Horse shows and tea dances: Remembering the once lazy capital

New Delhi : The 21st century metropolis of Delhi is kind of ruthless, clockwork and committed to the cause of furthering a new India. Its professional soul is a far cry from the lazy days of the early 20th century when the city lived in its horse shows, grand balls, jazz parties, nightclubs and tea rooms, says an Australia-based Indian writer and researcher.

Nayantara Pothen, who lives in Sydney, has documented the lifestyle of early 20th century Delhi in her debut non-fiction, “Glittering Delhi: New Delhi in Love and War” (Penguin India) to mark 100 years of the capital.

“The lifestyle of Delhi in the 19th century and early 20th century (till the 1930s) was hierarchical. Relationships between Indians and the British were kept separate. In the middle of the 20th century, friendships between the British and Indians flourished with the breaking down of walls between the whites and the natives,” Pothen said .

The British, “who were coming out in the 20th century from England were socialists and were interested in equality”, the writer said.

“They did didn’t believe in the British empire the way the 19th century ‘sahibs’ did. There were more intermingling and some good friendships continued even after independence. One such example is friendship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten. Even Khushwant Singh maintained his friendships with the British after independence,” Pothen said.

Pothen’s chronicle brings alive the capital’s social life between 1931 and 1952.

The new capital was inaugurated in 1931, 16 years before independence. The decade following the unveiling of the capital was one of transition – from the colonial to chaos and then the post-colonial, shaken by the struggle for freedom.

Some of the biggest events on the social calendar were the Delhi Horse Show week in February which ended with the coveted Viceroy’s Ball.

Once the magic of the horse show wore off in the 1930s, the residents of Delhi – which also included a sprinkling of Americans – warmed up to the idea of midnight dances. Golf and tennis were popular sports of government officers and society crowd.

“You had restaurants like Venger’s in Connaught Place which hosted tea dances with jazz bands. People went there in the late afternoon…The guest lists were usually mixed and by the 1940s, the native Indians and British were found sitting and dancing together,” the writer said.

It was a funny situation in the 1940s, Pothen said.

“The hierarchical clubs like the Gymkhana Club opened doors to token Indian members to come in but with their wives…Many of the older Indian women were not comfortable with ballroom dancing. After 1947, the Punjabis began to come to Delhi and the club started to change,” Pothen said.

“The (Punjabi) men with long hair had to wear bathing caps…and Indian members had to present their social and financial credentials,” the writer said.

Inter-marriages were few and most of the mixed couples were found in the clubs during the 1930s and 1940s.

“The Indian families, where mixed weddings took place, were quite Westernised. The British men complained that the Indian families, despite their proximity to the colonial lot, were not modern but were very politically evolved…,” Pothen said.

The writer, who was born to a Malayali father and a north Indian mother from Dehradun, was inspired to write the book after she stumbled upon a photograph of her grandmother – glamorously attired – at a nightclub.

“I saw the photograph…and I thought what was this lovely Punjabi woman usually dressed in ‘salwar-kameez’ doing in a nightclub. I thought there is a story here. I went to the National Archives, Teen Murti Bhavan and London looking for papers, history and resource,” Pothen said.

In Delhi, the colonial legacy still remains. “It is something people grapple with and struggle with and deal with. I think colonialism gave India some tools for independence. The English language does in a way pull all corners of India,” she said.

The writer is currently working on the history of “diplomatic ties between India and Australia in 1940”.

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