The 140-Year-Old Anglo-Indian Tradition

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The Boxing Day Ball is a 140-year-old tradition for Hyderabad's Anglo-Indians. What makes it a thriving annual event?

Hyderabad, 9 p.m.

Warren Latouche is keeping watch over the All India Anglo-Indian Association’s Boxing Day Ball. As president of the Hyderabad chapter, he has to make sure that members have a good time at the ball – which has a 140-year-old heritage. For the Anglo-Indian community, it’s a chance to be part of a celebration that dates back to a different era.

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The Anglo-Indian Ball was always a famous event and kept alive the tradition of ballroom dancing which they have had since inception. Family and friends returned from overseas to attend it although not everyone who attends is Anglo-Indian, but all are part of a tightly-knit community.

The Christmas Ball is more than just a fun party. Bradley Shope, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University, published an insightful article in 2004, looking at how ballroom music popular amongst Anglo-Indians in 1930’s Lucknow, helped give the community a sense of identity and respectability while keeping alive their own art of celebration.

Mix of Old and New

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Ancestry is key to their identity.Living with a mix of nostalgia and tradition, one can’t be an Anglo-Indian without having some patrilineal connection. Today, their numbers have reduced significantly – a combination of mixed-marriages and emigration.

The community hasn’t been included in the national census since 1941 – which numbered them around 140,000. It’s generally considered an under-estimate, though the thousands that left India following independence complicate the matter. Today, estimates range between there being 250,000-300,000 Anglo-Indians in the country today.

Although they can trace their roots to the early 17th century, with the arrival of the British in India, being mixed race has not been easy. As British officers married Indians, ‘Indo-Britons’ began to be seen as a security risk and they were not allowed to serve in the military. Until 1830, they were barred from owning land, or migrating ‘beyond East-India company stations’.

On the one hand, their fluency in English and shared ancestry made them employable in large numbers, most prominently in the services, railways and telegraphs. The Revolt of 1857 was a chance for them to prove their loyalty both to the British and to the rebels. Yet, they were killed by forces on either side. Though it is estimated that many died fighting on the British side, they were not included in British casualty counts. Stories of Anglo-Indians being killed for their loyalty to the British abound from this time, inspiring Ruskin Bond to write ‘A Flight of Pigeons.’

Following the mutiny, the community found greater representation in the railway and telegraph services – improving their economic and social ties with the British.

Independence, and Identities

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The switch to Indian independence saw thousands from the community migrate from India, from a fear that independent India would not be as friendly to the community. But the many who stayed did so out of a fervent desire to remain in India. They continued in the same line of work, though the system of reservation in the services ended with the British. The community had to diversify the jobs they took – and found a unique calling in sports, making their name as skilled Olympians.

In a 1920’s memoir of Bangalore, former Director General of Police Eric Stracey wrote about how hockey brought the Anglo-Indians into contact with other Indians. Between 1928-1956, India won six consecutive gold medals in hockey at the Olympics – with eight players out of eleven coming from the community in 1928.

A community that earlier was not known to embrace college education also began to make their mark in producing educators, with Anglo-Indian schools growing in popularity. Educators like Frank Anthony were key proponents of English-medium education – calling for the inclusion of English in the Eight Schedule of official languages, as the mother tongue of the community. English-medium Anglo-Indian schools grew in popularity over the years. However, as the price of admission went up, it became increasingly difficult for many Anglo-Indians to get into these schools.

“Some decades back, they were ashamed to be called Anglo-Indian, because of the poor light around it,” says Clive Thompson, a senior member of the association. But that has since changed, he adds. Today, the youth embrace higher education, corporate jobs and a hint of the offbeat career.

Cameron is a young motorcycle racer, in the 600cc category. Both his father and grandfather were racers as well, the latter having restored and built up some of India’s first imported motorcycles – the likes of Triumph and BSA. His parents weren’t too keen on him taking up racing in the beginning, which is why he also works at a major e-commerce firm.

The Last Ballroom Dances

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A much-mentioned fact is that they are the only community in India with ‘Indian’ in their name – a pre-emptive assertion of identity, that has grown more important to make in the current nationalist climate.

Today, they are proud of their heritage and the AIAIA ball is the gala event of the year for the community – a chance to celebrate a shared heritage that is fading by the year. Wine-making, once a key custom of the community during Christmas, was declared illegal by the state government in 2011. The ban only applies to selling it, however, and many continue to make some in their homes. Carol-singing and busking on the streets is on the decline too, though one can still catch performances at the midnight mass on Christmas eve.

Like last year, and the years before, the ball swung on till five in the morning. The turnout was good this year, and if the community represents anything today, it’s the spirit of warm acceptance, fun and keeping alive a jovial tradition.

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