Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, an eastern state in India, once known as Calcutta, has a lively club culture that traces its roots to the colonial era.
Raj era (what the colonial era is referred to as locally) clubs in Kolkata remain as preferred spaces for leisure, important meetings, family meals, evening drinks, occasional sports and meeting new people. These clubs established by the East India Company for the British officers during the colonial era have turned into top social spaces for interaction and recreation in today’s cosmopolitan Kolkata.
Kolkata is not the only hub of these clubs but these clubs are also present in other parts of the country such as Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka and Delhi, the current capital of India. However, the unique aspect about the club culture in Kolkata is that it is still a very important and exclusive space for socialising that is held in very high regard in comparison to the other cities. Among the many, Calcutta Club, Saturday Club, Tollygunge Club, Dalhousie Institute and Royal Calcutta Turf Club are some of the most prominent clubs which upholds the legacy of colonial hangover in Kolkata.
During the time of their establishment, almost all the Raj era clubs in India were strictly restricted, in terms of access, to the British. Membership remained limited and these clubs were the hub of socialisation for the elite, usually upper-class high society British individuals. Not only was membership based on exclusivity, some clubs such as the Saturday Club hung boards outside that read “Indians and Dogs not allowed”, putting tight norms on entry based on race.
Although such restraints had been lifted post independence, membership still remains an exclusive affair allowing only the upper echelon of society and influential bureaucrats. To gain a new membership can take from anywhere between a few months to a few decades, depending on whether the individual has family members associated with the club, has a prominent standing in society through their work, is a well known figure in the arts and culture society or has political networks, among the many other factors.
Very specific dress codes still find space in the rule books that have roots in British sensibilities and aesthetics. Until a few years ago, most of the clubs barred Indian clothing and even prominent personalities such as the deceased artist M.F. Hussain or late communist leader Jyoti Basu were denied admission for the violation of dress code.
However, the situation has changed over the years and the board members of these clubs are slowly reforming the rules that stem from the Raj era. Now these clubs organise events that appeal to a wider audience; hold inter-club sports tournaments and matches; arrange musical concerts and conduct various carnivals, offering a more open and accessible space to diverse groups of people.