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How Anglo-Indian Xmas traditions are slowly fading away
The number of Anglo-Indians has come down in Chennai and that has watered down traditions, cultures and practices.
The smell of cardamom and the rustle of wrapping-paper marks Christmas morning at every Anglo-Indian household in the city. With a rich heritage spanning nearly 500 years, the community’s roots are seen in colonial-era buildings and handed-down recipes. Yet, the community’s numbers continue to decline, as do their unique celebrations.
Explorers from Europe
The history of the community dates back 500 years when the Portuguese first landed in Chennai and settled in Santhome. They left their mark in the area in the form of the St Thomas Cathedral Basilica, a massive neo-gothic structure still patronised by locals today. When the British arrived in India, they established themselves at Fort St George in 1644.
According to Harry MacLure, the editor of the community magazine Anglos in the Wind, a few Portuguese explorers from Kerala moved to Santhome during the 16th Century. “As it was very far away and the trip was too difficult for European women to make, the men, who were the primary settlers, began marrying local women. There is a misconception that Anglos are only of British descent. We have Portuguese, Danish, Dutch and French heritages,” he said.
MacLure explained that surnames like Dubier indicate British origin, De Cruz indicate Dutch origin and De Costa indicate Portuguese origin. While the Portuguese brought in Catholicism, the British brought in the Church of England’s teachings to the city. By 1947, according to a documentary titled The Anglo Indians of Madras directed by MacLure, there were nearly one lakh Anglo Indians living in Madras.
Now, however, MacLure estimated that there are no more than 40,000 Anglo Indians living in Chennai. Once called ‘Railway People’ for their overwhelming presence in the Railways – MacLure joked that 8 out of 10 Anglo Indians today have roots in the Railways – the community’s numbers have fallen due to migration.
With a steady drop in numbers since the 60s, the community saw a ‘mass exodus’ between the 60s and mid-80s. “Youngsters have been moving abroad to countries like Australia and America due to economic opportunity. We cannot blame them for wanting a better life, but at the risk of sounding too pessimistic, our community will soon become a part of history,” said MacLure.
Originally with a strong presence in areas like Royapuram, the community has settled in six major hubs in the city – Perambur, Pallavaram, Ayanavaram, St Thomas Mount, Vepery and George Town. Madhavaram, too, features a large number of Anglo Indians. “The IT boom has led to many youngsters from the community leaving these areas and moving to areas like Velachery for easier travels. There is also a large part of the community that lives at the outskirts of the city,” said MacLure.
The community has also been assimilating into other communities, and cross-community and cross-religion marriages become increasingly popular, according to Randolph Wilkins, president of the All India Anglo Indian Association – Ayanavaram. This, according to MacLure, has led to what he calls the “watering down” of the traditions, cultures and practices followed by the community.
Dance to a beat
One of those traditions is their dance parties. “We Anglos are best known for our music and dance – it’s in our blood. One of the most well-known activities we host for Christmas are the dances we hold across the city, where people across age groups come down and shake a leg,” said Wilkins.
Donning formal suits, men waltz with women sporting beautiful dresses at local community halls, or foxtrot with each other at the Shiraz Hotel at Egmore, which hosts one of the most popular dances in the city. Ballroom dancing and jive are very popular dance styles, and people across ages dance from 8.30 in the evening to the wee hours of 5 am to the tunes of various bands comprised of members from the community.
This trend is also slowly dying down, according to Wilkins, as more youngsters prefer to spend their evenings at one of the many bars across the city. However, Carissa Cecilia, the State youth co-ordinator for the All India Anglo Indian Association, said that the younger generation still carries forward the community’s musical affinity, which has led to the birth of musicians like bassist Keith Peters and drummer Maynard Grant, some of whom have played with prominent musical composers like AR Rahman and Ilayaraaja.
“Music is the way the younger generation is carrying forward the tradition. The trend leans more towards the music than dance. The younger generation is also into carolling and spends the night of Christmas going from door-to-door in their neighbourhoods,” she said. Wilkins opposed this statement, saying that carolling in the city is only popular when commercialised via competitions between associations.
Meals and more
Their Portuguese heritage is best seen in their most popular dish, the vindaloo, a spicy dish made with meats like chicken, pork and fish. Wilkins fondly remembers rolling kalkals, a deep-fried cookie sprinkled with powdered sugar and cardamom, on Christmas morning with his mother. Rose cookies, an intricately-woven cookie made of thin wafers, are packaged and distributed to the neighbourhood. The centrepiece of the spread is a finely-roasted Turkey with crisp skin.
“We would eat lunch at 4 pm as it would take a very long time to prepare. Now, however, people are turning to order in food from various shops that specialise in Christmas food. A lot of people also make or order biryani on Christmas Day,” said Wilkins.
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, used to be a day to tear open presents and rejoice, but these activities are taken care of on Christmas Day itself, rendering the day redundant, he added. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is still a popular tradition in the community, with elders and youngsters alike participating in prayer to beckon the holy day.
Torch-bearers of tradition
From inexperience making their kalkals larger than the norm and immaturity leading to a Christmas tree drooping with too many ornaments, some youngsters in the community are refusing to let their heritage die with them.
According to Cecilia, the younger generation can be broadly divided into two halves – with one half being disinterested in the culture associated with their community, and the other championing and carrying forward the traditions they grew up in. This percentage of the community is particularly active in Tamil Nadu, she said, with many of the office bearers for the All India Anglo Indian Association’s youth wing from the State.
“My father is a Hindu and my mother is a Christian and an Anglo Indian. My brother decided to follow my father’s religion and I decided to follow my mother’s religion. We were given that choice when we were younger,” said Cecilia. Similarly, many youngsters with a mixed religious background in the city are not rejecting or diluting their traditions, rather, they are slowly getting a hang of the ropes their parents once held.
While their Christmas celebrations stick as closely to the tradition passed down to them, MacLure explained that Tamil culture has crept onto their dining tables and into their language. “The current status of the Anglo Indian culture is a work in progress.
Whether the younger generation will adapt to the traditions to suit the cultural context and changing times is something that can only be seen 20 or 30 years from now. Yet, one thing can be said for sure – even though large numbers of our community have migrated, every time they come back, they always say, ‘It’s hot, but there’s no place like Chennai,” he said.