Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

TIME OUT : May 2, 1999

Of badshahs, white sahibs and black natives

Seema Alavi

The modern day concept of leisure, as opposed to work, was articulated most clearly in 19th century Europe. As industrialisation began to earmark work time more clearly, leisure, i.e. when one took off from work, was also sharply defined in public discourse. Leisure hours became more action packed and entertainment full, as the secularisation of European society made the need to keep away from work for religious observances, like Sabbath, less attractive. Entertainment like dancing, drinking, games and sport had always engaged European aristocracy. But industrialisation made the concept of leisure accessible to all; it was no more the preserve of the high echelons of society. The age of mass spectator sports had arrived. But the "popularisation" of leisure also created regimes of social distinction. Class and gender were two important foci around which entertainment modes began to calcify. Games like polo and hunting were for the high class and others like dog races and cock fights for the lower classes. Also there was "feminine" entertainment like hosting balls, singing and music, sketching for women, while men were into more "masculine" jaunts like going on hunts, drinking and racing.

These significant developments in 19th century Europe shaped the British concept of leisure in India. Colonial leisure tradition evolved keeping a sensitive finger on the political pulse of colonial masters, even as it derived and improvised upon the Indian forms of entertainment and relaxation popularised by the Mughal rulers. Indeed the colonial context added the distinction of civil and military leisure forms; and finally by the end of the 19th century, modes of leisure and its spatial boundaries had been neatly divided along racial lines as well: entertainment for the "white sahibs" and those for the "black natives".

In the Mughal empire, leisure was a luxury confined to the pleasures of the aristocracy. High cuisine and wine, garden parties, game hunting (shikar), animal fights, pigeon flying (Ishqbazi), archery and horse riding constituted imperial entertainment. According to Abul Fazl the court historian of Emperor Akbar, the Mughal ruler had three favourite amusements in which he excelled: the game of Chaugan (a kind of hockey with the player on horseback), Ishqbazi or love play (a game of pigeon flying) and the game of chandal mandal which was like chaupar and had been invented by the Emperor himself. Hunting for game was also an important recreational outing for Akbar. But as Abul Fazl reminds us there was more to it than mere pleasure: "His Majesty always makes hunting a means of increasing his knowledge and uses hunting parties as occasions to inquire into the condition of the people and army." Akbar's hunting parties were elaborate and headed by the Mir Shikar (Master of hunting). The Emperor's favourites being tiger hunting, leopard hunting and elephant catching.

Shah Jahan at a hunt

But it was Emperor Jehangir who through his master strokes of bow and arrow perfected the sport. Advance teams were sent to collect game for the Emperor who then revelled in shooting pigs, deer and red and white antelopes (chikara). Even though hunting was a preserve of men, women of the imperial household often accompanied the hunting teams. An ecstatic Jehangir after the success of his hunt near Rohtas notes in his memoirs, "I had taken with me to this hunt those who were screened by curtains of honour (members of the zennanah). The hunt was a good one and came off with great eclat, 200 red and white antelopes were killed. On the 25th another hunt took place in the neighbourhood of Rohtas. In this also my sisters and other women were with me and nearly 100 red deer were killed." Jehangir too, like Akbar, added a touch of philanthropy to his hunts - distributing the kill as food to the poor. As he notes, "I killed a tigress with a gun - after a few days a nilgaw (blue bull) was killed, of which I ordered them to take off the skin in my presence and cook it as food for poor. Over 200 people assembled and ate it and I gave money with my own hand to each of them."

In the Mughal Empire, leisure had become an imperial preserve. Feasts, sport, games, food and drinks consumed were at best social signifiers. Not only did the Mughals define themselves by monopolising these forms of entertainment, but they also classified other cultures on the civilisation scale on the basis of observed transgressions of imperial cultural watersheds. Thus Jehangir experienced his amazed reaction when some Burmese or Mongkhmer visitors arrived at the imperial capital in 1613. He wrote in his Memoir, "They eat everything there is, either on land or in the sea, and nothing is forbidden by their religion. They eat with everyone - they are far from the Musulman's faith and separated from that of the Hindus."

The Mughals set the tone of imperial aristocratic entertainment. Its rippler effect into the elite European trading settlements on the coastal areas of the Empire was soon evident. Particularly influenced by Mughal entertainment norms were the Englishmen settled in Madras (Fort St. George), Calcutta (Fort William), Surat and Bombay where they had been granted imperial permission for setting up trading factories.

Lady Impey supervising her household

Here, Mughal sports like archery, shooting, riding, coursing were adopted since climate and resources did not permit more vigorous sport like racing and hunting. Junior English factors took to billiards and gambling as their favourite pastime. But it was in the food and cuisine aspect of relaxation that the identification with Mughal ethics was complete. In the 17th century English enclaves, elaborate dinners were an important element of leisure. Rev. T. Ovington who visited Surat between 1689 and 1696 was struck by the opulence and variety of food served to the English factors. A Portuguese and Indian cook were maintained and the choicest meats were eaten and Persian and European wines, English beer, arrack and punch were "drunk with temperance and alacrity."

In Calcutta, observers noted that the company servants now had 15 courses for both dinner and supper instead of their former diet of milk, fish and rice for supper. Also in Surat the English were most influenced by the Mughal custom of relaxing in "gardens, 'neath which rivers flow, with the help of arrack, punch and Shiraz wine."

The cultural interphase between the Mughal and English leisure forms underwent a significant change after the British conquest of Bengal in the middle of the 18th century. In this period of cautious yet "aggressive imperialism" British orientalist administrators like Warren Hastings sank their feet deep into Indian society. At one level, the British leisure routine mirrored more than before, Mughal imperial entertainment even as the latter were improvised to colonial political advantage. From the Indian artistocrats and gentry with their wealth and ostentation the British acquired the tastes and habits which shaped them into the "Nabobs" (oriental princes) of late 18th century England. Thus even though the increasing European influence checked the Indianisation of the drinking and feasting culture of the English, other Indian forms of amusement were adopted with relish: Indian nautch (dance), hookah, zennanah and animal fights. By the 1780s "nautch" became the recognised form of entertainment for an Indian merchant to provide for his English guests. These forms coexisted with English recreations like balls and dancing which picked up in this period once a sufficient number of women arrived from England.

However, the increasing presence of British women in India also initiated the gendering of leisure. Women were conspicuous by their absence at drinking parties - these remained the domain of the male. Very rarely did the women accompany the men on hunting expeditions. They generally stayed at home and directed the household of native servants, went out in the evenings on carriage trots, only to come back to a game of cards and music. A delightful painting of the 1780s shows Lady Impey, wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal and the earliest British patron of Indian artists, directing her household of servants. For a slightly later period Fanny Eden, sister of Lord Auckland - the Governor General in 1835 - recorded her sense of exhilaration on being invited on a rare occasion by her nephew to accompany him on a tiger shooting expedition. These stray excitements apart, both she and her sister Emily reveal in their journals a sense of boredom at merely hosting official functions where they ended up, "shaking hands and making conversation with scores of officials, while their wives stared at their gowns." Fanny in her letter to a close friend laments that, "there are moments when a feeling of desperation comes over me to think that I must dream this dream so distinct from all my past life, of five years, but I mean to make the most of it."


By the early 19th century as colonialism dug its roots deeper into Indian society and relied on large military establishments, a subtle distinction between leisure norms and spaces for the military and that for the civilians also began to surface. Thus racing and gaming emerged as exclusive military sports in the cantonments. Shooting and hunting were also indulged in by the marching armies. Many times Indian princes organised elaborate shoots for their European guests. At the same time hill stations like Shimla were developed as exclusive holiday resorts for the coveted civil servants of the Empire. Modelled on the pattern of English towns, these hill resorts were beyond the reach of even the average non-official Englishman.

By the middle of the 19th century due to evangelical pressures and the rubbing of Victorian ideas of race and morality on British enclaves, the colonial attitude towards India underwent critical changes. As the English population grew in number and became more gender balanced, British colonalism intruded administratively into new public and private spheres but retreated culturally from indigenous recreational arenas where it had been active. In this period of cautious retreat into the exclusive and invincible colonial ghettos - the barricaded cantonment and civil lines, the picturesque hill resorts of Shimla and Mussorie - Britishers not only demarcated clearly their leisure spaces and forms from those of the vanquished "colonised," but also identified these divisions in racial terms.

Thus, for instance, Shimla provided an escape not only from heat but also from the native culture of the plains: its atmosphere was that of an oversized English club. No Indians were allowed on the mall except for some hours at night. The mall became a premier promenading area. Durga Das, a noted journalist and editor in Shimla, observed: "The mall was a special European preserve. No load carrying porter was permitted to use it, nor any ill dressed Indian either - the rule was relaxed at night when middle class Indians strolled along the mall, gazing alarmingly at the show windows of European shops." Again, Annandale, a flat semi-circular amphitheatre emerged as a play and recreation ground for the British population in Shimla. It became the site for countless balls, dinners, picnics, flower shows, hack races and even rickshaw races. By the beginning of the 20th century the ground had been enlarged and it was possible to hold gymkhanas, polo, cricket and football matches here. As exclusive, British elan resorts like Shimla proliferated, the complex relationship between the Indian and British leisure spaces receded into oblivion. Even in leisure the British were now increasingly obsessed by only one social distinction; the superior white sahib and the inferior black native.

Table of Contents

The Hindu | Business Line | Frontline | The Sportstar | Home

Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.

Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.