The cherished traditions of the Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata are in full display this time of the year, making everyone fall in step
Bow-Barracks, one of the original hubs of the community, hosts the city’s most famous Christmas dance right on the streets
Kolkata has always done Christmas in style. Its quintessential Christmas is synonymous with the glittering lights of Park Street and shopping sprees in New Market, plum cakes and mince pies, and memories of the good ol’ days. But it is also defined by the city’s insatiable appetite for music and dance, which has been central to the Yuletide celebrations, perhaps from the days of the East India Company, when the governor general would throw dazzling Christmas balls for the cream of the Bengal Presidency. In detailed letters describing her experiences in India in the late 18th century, travel writer Eliza Fay describes how the Government House would host a public dinner for the gentlemen of the Presidency, and an elegant ball and supper for the ladies in the evening: “On Christmas 1780, the morning was ushered in with firing of guns; the Governor General gave a breakfast at the Court House, and a most sumptuous dinner at noon, several Royal salutes were fired from the grand battery at the Loll Diggy, every one of which was washed down with Lumba Pealahs of Loll Shrab; the evening concluded with a ball."
Articles published in Hicky’s Bengal Gazette talked about the lights and the excellent band that livened up the ball, and the manner in which the dinner and supper blended “all the profusion and variety of a Lord Mayor’s Feast, with the superb elegance of the Royal entertainments of St James’s". In his 2015 book Plain Tales From The Raj, Charles Allen writes about how the festivities of winter would peak in Christmas week, distinguished in Calcutta by the viceroy’s visit. “At Belvedere, the old Viceregal Lodge, there was always a fancy dress ball and a children’s party where Father Christmas entered on an elephant," he writes.
The empire is long gone, the celebrations have taken new forms, but balls and music take centre stage even today.
After the British, the Anglo-Indian community—primarily people of mixed British-Indian parentage—was at the heart of Christmas celebrations in the city. The Anglo-Indians have a reputation for ebullience, and a love for music and dance. Back in the day, an Anglo-Indian Christmas would mean night-long dances at clubs like The Grail Club and the Dalhousie Institute (DI)—two of the community’s favourite stomping grounds in the city. Alongside, there would be ginger wine and boozy Christmas pudding at house parties, midnight mass in one’s festive best and picnics at the zoo the day after Christmas.
Over the past few decades, the Anglo-Indian population has dwindled. More and more young Anglo-Indians have moved to countries like the UK and Australia, in search of a better life. The community’s stamp on Christmas celebrations has faded somewhat. But there’s one place that still serves up Christmas the Anglo-Indian way—Bow Barracks, one of the original hubs of the community. The cluster of red brick buildings with the trademark green fenestrations, originally built to house troops during World War I, has been home to Anglo-Indian families for generations. Come Christmas and this unassuming neighbourhood, easily overlooked any other time of the year, is transformed. Bow Barracks hosts the city’s most famous Christmas dance right on the street, under a canopy of fairy lights.
“Every year on 23 December, we host a musical night where many of the city’s best-known Anglo-Indian singers, musicians and bands perform, while people dance the evening away right here on the street. The ambience is electric," says Angela Govindraj, general secretary of the Bow Barracks residents’ welfare association, which organizes the fest. It’s an informal do. You will spot the odd couple engrossed in their extemporized salsa routine or a hipster in a mohawk, showing off hip hop moves in one corner. It’s just people having a rollicking time.
But the Bow dance, which used to be a more intimate affair, is no longer restricted to the Anglo-Indian community—everyone in the city wants a taste of Christmas at the Barracks. “The crowd starts trickling in from 5 o’clock in the evening and the party continues past midnight," says Govindraj. “Most Anglo-Indians living in the Barracks were people of modest means. They didn’t go to clubs and dances. Instead they came out on the street to meet and greet each other, share some cake and ginger wine, sing and dance out in the open," she adds. Nowadays, it’s an annual ritual for many in the city and a seasonal tourist attraction for visitors. With hundreds of people crammed into the narrow street, things can get a little overwhelming. But the organizers aren’t complaining. “It’s incredible how everyone, irrespective of the community they belong to, comes together to dance on the streets here at the Barracks," says Govindraj.
The scene is a little more formal at the Goan Association of Bengal’s annual Christmas ball, over a hundred years old, now hosted at The Calcutta Rangers Club. There’s dancing—attended by the city’s sizeable Goan population—with everything from hokeypokey, line dance and waltzes to jive, Mexican hustle and the birdie dance. “We also have a session dedicated to mando, a form of Goan folk music that is accompanied by traditional dance," says Leslie Francis D’Gama, a former president of the association. “Not one but two live bands used to play at the ball at one time, belting out rock ‘n’ roll favourites like Mustang Sally and Blue Suede Shoes."
Back in the day, Kolkata-based bands like The Amigos and The Minstrels were the favourites. “These were hundred per cent Goan bands, complete with saxophonists, double bass and trumpet players and a pianist," says D’Gama. “Nowadays there’s only one live band and a DJ to cater to the younger generation but rock ‘n’ roll still dominates."
Other changes have crept in too. For instance, there was a time when women of the association would cook traditional Goan dishes for the ball. “There would be everything from sorpotel and pork vindaloo to beef croquettes and neureos," recalls D’Gama. Today, local catering outfits serve up refreshments. However, the ball is still a highlight of the community’s festive calendar. “Visiting the homes of family and friends on Christmas is a cherished tradition. At the Goan Association Ball, you simply have to move from one table to another," says D’Gama.
The 160-year-old Dalhousie Institute, once predominantly an Anglo-Indian club, hosts a Christmas dance on Christmas Day, unlike most other clubs that host parties on the eve of Christmas. “Many of our members are Christians and attend the midnight mass on Christmas eve. It’s for their benefit that we host the dance on Christmas Day," says Tanya Robinson, member of the club council in charge of entertainment. “Many of the city’s most iconic music bands—from Hip Pockets and Shiva to Blue Mist and Barefoot—have performed at the DI Christmas Dance."
The highlight at DI, however, is perhaps the Carols Evening. “For weeks leading up to the Carols Evening, members of the club, old and young, work tirelessly to put together an evening of music, dance and drama," says Robinson.
“Everything, from writing scripts and directing the play to arranging music and choreographing the dance sequences, is done by members of the club," adds D’Gama, who is the junior vice-president at the DI. In fact, D’Gama co-wrote last year’s musical production, How Christmas Stole The Grinch, a take on the 1957 book How The Grinch Stole Christmas. “It was a seamless production," says D’Gama with a hint of pride before hurrying off for the evening’s rehearsals. Another musical, this year’s production is titled Christmas In A Backpack and will showcase Christmas traditions from around the world.
One element is missing now, though: Door-to-door carolling is no longer common. “However, on 22 December, groups of young carollers from some local churches still visit the homes of members of the congregation," says pastor Argho Biswas. English carols now mix with Bengali ones. For though Christmas in Kolkata was usually associated with the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community, the city has a sizeable Bengali Christian population. “While some of these carols and songs are mere translations, there is a growing number of original Bengali compositions that are becoming more and more popular," says Biswas. You may hear strains of Bara Din’er kirtan performed to the beats of khol and kartaal.
Music is also at the heart of the dazzling Kolkata Christmas Festival, the annual gala organized by the state tourism ministry along with the Christian community. Into its ninth edition this year, it has an eclectic mix of buskers, performances by orchestras and church choirs as well as popular home-grown singers and bands. Everyone from Usha Uthup, Kamran Khurshid and Christopher Lobo to Krosswindz and experimental indie pop band Grooverz has performed at the festival.