Sandip Banerjee Published : 29 June 2022

Even after seventy five years of independence, Indians still live on colonial hangover. This is nothing strange because two hundred years of British rule has left behind an indelible mark of influence on our social and cultural life. We have tried to learn our social behaviour from them. People are still so proud of displaying social etiquettes based on British code of social conduct. In fact, even though unfortunate, we still judge refinement in a person, judging on the parameters of his or her accomplishment in British parlance. We are living in what is known as the post-colonial era and happily continue with some modes of living set by our colonial masters. It is to be remembered that whenever our colonial masters introduced things in India it obviously served their purpose. In course of time the class of Indians, so successfully created by Lord Macaulay’s charter imitated the British. One of such colonial feature that still stands prominent even today is ‘Social Club Culture’ and perhaps no other city in India can brag of that legacy as the City of Joy.

The British came to India as traders. Gradually they became political masters. As the British Empire started expanding in India, more Englishmen following whose footsteps, lot of Europeans started flocking to India. Calcutta was not just the Capital of British India; it became the ‘Second City of the British Empire’. Owing to the growing intimacy between the Bengali merchant class and the Britishers, Calcutta grew both in economy and in western culture. The British masters wanted to embellish Calcutta in the model of London, particularly in terms of social privileges. The immediate initiative was to set up social clubs where the Europeans could have free social interaction. But interaction without wine and dine was not acceptable. So these clubs started entertaining the patrons. The initial intention of social mixing led to growth of business relationship because many people preferred to fix official issues in unofficial ambiance. Moreover these clubs provided ample opportunity to refresh the mental and physical fatigue of the Europeans after their day’s work. Since its inception these clubs had reservation on membership. Initially the natives were not allowed. In course of time when they found access it was only restricted to the elites. The membership of these clubs became a matter of ‘Status Symbol’.

As socialisation kept on becoming popular, it endorsed one form of hedonism whose essence was certainly not Indian. The clubs were turned into a cozy corner where the Europeans would enjoy unperturbed space for their fun and frolic in the intoxication of alcohol, over the smoke of nicotine, in the lilting music and in the dice of gambling. The ruling masters wanted to isolate themselves, more importantly their social vices from the natives. They wanted a social forte for them. During the nineteenth century some clubs used to have a display –‘Dogs and Indians are not allowed’. They were ready to slacken rules about entry of dogs but not about entry of the natives. 

As we progressed towards the twentieth century the scenario started changing. The social club culture of Calcutta had a profound connection with the politics and economics of contemporary time. These clubs have been witness to formation of important administrative equations that decided fates of common people. As time proceeded the clubs were becoming more accomplished. Facilities for games and sports were introduced; from late nineteenth century the European members started holding their personal celebrations in the lawns or in the banquets of these clubs. Then there came a time when membership was allotted to the natives.  With the eclipse of the baboo culture and with the emergence of a Neo-Bengali class who were Indians in body and European by heart, the British members felt the necessity of accommodating this new class who were intellectually potent and economically sound. They were accomplices of British administration either as high profile employees or as entrepreneurs. There was also reason for the native elites of Calcutta to take initiative for forming social clubs. Since ‘Bengal Club’ did not allow Indians, many individuals of prominence of the city felt their pride wounded. They started mobilising resources to set up a club for the native elites. One of such efforts led to the birth of the famous Calcutta Club.

It is pertinent to note that Calcutta has the maximum number of social clubs established during the British era. Many of these clubs date back more than a century. Notable among these clubs are Calcutta Cricket and Football Club founded in 1792 and is the second oldest cricket club in the world. The statistics itself shows how the resident Englishmen of the town were arranging for their pastime. Bengal Club (1827) was a symbol of colonial supremacy as Non–Europeans were not allowed. This convention continued till the Indian independence. A story goes that even Sir Rajendranath Mukherjee was not allowed inside the main dining room of this club even though he was supposed to be the guest of Lord Minto. Dr B.C Roy had once refused to enter into this club for he believed the club to have hurt national feelings. Whenever any discussion on the social clubs of Calcutta crop up, one cannot afford to not mention the name of Tollygunge Club. The extensive grounds of the club were originally an indigo plantation laid out in1781 by the Johnson family. The exiled family of Tipu Sultan had their princely estate here. In 1895 Sir William Cruikshank established the club as an equestrian sports facility to promote sports of all kinds. The clubhouse of this club which is the original Johnson home is more than two hundred years old. Spread over an area of more than 100 acres, Tolly Club with its exquisite cuisines, hospitality facility and sports arrangement stands peerless in the whole country. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (1829) is the first golf club beyond the British islands. Originally named as the Calcutta Golf Club, its ‘Royal’ moniker was added when the British Monarch George V visited the club premises in1911. There are other cubs as well which have long cherished history and associated stories like Saturday Club (1875), Calcutta Swimming Club (1887) and Calcutta Rowing Club (1858). Calcutta Rowing Club is the first of its kind in the city of Calcutta and one of the oldest outside United Kingdom. Originally situated on Strand Road, the club shifted to its present venue in the early twentieth century. Calcutta Club was formed almost as a protest against colonial impertinence. In 1907 notable residents of Calcutta and Bengal decided to open a social club where the natives would enjoy rights of admission. With the Maharaja of Coochbehar Sri Nripendra Narayan as the first President, the club started its march and has emerged as one of the leading social clubs in India.

A study of history of social club culture of Calcutta is a dive into the depths of time when life was altogether different; when there was real display of larger than life living. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. These clubs, for more than a century have been catering to the refined taste of its members be it in terms of gastronomical delicacies, be it in matter of quenching their spirited thirst, be it in relation with sports and other cosmetic amenities. The Europeans desired mental and physical relief; the clubs ensured that. With flow of time the clubs and their policies underwent changes. More and more Indians started joining these clubs. The Britishers formed these clubs for their social inclusiveness; with time it affected the natives as well. In course of time ladies were also allowed to become members with the clubs becoming more cosmopolitan. The taste of modern European social living flourished in these clubs. The transition from Calcutta to Kolkata is certainly not so memorable for indeed we have lost that aristocratic class who were the original patrons of club culture. But even today when we walk into these clubs many of whose structure reminds us of Neoclassical Victorian construction, we are transported to a passage of time when the city of Calcutta glowed in Colonial splendor. The social club culture is still an innate part of city life of Calcutta. It appears to have penetrated into the spirit of the city. Every occasion is celebrated here and the members dance in the dalliance of mirth in the cushion of satisfactory comfort. Historically, these clubs collate the present with the past, bringing the aura of Thames in the strands of the Ganges.


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