esteem against the British. Truly, from its very inception it was more than a club. It was an institution with an avowed objective of not only producing excellent sportsmen but also imbuing them with impeccable moral and social values. Except for a limited few at the top it mostly accepted only students as members. Each applicant had to produce his guardian’s permission to be a member of the club. JN Basu would sometime line up younger members and probe their progress in schools and colleges. Once, a young member was even expelled for smoking.
Meanwhile, P Mitra had constructed yet another palatial building in European style and named it as Ashcroft Hall at Rajballv Street. After shifting to the new house he sold off Mohun Bagan Villa and Bhupendranath Basu, attorney Nimai Basu and another individual bought the property for Rs 1.5 lakh in 1890. In the same year the Congress’ annual session was held Tivoli Park and the delegates from other provinces were housed at Mohun Bagan Villa. The very next year the house was demolished and a number of smaller houses came up on the plot of the magnificent villa. Meanwhile, P Mitra suffered major losses in jute trade and even Ashcroft Hall was sold off along with other properties. In 1895, commissioner Bhupendranath Basu drew the attention of the civic body that parcelling off Mohun Bagan Villa have led to the emergence of two new roads. The one on east-west direction was named Mohun Bagan Row and the other was named after Kirti Mitra.
Despite the sad fate of the house the club which derived its name from it showed a spirit of resilience. At the first official tournament, Coochbehar Cup – that it played it lost to ‘C’ Company Sussex in 1893. Its early exit from the Indian Football Association Shield in 1909 and 1910 evoked ridicule from other native clubs including Sovabazar but under Major Subedar Shailendranath Basu, Mohun Bagan followed European methods of training and players spent hours in rigorous physical training. Basu recruited his footballers from Manmatha Ganguly’s National Athletic Club who trained his members to play with boots. Reverend Sudhir Chatterjee, the only one to wear boots in the IFA shield final match in 1911 was a product of National Athletic Club. Before 1911 Mohun Bagan enjoyed quite a few success. Mohun Bagan won Coochbehar Cup four times in 1904, 1905, 1907 and 1908 and Trades Cup four times between 1906-1909, Laxmibilas Club 1909-1910 and Gladstone Cup 1909-1910 and defeated several army teams and English clubs like Dalhousie.
But its moment of glory was definitely the final of IFA Shield in 1911, en route to which Mohun Bagan defeated St Xaviers’ College (3-0), Rangers (2-1), Rifle Brigade (2-0) and Middlesex Regiment (3-0), the last one in a replay. Such was the enthusiasm that people came from other districts of Bengal as well as from neighbouring Bihar and Assam to watch the final. The East Indian Railway ran a special train and additional steamer services were pressed into service to ferry spectators to Calcutta from the mofussil areas. Tickets for the match, originally priced at Rs 1 and 2, were sold at Rs 15.
Despite heavy odds stacked against them the team under Shibdas Bhaduri won 2-1 against East Yorkshire Regiment to clinch the IFA Shield. Captain Shibdas Bhaduri, first scored the equaliser and then set up Abhilash Ghosh to score the winner with just two minutes remaining of the match. Reuters in its cablegram to English newspapers mentioned: ‘For the first time in the history of Indian football an Indian team, the Mohun Bagan, consisting purely of Bengalees, has won the Indian Football Association Shield beating crack teams of English regiments’. The mood can be gauged by what Achintya Kumar Sengupta wrote in Kallol Jug: “Mohun Bagan is not a football team. It is a tortured country, rolling in the dust, which has just started to raise its head.”
Mohun Bagan supporters and the public at large went berserk. Even supporters of Moslem Sporting Club rolled on the ground in joyous excitement while Muslims from Dharmatollah joined the victory procession near Thanthania Kali Temple.
It is said that after the match ended, an old man, pointing to the Union Jack fluttering atop Fort William asked the players, “when will that come down?” According to the legend it was predicted that the flag would come down only when Mohun Bagan will regain the shield. And the prophecy came true when Mohun Bagan won the shield again, in 1947. And though demolished a century ago the beautiful (mohun) garden-house of Kirti Mitra lives on in the national institution, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, it fostered on its grounds.