“If the British Empire was created in an uncoordinated and ad-hoc manner, even in fits of absent-mindedness, it is equally true that it was dissolved in the same way. The disintegration of empire sometimes led to tragic consequences on a vast scale, most notably when the post-war Labour administration hastily sliced up and abandoned the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The resulting orgy of sectarian slaughter witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Sometimes the end of Empire, with all its loose ends and unfinished business, left tragedy on a much less dramatic scale. The fate of the Anglo-Indians – the descendants of mixed race marriages during the period of the European and British presence in India – can be seen in this light. The fate of this community, described by one popular historian (Geoffrey Moorhouse) as “quite the saddest result of British imperialism”, is a little-known episode of our imperial history, a mere footnote (if mentioned at all) in standard texts. Yet it is a living issue: there still exists today in India a community of thousands of Anglo-Indians, of which most British people are completely unaware. Such knowledge that there is of the Anglo-Indians is probably restricted to rather hackneyed portrayals, in novels such as John Master’s Bhowani Junction (1954).”
– David O’Regan, The Anglo-Indians: Britain’s Forgotten Grandchildren.
The Anglo-Indians are the only minority community in India to be defined by its constitution; Section 366 (2) of the 1935 Government of India Act states that:
An Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only.
This definition is nevertheless a contested one; for instance, failing to make any distinctions between domiciled Europeans and those with mixed race inheritance, and excluding those with European descent in the maternal line who might still perceive themselves as part of the community notwithstanding the legal niceties.
The question of identity is however a question that the community takes very seriously, with much fragmentation, dispute and debate around who constitutes a bona fide Anglo Indian. There are no in-between positions: one either is, or is not, an Anglo Indian. And this question is fraught with anxiety over ‘outsiders’, such as other Indian Christians, claiming their identities in a bid for more political or social prestige.
As a minority community, the Anglo Indians are distinctly differently produced by their cultural markers – in their adoption of not just English and Christianity, but also ‘western’ clothing, cuisine and lifestyles. Although receiving political representation in the form of two reserved seats in the Indian parliament, they hold little power as a community today, a large majority of whom struggle with poverty and other related socio-economic class issues.
Since the seventies, a recurrent theme in discussions about Anglo Indians in India, is the observation that they are a dying breed. O’Regan remarks on how they can only be comprehended sometimes as a “living anachronism, an imperial dinosaur”. With growing inculturation and migration, they are a dwindling number of ‘purist’ families left; and yet despite the repeated predictions of their complete disappearance, the Anglo-Indians in India today, still hold on.
Karan Kapoor took to photographing the dwindling numbers of Anglo Indians in the late eighties, and these images were first shown as part of a group exhibition titled An Economy of Signs at The Photographer’s Gallery, London in 1990. Featuring eight photographers, the exhibition aimed to explore the myriad complexities of India at the time, framing these works as ‘signs’ that helped decode the mass of paradoxes, conflicts, aspirations and peoples that defined India.
Reproduced below is Karan Kapoor’s short note on the series, from the book An Economy of Signs: Contemporary Indian Photographs, edited by Sunil Gupta and produced in conjunction with the exhibition:
As an Anglo-Indian, my interest in photography began by researching the older generation at The Tollygunge Home for Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. I then went to photograph them in Bombay and Ooty. I was more interested in the older generations as they seemed to be the last remaining remnants of the British Raj – people who remembered the railway cantonments, the Marilyn Monroe look-a-like contest, the ‘Central Provinces’, and so on, a world long gone.
Mass migration to Britain, Canada and Australia left behind fewer than 100,000 of the estimated 250,000 at the time of Independence (1947). Those I photographed remained mostly because they could not afford to leave, although most had relatives living abroad.
They were first called Eurasian and were officially designated ‘Anglo Indian’ in 1911. They were at the bottom of the social order: the class system created for British India was not very different from the Indian caste system and rigid hierarchies prevailed. Provided with special jobs on the railways, police force, customs and armed forces they rarely held more than subordinate positions.
A lot of the Anglo-Indians I met called themselves European, probably because the Anglo-Indian was never accepted in British Indian society. They believed (and were brought up to believe) that Britain, not India, was their mother country. They were loyal to the British during agitations and the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857. This created animosity with the Indians; but the British, remained suspicious of the Anglo-Indians because of their roots in India.
My pictures are of the elderly. I was struck by their extraordinary resilience, their total lack of morbidity, their abundant joy and their zest for living. For people at the Homes there wasn’t much to look forward to, only the annual dance. Myrtle who was 71, and still an outrageous flirt, admitted, ‘It’s impossible to remain faithful to one man’, and that she had ‘barely enough money to buy lipstick and talcum powder for the dance’.
The confusion of people caught in the cross-current of the racial divide is obvious. Peggy has two sons living in Calcutta married to Indian women. She says ‘I couldn’t possibly live with them for one day, my God!’
At the Homes they seem to be exiled from a rapidly changing world: the last of India’s Anglo-Indians live out their years in a colonial atmosphere sheltered from the ‘Indian’ society they cannot cope with: the Anglo-India they know lives on. Here there are no difficult adjustments to be made. And here the last of a breed will slowly fade away.
Karan Kapoor is a London based photographer, renowned for his polished, dynamic yet spontaneous style. He is drawn to characters and stories, finding inspiration in the movement and energy of his subjects. Starting out as a photojournalist, he moved into advertising and has worked on multiple high-profile campaigns for major brands including the Atlantis Hotel Dubai, Vodafone, JWT, Nissan, Guinness, Gordon’s Gin, Bell’s Whisky, Greenpeace, The National Trust, Debenhams, Sky, Bacardi, Dove and Avon.
Though his roots are in photography, he has also branched out into moving images, and has shot video for clients including Friends Life, Royal Caribbean, Dreamworks, Spirva and other major brands.
He has been exhibited in London at the Photographers Gallery, The Commonwealth Institute, Royal Academy of Arts and the Association of Photographers. His work continues to be critically acclaimed by the photography industry, winning awards like the PDN Annual, American Photography, IPA, PX3, and the Black and White Spiders Cup.