Anglos in the wind: The dance of a beautiful people

It was a pleasant surprise when my friend from school days Richard invited my family and myself to ‘The Grand Hockey Dinner Dance’ at the St. Bede’s School Grounds on Saturday, the 9th January 2010. This dance was the culmination of a 2-day long hockey tournament of Anglo-Indian teams from all over the country.

I was not surprised that a dance would signal the end of the tournament because in all Anglo-Indian social occasions, dance plays a very crucial role. Whether it is a wedding or a community event or a party, great importance is given to the ball-dance, to the presence of an orchestra and the ambience of the dance floor. This expression of community spirit through dance is but a small fraction of the larger sense of gaiety, camaraderie and joyfulness that the Anglo-Indian community stands for – they are a colorful and proud people who trace their traditions to hundreds of years of the interaction between European and Indian civilizations.

My first interaction with Anglo-Indians was through my primary school teachers most of whom were Anglo-Indian women: the images of Mrs. Grant, Ms. Tina, Mrs. Johnston and Mrs. Devotta can never be forgotten for their dedication to the children whom they had under their care. One of the myths that is propagated about Anglo-Indians is that they are more European than Indian. Many have missed out the hyphenated identity “Anglo(-)Indian.” As a result of a lack of acceptance in mainstream Indian society and appropriate employment opportunities, there has been a mass migration of Anglo-Indians to places as far as Australia, Canada, England and the USA.

The history of the Anglo-Indian community is a testimony to the struggle of a sub-minority within India’s evolution as a post-colonial nation-state [Article 366(2) : Constitution of India]. While it is true that the earliest Anglo-Indian families were the by product of relationships between Europeans and Indians, the community has come a long way since. It is characteristically Indian in several ways while retaining some cultural traditions of yore. Most Anglo-Indian communities, it is famously known, lived near railway cantonments where many of them worked as engine drivers.

Again, sports like hockey, football etc had good Anglo-Indian representation. In many ways, Anglo-Indians were the backbone of the Indian educational system in the form of committed and strong educationists and teachers.

The Indian Constitution guarantees their right to retain English as their medium of instruction. Further, both the Lok Sabha and the State assemblies have place for nominated seats for the Anglos [Article 334]. With a dwindling population (almost like the Parsis), the Anglo-Indians struggle to retain their firmament in Indian society and not get completely marginalized or non-existent. A remarkable feature about the Anglo-Indians is their open-mindedness as a people, one dimension being several inter-marriages with other castes and communities in Indian society. Among the most famous Anglo-Indians of post-independent India was Frank Anthony, a Supreme Court lawyer (also a member of the Constituent Assembly) who represented Mrs. Indira Gandhi during most of her trials and tribulations. Other prominent Anglos on the national scene were/are A.E.T. Barrow (educationist and brain behind the ICSE board of education), Lt. Gen Henderson-Brook (who prepared a classified report on the Oct-Nov 1962 debacle), Roger Binny (cricketer), Diana Hayden (former Miss India), Leslie Claudius (hockey legend) and Ruskin Bond(writer).

Anglos in the wind is the name of a magazine edited by Harry MacLure whoalso led the organizational effort of the Hockey event. Being in the midst of the Anglos at The Grand Hockey Dinner Dance was a poignant experience.

Not only were there representatives of the community from places overseas mentioned above, there were Anglo-Indians from all over India at the dance, as it was an extension of the tournament. Many would have heard of the ‘Bow Barracks’ of Kolkata, an Anglo-Indian synonym for a place. Nowhere else have I seen the aged 50/60 and above take to the dance floor with such an enthusiasm and sustain it over long hours. Young and old were at it into the wee hours of the night.

Wishing that the moments with the Anglos on a Chennai Saturday night would last longer, not to miss their love of dance, I was reminded of the album Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees (1977). The following lines from that album were evocative:
“Here I am
Prayin’ for this moment to last
Livin’ on the music so fine
Born on the Wind
Making it mine “

What I was grateful to Richard for inviting me to the Grand Dance was that it gave me an opportunity to join one segment of India in its celebration of the nation. This is a beautiful community and that came across at The Grand Hockey Dinner Dance.

Chak De, Anglos !
– – – – –

1. Frank Anthony, Britain’s Betrayal in India: The Story of the Anglo-Indian Community (Paperback, 2007);
2. Hostages to India: or The Life Story of the Anglo Indian Race : by Herbert Alick Stark
3. These are the Anglo-Indians: James Reginald Maher
4. Bow Barracks Forever is a 2004 Indian film directed by Anjan Dutt (the real life story of a tiny but resolute Anglo Indian community right in the heart of bustling north Kolkata)


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said February 18, 2010, 8:18 pm:

    Nice post on Anglo Indians, Abdul. I haven’t come across many Anglo Indians in my life. Any idea how big is their population in India?

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    Arunava Bose said February 18, 2010, 8:52 pm:

    Really nice read.

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    Nice one, Abdul…..i have had the good luck to have many anglo indians among my friends. All of them are cheerful and a joy to be around with. Truely wonderful people!

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    Great one Abdul, I remembered ‘Roger Binny’ a cricketer, an Anglo Indian played for team India for long time. Indian constitution mandates Anglo Indian should be part of our upper house, president appoints them directly.

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    Abdul, it is very educational. I lived in Mylapore until college but never had the opportunity to interact with that community. Thanks for the enlightenment. It makes me curious to learn more about them.

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    Thanks for sharing. I learnt from a Armeninan cab driver in Los Angeles, that is a community of Armenians in Chennai.
    Maybe a refernece to Armenian street in Parry’s Corner.

    Too bad we are not able to celebrate the cultural richness of our city better.!! 🙁

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    Nice post. Some pictures would have been nice too. tx

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    Abdul – This post brought back memories of my primary school teachers, most of whom were Anglo-Indian. I remembered my favorite teacher, Ms Bernice.

    Perhaps the mainstream cultures don’t intend to ignore the Anglo-Indians. I think most tiny communities with a distinct culture will struggle to be noticed. For, what is mainstream but a strength in numbers?

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    /** As a result of a lack of acceptance in mainstream Indian society and appropriate employment opportunities, there has been a mass migration of Anglo-Indians to places as far as Australia, Canada, England and the USA.

    I am interested to know if there is any substantiation for this claim, in terms of any specific incidence or events? And i think we need to clarify on what the mainstream society is, because, people here mostly live with in their community and that is their mainstream. Only at the professional level or at needs of public works, different communities interact. For example in our tiny village, every community conduct their own festival.

    So the mainstream that we are denoting here is an ambigous term. The mainstream of the western countries are NOT same as the mainstream of our country.

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    Also, i have some other though process over this term “Anglo – Indian”.

    In a typical indian society, patri lineal system is followed. That means, the wife gets the gothram of the husband and their children inherits their father’s gothram.

    In some places, matri lineal system is followed, where the children is identified with the mother’s community.. (eg: namboodris)

    So in either case, the children gets the identity of mostly the father’s community and in some cases the mother’s one.

    But the word anglo-indian is used in a racial tone.. that means, the children are neither indian nor the anglican, as it is a mixed one.. and this is the reason why they are being separated through the identity. We are adopting a racial approach to their community.

    On the other hand, If we have approached in the indian sense, either they will be anglican or will be an indian. (depending on who the father is). and there would be no racial identity crisis faced by them..

    This is an example i would like to point out the inherent flaw in our approach.. while being an indian, we neglect the non-racial indian approach, and in turn adopt the racial approach of the westerner.. and then we are often complaining about racism..

    And this proves another fact.. that indian society is NOT racial, but a communal one..

    PS: msg to “someone” .. i hope, i am not muttering here 🙂

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    Senthil – The namboodris follow the patrilineal system. It is the nairs who used to follow the matrilineal system.

    In my school in Salem, Tamil nadu, we had lot of teachers, office staff who were anglo indians.
    The teachers mostly taught elementary levels. But we had only a few students of Anglo indian origin.

    I remember reading a novel long time back about an anglo indian girl who becomes a world famous hollywood actress. It is called Queenie by Michael Korda. She succeeds because she has mostly caucasian features and she struggles to hide the indian part. The story is set in 1930 – 1940s. In that book the author states that the anglo indian community could not get along with the indian public because they thought they were superior when comapred to the Indians around them. At the same time they longed for acceptance from the English which was not very forth coming.

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    Thanks for pointing the mistake. However, it seems some group of namboodris also follow matrilineal system.. i got it from following link..

    The more and more we research on our cultural aspects it is very clear that the british legalised and formalised marriage, and that is the root cause of many of our social problems.. As a result of this universal standardisation, the devadasis were particularly affected, as this community became an illegal one.. In the same way, the matrilineal system seems to be consisted of PolyAndry where a women can choose any male and disown him at any time.. (as seen in the above link)..

    Although this is not related to this post, i just wanted to point out the root cause of our social problems..

  13. Quote

    There are many micro-minorities in India.. but why Anglo-Indians alone should be given special privilege and special representation in parliament? Despite the fact that they worked for Britishers and were part of the colonisers?

    To me this indicates two things..

    1. The Britishers did everything to take care of their race. And they secured a special privilege for the people born to them, in india.

    2. we instead of securing our own interest, find it fashionable to serve British interests, and eulogize it. This is another form of mental slavery. Have we ever cared about our own people’s welfare? Even now, we boast about giving special representation to anglo-indians, but ignoring the plight of jews, parsees, and other micro-minorities like Chidambaram Dikshithars etc.

    There is one more factor.. The anglo-Indians have the full freedom to organise themselves as a community, and get support from the government. But such freedom is NOT available to native castes, even though each caste have their own culture. There are anglo-Indian schools, approved and funded by the government.. But is any caste allowed to start a school for their community?

    If the same freedom would have been given, the brahmins would have established a school based on their cultural preferences, and the vyshyas on their trading skills, the vellalas might have established schools based on their farming profession and like that every caste could have shaped their educational institution based on their culture and profession.

    Such freedom is deprived and as a result, every caste is collapsing today, losing their culture, rituals and their social setup.. and the cruel fact is this is celebrated by the english educated people, whose heart could give a place to anglo-indians inspite of it being a racial school..

  14. Quote

    Nice Post Abdul. I also haven’t come across any Anglo Indians in my life. It’s a knowledgeable article and good to read.

  15. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar. The rough estimate of their current population in India is 2 lakhs, given the mass migration that has taken place out of the country.

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    Thanks Arunava for your kind words. My post was just echoing the music and dance that I felt among the Anglos that evening.

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    Great Arvind. Thanks. I am sure that they would be happy to hear what you have stated about them. This is what makes the Indian experience of diversity all the more richer, is it not?

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    Thank you very much Subba. My association with the Anglos tells me that they are not a people too keen on politics. Still, some people unreasonably grudge them the special representation which is a basic avenue for them to articulate their concerns in a growing democracy.

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    Thanks MD. If you are thinking Mylapore Anglos, then you would have found them in Santhome, Foreshore Estate and Royapettah. Elsewhere in Chennai, they are located in places such as St. Thomas Mount, Pallavaram, Perambur and so on. As stated in the post, the dwindling population has led to the reduced numbers of the community in these settlements.

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    Thanks Kumaran.

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    Thanks Kamesh. Good suggestion. Perhaps when pictures of community events are published on the web, one can send across the link to you.

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    Very right Priya. I found the evening nostalgic as well and hence decided to pen this post. Thank you very much.

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    Thanks a lot Sheela for your delightful comment and for sharing some very historical information. I shall try to look up Queenie by Michael Korda.

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    Cheers Sujoy. Thanks for visiting the blog.

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    Very nice post. I remembered my anglo-indian friends in the railway colony in Bitragunta. And teachers – my favorite teacher – Miss Dora Raj who is one of the best (and strictest) teachers ever seen.

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    G.Deepak said March 2, 2010, 9:45 am:

    Nice post Abdul!!!…Anglo Indians are always fun loving and broad minded people…nice people to move along…

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    Revathi said March 2, 2010, 3:14 pm:

    I grew up in a railway colony in Hyderabad, which is also popularly known as “little London”.

    All our KG and primary school teachers were mandatorily anglos, so that children could pick up English!

    I’ve attended weddings with their traditional ribbon dance among others.

    Thanks for bringing back those childhood memories…..

  28. Quote

    Thanks Vamsi. Given that the Anglos are dwindling in numbers everywhere in the country, looks like more than actually seen around the place these days, they would be more embedded in our collective/national memory.

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    Thanks Deepak. I am sure the Anglos would be glad to hear your perception of them.

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    Thanks Revathi. The London allegory must be referring to days of yore when they were associated with the British presence in the country. Now as mentioned in the post, they have travelled far and wide all over the world in search of jobs and homes for themselves.

    For those still remaining in the country, its very much the Indian way of life for them including some very interesting and lively taste and practice in music handed down from generation to generation which too if you come to think of it has a resonance with several of their other compatriots. One specific genre of music which you dont hear others listening to much which the Anglos do a lot is Western country music which has a special appeal in itself.

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    Made for a nice read and many nostalgic comments and some interesting observations by Senthil.

    Thanks Abdul.

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    Priya MN said March 18, 2010, 7:14 pm:

    Abdul – So good to read your blogs. I had lost the link to your blogs, until I stumbed into this page again.

    Dance, music and a fun-loving nature always marked the Anglo-Indian community. Unfortunatly, they were ignored in “Reservation Politics” and by “Vote Bank” politics. The only way out for them was to leave India. Sports, teaching and railways were their forte.

    Doveton, Purusawakkam, Royapuram were once filled with AIs.

  33. Quote

    Thanks Arun.

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    Thanks MN Priya for your kind words.

    Like Arun notes I think we are probably the last generation who might have this sense of nostalgia of having AI friends, living and moving about in the areas where they lived predominantly like you mention such as Doveton, Purusawakkam, Royapuram not to miss St. Thomas Mount, Royapettah, Santhome and so on.

  35. Quote
    Venugopalan, Krithika said March 24, 2010, 4:52 pm:

    Abdul – the way you have presented – it was so pleasant reading about Anglo-Indians! My LKG teacher Ms. Helen was an Anglo-Indian and she later moved to Australia. We used to have lots of fun and her way of teaching used to be very practical and innovative! I did not know much about the Anglo-Indian community. The facts you have given here and the way they celebrate the spirit of life with music, dance, gaeity and camaraderie after every big event are very interesting and brings their way of life right before our eyes! you have written this so very well!

    And those lines from the album ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – all this makes this post too good and a great read! Thoroughly enjoyed reading through this post! Thanks a lot!

  36. Quote

    Thank you very much for your kind words Krithika.

    I strongly believe that whatever capacity that we have to express and celebrate the diversity inherent in our soil is a God-given gift.

    The Anglo-Indian way of life is a testimony to their spirit that even in the midst of hardship they live with cheer.

    Among those of us who recalled our association with the Anglos, if you notice, most like yourself, it has been during our primary school or later school days.

    Saturday Night Fever is one of my all-time favourite albums and its nice to hear that you liked that quote.

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    On the question of diversity, the US had been the least tolerant of cultural diversity.. the below link gives various statistical datas..

    In the name of assimilation, the US banned all other languages till 1922.. this forced various immigrants forced to lose their root culture..

    The entire western nation is based on One God, One Religion, One book, One race, One Culture concept.. the western thought process is against diversity..

    and YET, we had seen so many here, eulogising US and West as epitome of freedom, when Roma Gypsies (Equivalent of Nari Koravars in tamilnadu) were till now persecuted..

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