What do actor Sir Ben Kingsley, crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, and former England Cricket team captain, Nasser Hussain, have in common? Well, apart from reaching the pinnacle of their respective fields, they have a shared heritage. They all belong to the Anglo-Indian community.
In case you didn’t know, the Anglo-Indian community brought about a melding of Western and Eastern influences in the cultural mainstream of early 19th century India, just by virtue of its existence. For those inclined towards actual definitions of things, the Anglo-Indian community developed in India, as a result of mixed marriages between British officers and administrative workers in the Railways and tea plantations, and local Indian women.
In the 18th Century, the British East India Company followed previous Dutch and Portuguese settlers in encouraging employees to marry native women and plant roots, to maintain their influence on the local people. The company would even pay a sum for every child born of these cross-cultural unions. It followed that this blend of influences would seep into the Indian cultural zeitgeist of the time. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the jazz music that played in the myriad bars of ’20s Bombay and Calcutta.
Anglo-Indians and Jazz
The Anglo-Indians were greatly into the jazz scene and thus played played a major role in the diffusion of jazz in its newest home. They traditionally entered into the civil services, held down administrative jobs in the railways (there were reservation quotas then too). So, jazz became a phenomenon in the residential railway colonies, where the movement grew among the Anglo-Indians.
It also spread to Calcutta, with the Anglo-Indian settlements of the city taking to ragtime and jazz in a big way, playing it in the posh hotels and clubs of Park Street, and definitely upholding the music’s legacy longer than any other Indian city, well into the late 70s and early 80s in India. Stalwarts such as Pam Crain went on to rule the jazz scene in Calcutta.
Anglo-Indian musicians acted as conduits, fusing their textbook knowledge of western harmony and popularising the use of western instruments to Indian compositions and classical Indian songwriting, inspiring the next generations of post-Independence India. They quickly gained a reputation as the first Indian musicians to perform jazz and blues standards in Calcutta and Bombay during the war years.
The Anglo-Indian Identity
Over the years, going back to the construction of the Suez Canal, British women started making India their home in greater numbers, and as a result, mixed marriages were not as prevalent anymore. So, the Anglo-Indian community was looking at dwindling numbers.
In fact, when the British finally departed in 1947, they left behind just about 300,000 people of mixed heritage. Not really identifying as either British or Indian, and mercilessly being called out by both nations for being such, the Anglo-Indian community was stuck in an identity limbo.
They were Anglican, dressed like the English, spoke the language, with only the twang in their accents and swarthier complexions betraying their more desi persuasion. The Anglo-Indians were indeed unique, lending their influences in food as in music even, giving rise to the jalfrezi dish, pepper water and their own version of a railway curry, an ode to their source of employment. Towards the late ‘60s, they dispersed in colonial outposts such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and of course the UK.
Just like the development of jazz in India stagnated, with film music overshadowing every musical genre, so did the Anglo-Indian culture. The vestiges of colonial rule and cultural hegemony, of which the US still stands accused, associated with the culture was slowly relegated to nostalgia, as was the music they helped popularize. Employment opportunities were greatly reduced due to an inability to speak local languages.
Fading Out and the Future
The paradox of any cultural movement is that once it achieves a certain amount of cache with the mainstream audience, that is when it also begins to run its course, due to overexposure. This is what really happened to the Anglo-Indian jazz scene as well. While mainstream ‘Bollywood’ music adopted its tropes and assimilated its musicians, it left the original art form languishing on the sidelines and completely marginalised thereafter, to have any significant cultural relevance anymore.
The Anglo-Indian community however had more positive effects of a paradox, their ability to only speak English helped when the Indian economy opened up and multinationals made inroads into the country, shoring up demand for English-speaking populace with a global mindset.
In 2011, an online international marriage portal was floated in Kerala, enabling Anglo-Indian youngsters worldwide to marry within the diaspora, similar to the Parsi community’s efforts to preserve their heritage. It’s uncertain how many Anglo-Indians remain in India, the estimate stands at 125,000, living mostly in Calcutta and Madras.
With both jazz and the Anglo-Indian community assimilating into the mainstream and losing their identity in the process, it remains to be seen whether either will make a resounding resurgence or fade out.
Mayur Mulki is Editorial Head at Qrius. He writes about business, history, culture and the arts.
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