Open main menu
 

CHAPTER VI

SOCIAL LIFE

Social manners and customs—Servants—Food—Wines—Hookahs—Carriages—Government House festivities—Rejoicings after Seringapatam—Clive's "bill" for earlier rejoicings, 1766—Court House gaieties—Balls.

SCATTERED up and down the pages of books of travel, and in the early numbers of the Calcutta Review, that delightful mine of information on Indian subjects both grave and gay, may be found pictures of English society in Calcutta from the earliest years of the settlement,—pictures which are curiously alike in their general outlines much as the details may vary, for all emphasize as characteristic the display of wealth, the craving for amusement, the enjoyment of the pleasures of the table, side by side with the courageous endurance of physical ills, the calm facing of Death in his most terrible aspects, the quiet prosecution of good works, from the "pious charity" which reared the first English Church of St Anne and founded the Charity School, to the distribution of rice on Surman's (Kidderpore) Bridge to the starving poor in years of famine. To the hospitality and generosity of Anglo-Indian society there is no lack of testimony. Lord Valentia, who was in Calcutta in 1803, and who subsequently published an account of his travels in the East, wrote:—


"I can truly affirm that my Eastern countrymen are hospitable in the highest degree, and that their generosity is unbounded. The hearts of the British in this country seem expanded with affluence, they do everything on a princely scale."


Again we read, in Forbes's "Oriental Memoirs":—


"The character of the English in India is an honour to their country. In private life they are generous, kind, and hospitable; as husbands, fathers, masters, they cannot easily be excelled; whilst friendship, illustrated in its more general sense by unostentatious acts of humanity and benevolence, shines in India with conspicuous lustre. How often have the sons and daughters of misfortune experienced the blessed effects of Oriental benevolence! How often have the ruined merchant, the disconsolate widow, and the helpless orphan been relieved by the delicate and silent subscription, amounting in a few hours to several thousand pounds, without the child of sorrow knowing its benefactors!"

If the benevolence thus lauded was on a "princely scale," so also was the lavish hospitality—the balls, dinners, and breakfasts, when astonishing quantities of food and wine loaded the tables, and were consumed with appetite and zest. We have seen how in Captain Hamilton's time, in 1720, "the inhabitants of Calcutta" enjoyed a variety of fruit and fish and "all sorts of provisions both wild and tame." Sixty years later, Mrs. Fay, in one of her letters, discussed food supplies and prices, and gave a humorous picture of herself and her husband awaiting dinner. She wrote—

"We were frequently told in England, you know, that the heat in Bengal destroyed the appetite. I must own that I never yet saw any proof of that: on the contrary, I cannot help thinking that I never saw an equal quantity of victuals consumed. We dine, too, at two o'clock, in the very heat of the day. At this moment Mr. F. is looking out with a hawk's eye for his dinner, and, though still much of an invalid, I have no doubt of being able to pick a bit myself. I will give you our bill of fare, and the general prices of things: A soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a forequarter of lamb, a rice pudding, tarts, very good cheese, fresh churned butter, fine bread, excellent Madeira (that is expensive, but eatables are very cheap). A whole sheep costs but two rupees, a lamb one rupee, six good fowls or ducks ditto, twelve pigeons ditto, twelve pounds of bread ditto, two pounds of butter ditto, and a joint of veal ditto."

In another letter, Mrs. Fay speaks of the highly spiced and seasoned dishes which were served at Calcutta tables, and describes particularly "Burdwan stew," a sort of "Hot-pot" in which fish, flesh, and fowl combined with unlimited seasoning, the whole prepared in a silver saucepan, resulted in the most appetizing of dishes. At this period, when dinner was at two o'clock, supper at ten o'clock was the next meal. Some years later, evening dinners between seven and eight o'clock were introduced; but as the midday meal was still retained under the name of tiffin, it is not surprising to find complaints of flagging appetite.

"Calcutta dinners are but a languid sort of things," wrote a visitor about 1805, "you have stomach perhaps to pick the bone of a floriken, or may get through a fine delicious snipe, but you cannot grapple with a slice of beef or of Bengal mutton. The tiffin, a meal at two o'clock, defrauds the dinner of its homage due. But the luxury of the first glass of cool claret (loll shraub) that salutes your lips! Skilfully refrigerated, it is a celestial draught. The icy nectar courses down the whole system with the rapidity of lightning: the spirits are set free as from the torpor of enchantment, and the whole being undergoes a refreshing transformation."

The question of drinks has naturally always been one of first importance to Anglo-Indians, and claret stood first favourite though it had many rivals in public favour. But whatever the wine, it was essential it should be cold: this was effected by the use of saltpetre and Glauber's salts; and a special wine cooler, or abdar, was retained in every household, whose sole duty it was to keep the day's supply of "drinks" at the required temperature. Curiously enough, the earliest Anglo-Indians, the factors of Surat of the seventeenth century, favoured hot drinks rather than cold, and are said by Talboys Wheeler to have been the inventors of "punch," the name being corrupted from the Hindustani panch, five, derived from the five ingredients, spirits, lemon-juice, spices, sugar, and water, and he quotes Albert de Mandelslo, an early traveller, who visited Surat in 1638, who described it as—

"palepuntz, which is a kind of drink consisting of aqua vitæ, rose-water, juice of citrons, and sugar, of which some took more than they could well carry away. At our ordinary meeting every day we took only thé, which is commonly used all over India, not only among those of the country, but also among the Dutch and English, who take it as a drug that cleanses the stomach, and digests the superfluous humours by a temperate heart particular thereto."

This appreciation of tea is interesting from its early date, 1638, as tea did not reach England till 1650, and it was not till some years later, when the East India Company had presented King Charles II. with a gift of two pounds of tea, that it began to be better known, and to be drunk in fashionable circles. Another hot drink which the earlier factors favoured was "burnt wine," made by boiling wine with spices, which was drunk in the morning, as hot as could be sipped, to "comfort the stomach."

The difficulty and expense of importing European wines and brandy led to the use of the native spirit arrack, which was the cause of an immense deal of drunkenness and terrible mortality, especially among the young writers and soldiers. The high prices of wine, which varied considerably according to the quantity in the market, were no bar however to the wealthy members of society, and it was usual for a man to take his three bottles of claret after dinner daily, besides the Madeira which he consumed during the meal, and for a lady to drink one bottle of wine a day. Much of this wine had to be taken perforce, as it were, in honouring the many toasts which it was customary to propose; at public dinners, tiffins, and breakfasts there were never less than ten, and often over twenty-five toasts on the lists. At private tables etiquette required that the host and hostess should take wine with each guest, and every guest should do the same with each one present; and when all toasts and healths had been duly honoured, there would still be a few "sentiments" left to wind up with.

It is not a little surprising that people should have had the spirit and strength to be so sociable and convivial, when we remember that the houses in which they lived, in spite of spacious and lofty rooms and wide gardens, were sadly lacking in much that is deemed indispensable by Anglo-Indians of the present day to ameliorate the conditions of the climate. When Lord Teignmouth first arrived in Bengal, in 1769, he described Calcutta as consisting of houses "not two or three of which were furnished with venetian blinds or glass windows, solid shutters being generally used, and rattans like those used for the bottoms of chairs, in lieu of panes, whilst little provision was made against the heat of the climate." We may conclude that Hastings House, more than ten years later, was without glazed windows, since Mrs. Fay was unable to see what the gardens were like, the house being "hermetically closed" against the heat. Even in dress very little concession was made to the climate: the men wore white jackets and, even sometimes in later years, white trousers, as dinner dress in place of black broadcloth; but wigs and powdered hair were worn by all, and men swathed their throats with voluminous neckcloths, and ladies crowned their elaborate coiffure with heavy turbans to attend a crowded reception, or to dance till daybreak at a ball, even in the sultry month of May.

Dancing was always a favourite amusement in Calcutta, and the ladies being in the minority did their best to redress the balance by each dancing as many dances as she could possibly crowd into one night. One writer described Calcutta ladies as dancing from nine in the
Calcutta, Past and Present p114.png

THE COUNCIL HOUSE AND ESPLANADE, 1792.

[Face p. 114.

evening till five o'clock in the morning; and Lord Valentia, who took everything very seriously, wrote—

"Consumptions are very frequent among the ladies, which I attribute in a great measure to their incessant dancing, even during the hottest weather. After such violent exercise they go into the verandahs, and expose themselves to a cool breeze and damp atmosphere."

Much of this dancing took place in the Old Court House, which for over thirty years was the scene of most of the public entertainments, and assembly balls. Towards the close of the century the old house became unsafe; society, too, had begun to break up into classes, and subscription assemblies went out of fashion. Entertainments of every kind were transferred to private houses, and hosts, led by the Governor-General in his new and splendid Government House, gave weekly receptions, besides large dinner-parties, balls, and fêtes.

The eventful years at the close of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century gave many opportunities for entertainments, and other displays of rejoicing, either for victories obtained in war, or for the return of peace, or the celebration of some important treaty. A curious document in connection with one of these occasions is "Lord Clive's bill of 1st January, 1766," which was passed and paid in the Proceedings of the Calcutta Board in February of the same year. Clive had concluded a treaty with Shuja-ul-Dowlah, Nawab Vizier of Oude, by which the East India Company obtained the Dewanny of the three provinces of Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, and his bill of expenses ran as follows:—

Charges for building and fitting up an assembly house with furniture for celebrating the late peace concluded with Shuja-ul-Dowlah
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
Rs.
4,853
Pies.
3
An.
7
Expense of feeding wild beasts and making a place for them to fight in
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
384
3
14
Charges paid for fireworks on this occasion
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
12,179
0
8
Sundry presents to the keepers of the wild beasts, etc.
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
2,426
3
15
Expenses of three public entertainments
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
3,927
6
2
Paid for liquors
•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •          •
5,451
0
9
 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
——————————
 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
29,223
3
8

This celebration took place in Oude, and had more of the character of native rejoicings. In Calcutta "wild beasts" formed no part of any of the entertainments, in which, however, fireworks were generally introduced as a show which could be enjoyed by the populace at large. The Calcutta Gazette of January, 1803, gave a detailed account of the elaborate illuminations and fireworks which formed part of a grand fête, the first public entertainment held in Government House, which was given by Lord Wellesley in honour of "the Peace." The evening opened with a ball, at which there were present some eight hundred guests, including the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the members of Council, several natives of rank and position, the Danish Governor of Serampore, and Lord Valentia, who had only landed in Calcutta the same day after a voyage of seven months from England. Lord Wellesley, who was at the time residing in "the Treasury" pending the completion of Government House, dined with the town major, Major Calcraft, in the Fort, from where he drove to the "new Government House" about ten o'clock. Soon after he entered the ballroom, dancing commenced, and continued till twelve o'clock, when the company proceeded to supper in the marble hall, where six ranges of tables "were covered with a profusion of every delicacy," says the chronicler of the Calcutta Gazette, "and were ornamented in a style of superior taste and magnificence." We can form some idea of these table decorations when we read—

"The most remarkable objects were a galley bringing the intelligence of the Peace: a frigate decorated with colours: some curious Egyptian obelisks covered with hieroglyphics, and a temple emblematical of the Peace, and of the gallant exploits of our Naval and Military Commanders during the late war. The temple consisted of eight Corinthian pillars supporting four pediments, the whole crowned by a light dome. The pediments were ornamented with paintings of the action off Cape St. Vincent, 14th February, 1798; the Battle of the Nile, 1st August, 1798; the storming of Seringapatam, 4th May, 1799; and the landing of the British Army in Egypt on the 8th of March, 1801; while the friezes bore appropriate mottoes with the names of distinguished soldiers, sailors, and statesmen."

From supper the company were summoned by the discharge of a rocket at one o'clock, to view the illuminations and fireworks, "which were executed by artificers sent to Calcutta for the purpose from Lucknow and Murshedabad." Lord Valentia wrote rather disparagingly of the illuminations: "The populace stole much of the oil, and as it was impossible to light so great a range at one time the effect was inferior to what it ought to have been," but the rockets which were discharged from mortars on the Fort ramparts he considered superior to any he had ever beheld. The Calcutta Gazette account, however, had nothing but praise for all, and dwelt with evident enjoyment on every detail. It thus describes the elaborate display:—

"Opposite the southern front of the Government House was an illuminated façade, forty feet high, extending three hundred and fifty feet on each side of a temple dedicated to Peace, in the lower part of which was a transparent painting, fifteen feet square, 'Britannia destroying the implements of War, and receiving the olive branch from Peace.' On one side the temple of Janus shut: on the other the ocean, ships sailing, etc. The Royal Arms were displayed in the pediment. A range of double pilastres of the Doric order led to the temples of Fame and Valour, in the intervals of which portraits of eminent statemen, and highly distinguished officers were displayed. From the temples of Valour and Fame a chain of illuminations, rising in pyramidical forms thirty-six feet in height, was continued to the Dhurrumtolla on the left, and to Chandpaul Ghaut on the right. Opposite to each wing of the Government House were three lofty and illuminated arches (the arch in the centre rising sixty feet), crowned with appropriate ornaments."

On the east front of Government House a transparency represented a battle, "Lake," in a wreath of laurel, on the top. On the west front another transparency showed a view of Seringapatam, with portraits of Generals Harris and Baird, and appropriate emblems; and on the northern front was a transparency forty feet high —"Britannia supporting the world to which she has restored Peace." Arabesque scrolls of light connected the whole in one continued illumination, comprehending an extent of near three miles.

Among the most remarkable objects in the fireworks were four figures of fire representing the fight of elephants, admirably conducted, and an ingenious device of a globe, which, after discharging fire for some time, opened, and discovered a transparency in Persian characters to the following effect: "May your Prosperity be perpetual."

This grand ball, the first of the long series of splendid entertainments which Government House has seen since that day, was followed a few months later by a public breakfast, on the anniversary of the fall of Seringapatam, the 4th of May. The company assembled at half-past eight o'clock, and were conducted to the breakfast tables prepared in the centre and south rooms of the marble floor, the columns of which were beautifully ornamented with a variety of flowers corresponding with the ornaments of the tables, which were also decorated with various emblems in the form of columns, temples, and trophies, "commemorating the principal political and military events which contributed to the fall of the hostile power of Mysore, and to the final restoration of peace in India." The breakfast was followed by a levee from half-past nine to half-past ten o'clock.

Another grand entertainment, which took place in this same month of May, 1803, was a concert, ball, and supper given by the gentlemen of the settlement to the Marquis of Wellesley, "to commemorate the various brilliant events of His Excellency's Administration," which took place in the "New College." This building stood on the south side of Dalhousie Square, and was known to many generations of Calcutta citizens as the "Exchange;" it was rented by Lord Wellesley when he planned his splendid scheme for the Wellesley College, as a temporary home for the college till a suitable building could be erected at Garden Reach. To the deep mortification of the Governor-General, the Court of Directors peremptorily refused to sanction his proposal, but this was not till a twelve-month after it had been put forward, and "the Exchange" continued for some time to be known by the name of the New College.

The entertainment, as befitted the gentlemen of the settlement and their distinguished guest, was on the most lavish scale. We read of ceilings and columns beautifully decorated with artificial flowers, numerous large mirrors which reflected the brilliant lights of a beautiful display of lustres and girandoles, a superb canopy containing a splendid punkah over a gilt chair of state for the reception of His Excellency, a grand orchestra; and everywhere on ceilings, walls, columns, orchestra, and standards blazed the star and the tiger-stripe of Tippoo Sultan in commemoration of the Conquest of Mysore. The allusion was repeated in the rose-coloured sashes and bandeaux of the four hundred servants in attendance, and even appeared in the rich dresses of the ladies. One of these is thus described:—

"The dress was white muslin of gold spangles, and richly embroidered round the bottom of the gown and sleeves with a border composed of the tiger-stripe and star alternate in purple and gold: this device was copied from the colours of Tippoo Sultan taken at Seringapatam. The head-dress was a white spangled turban, with ornaments similar to the border of the gown, and decorated with a plume of white feathers."

This striking dress was apparently worn by several ladies, possibly those who took part in the concert, in which there appears to have been only one soloist, a Mr. Du Sart, who sang some complimentary stanzas in French, and "a grand song in honour of the capture of Seringapatam, the words of which were composed on the occasion by an amateur of this settlement." No other names are given in the account in the Calcutta Gazette, but—

"two glees, and the charming duett of 'Piche Cornahie' excited general applause, and the concert was concluded by the March in 'Judas Maccabæus,' and Handel's celebrated and (on this occasion) appropriate chorus of—

'Sing unto God, and high affections raise
To crown this conquest with unmeasured praise.'

which was performed by the boys belonging to the church, and by all the amateurs of Calcutta, and was deservedly encored."

At a time when it took a full year to obtain any article from England, and shops were not, it must have been a difficult problem for the members of this gay society to keep a wardrobe supplied. In those days, too, a man's dress was as elaborate an affair as a lady's, and required lace and ruffles, ribbon and powder, buckles and brooches, to say nothing of "black and white hats, thunder and lightning coats, stockings of seven colours, and tamboured waistcoats bedaubed with flowers," so that it was surely a triumph of foresight and taste as well as wealth that there appears to have been no lack of rich toilettes; and no account of ball or masquerade, dinner or breakfast, or other entertainment seems to have been complete without a more or less detailed reference to the dresses of the ladies and their cavaliers. The demand for wearing apparel soon created a source of supply; enterprising stewards and stewardesses of the ships, and even the captains themselves, took to bringing out "investments" of clothing and household goods. The arrival and date of sale of these investments were notified to all residents, at first by a messenger who carried the notice from house to house, in later days by an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette, which brought fashionable society flocking to the sale-room. One of these advertisements is a fair sample of all:—


"Thursday, July 15, 1784. Fresh Europe goods for sale. Messrs. Baxter and Ord most respectfully beg leave to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen they have purchased the investment of Captain Johnson of the Berrington, consisting of the following elegant assortment of goods, which are of the latest fashions, and the highest perfection, having, left England so late as February last."


The list which follows begins with an elegant assortment of millinery and "Piano-Fortes with organs underneath and Flute stops," and ranges from mahogany furniture, wines, ale, cheese, pickles, and herrings, ladies hats with feathers, gentlemen's ditto, and children's ditto, boots and shoes, fancy cloths, doe breeches, and gloves, to vinegar, oil, and mustard, guns and telescopes, books and "perambulators," spectacles and speaking-trumpets. This varied assortment of goods were to be sold at low prices, with a deduction of ten per cent, for cash paid on delivery, and eight per cent, for all bills paid at the end of the month.

As this trade became established, other and more ambitious rivals entered the field. Mrs. Fay, as we have seen, opened a shop in 1785, and imported two young ladies to assist her in it; and many others came and went several times between London and Calcutta with their investments, a speculation of no little enterprise, considering that the voyage each way occupied six months, and was liable to risks of shipwreck, piracy, and foreign capture. Mrs. Fay herself, when on her first voyage to Bengal, was with her husband made prisoner by Hyder Ali, and only reached Calcutta after suffering many hardships. When Sir Elijah Impey left India in 1783 with his wife and children, his ship, the Worcester, sprang a leak, the captain died, and the vessel narrowly escaped being wrecked on St. Helena, where the party landed, and paid one thousand pounds for a passage in the Dutton for the remainder of their journey. Those were the days when the captains of homeward-bound Indiamen demanded, and received, eight thousand rupees, or one thousand pounds for the passage of a single person, and fifteen hundred pounds for a married couple.

Divided from the home country by such tremendous obstacles, India was literally a land of exile to the Englishmen and women who dwelt there, and they seem to have done their best to gild their cage, and to compensate themselves for the loss of Western comfort, by indulgence in Eastern splendour. A curious old Anglo-Indian novel, called "The Baboo," gave a description of the forms and ceremonies surrounding the domestic life of a high official and his wife in Calcutta, in the early years of the nineteenth century. A typical scene presented the lady descending from her room in the studied negligé of a fashionable morning toilette, and passing to the breakfast table through the marshalled ranks of her retinue of servants all bowing low as she passed. These
Calcutta, Past and Present p126.png

CHOWRINGHEE FROM THE MAIDAN, 1792.

[Face p. 126.

numerous servants were a striking feature in Anglo-Indian life, as they are to this day, although their numbers have dwindled considerably. An establishment of the old days, besides a complement of table servants, bearers, cook and cook's mates, included such dignitaries as a chobdar, or mace-bearer (silver stick in waiting), whose duty it was to marshal the procession when his master took his walks abroad or rode in his palanquin. Even when carriages had superseded palanquins, this functionary remained an ornamental appendage to every household of consequence. Then there were the jemadar and his peons or chupprassies, who formed a body-guard; the palkee-bearers, who cost thirty rupees a month; the mussalchees, now degenerated to a race of scullions, but once, as their name denotes, torch-bearers, who ran swiftly, "at the rate of full eight miles an hour," with blazing torches before their masters' carriages, to light them safely on their way. Still other servants were the barber, whose services received the modest pay of two to four rupees, and the hairdresser, whose artistic skill was recognized in a salary of sixteen rupees a month; the abdar, who cooled the wines; the hookabardar, who had sole charge of the master's, and very often the mistress's, hookah—the Indian pipe, which no other hand than his might touch. Very skilfully did the hookabardar prepare the rich, soft, brown mass of tobacco, in which were cunningly mingled fragrant spices, luscious treacle—rich, and pure from the cane presses,—and cool rose-water. When the master dined abroad, his hookabardar accompanied him with the precious hooka, the khansamah came to wait on him at table, and the bearer, carrying a cool, white jacket, to replace the regulation broadcloth in which the guest must present himself to his host. Dinner over, and the wine on the table, the hookabardars would file in, each to lay beside his master's chair a small square of carpet, on which the hookah stood in all its bravery of chased silver stand and cover, with graceful drooping silver chains, and long bright silken snake which carried forward to the smoker's hand the handsome silver mouth-piece delicately scented with rose-water. Then would rise the fragrant smoke from the glowing discs of prepared charcoal, the soft gurgling of the water filled the pauses in the conversation, and Nicotine in fairest form held soothing sway.