"How one lived in India in those days--one would have expected in a place like Patna, which was the headquarters of the province, more of the amenities of civilization."

- Robin Adair, member of the Indian Civil Service, 1937-1947

Exhibition Navigation

An Introduction

1. The Passage to India
2. Running Your Empire
3. Life in the Bungalows
4. Imperial Diversions
5. Never the Twain?
6. No More India to Go to

Chapter 1 interviews
Chapter 2 interviews
Chapter 3 interviews
Chapter 4 interviews
Chapter 5 interviews
Chapter 6 interviews

"You had to learn the language even as a woman, or you missed so much...I had a munshi to teach me, but he always taught along military lines, because that was what he was used to. He would say, 'Go to the adjutant, and tell him that number 3 company has mutinied.' And all I wanted...was how to say, 'The meat is tough.'"

- Patricia Edge, whose husband was in the Army and the Survey of India

Life in the Bungalows

Recollections of English domestic life in India present a picture of an existence both contented and full of difficulties, both luxurious and spartan. Britons generally occupied commodious bungalows (the word itself comes from Indian terminology meaning something from Bengal and referred to a particular housetype originally from that province) and commonly employed numerous servants to run the household.

Yet even into the 1940s the house would not have electricity, running water, refrigeration; it would have been open enough for insects, rats, snakes and--in remote areas--even wild animals to invade. Moves to new postings were frequent and thus life was unsettled. It was thought important to send children home to England for schooling, so that family members were separated. There were likely few other Europeans nearby, so that people--especially wives with no official work, possibly no children at home, and only a menage of servants to interact with all day--might feel very isolated. Indeed, women who found outside interests--whether their husbands' work, local charitable pursuits, or the outdoor life--were thought to be happiest.

"Dooreahs or Dog Keepers Leading Out Dogs"; aquatint by Samuel Hewitt from a drawing by Captain Thomas Williamson; 1806.

An establishment which was an Indian version of an English country estate was an ideal striven for by earlier British sojourners in India, few of whom could have ever achieved anything so ambitious in England.

"Christmas in India"; chromoxylograph from a drawing by E.K. Johnson; 1881. An idealized picture of British home life: attentive servants and happy children (who would be packed off to England for schooling before long).

Bungalow occupied by a British family in Ranchi; 20th Century; photograph courtesy of Major General R.C.A. Edge.

Tea plantation bungalow; 1930s.

Interior of tea plantation bungalow; 1930s. Though large and sometimes well furnished, British bungalows in India might have very simple furnishings. Sometimes furniture was simply hired from Indian contractors.

English child on pony held by servant; 20th century; photograph courtesy of the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

Advertisement for cooling equipment in the Hoghunter's Annual (Calcutta) for 1929.

Behind the Bungalow by "EHA," illustrated by F.C. MacRae, 14th edition (London: W. Thacker & Co; Calcutta and Simla: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1929). Originally published in 1889 (reprinting earlier newspaper sketches), this little volume went through numerous printings. Each chapter details the activities of some type of servant and the book's popularity testifies to the fascination their household servants held for the British (most of whom could never have hoped to maintain such an establishment in England).

Servant figurines; painted clay and lacquered fabric; late 19th century; and servant figurine; painted clay; 20th century. Such figurines were popular souvenirs available in great variety. These represent a bearer or butler, a bhisti or water carrier, and a sweeper.

A bearer or head servant; an ayah holding a European child; a dhoby or laundryman; the laundryman's wife. Company School paintings, South India (Trichinopoly) on mica; c. 1860.

Postcards depicting household servants; produced by both Indian publishers, such as Moorli Dhur and Sons of Ambala, and British, such as Higginbotham and Company of Madras and Bangalore; early 20th century.

The great profusion of cards reflects the great profusion of servants: a syce to care for the horses which virtually every sahib maintained; the ayah to care for young children; the sweeper, who maintained latrines and removed "night soil"; the dhurzi, more of a subcontractor than a servant, who would come and sit in a European house for days at a time doing the sewing. The bearer was a man's personal servant who would run the household of a bachelor sahib.

Sahibs and memsahinbs were especially intrigued by the dhobi or laundryman, who supposedly accorded unspeakably harsh treatment to their clothes to get them clean. Being able to employ an impressive number of servants -- far more than could have been afforded in England -- was an attraction of Anglo-Indian life (though many Britons professed their large households to be a mixed blessing).

Englishman being shaved by servant; postcard (Madras and Bangalore: Higginbotham and Company); early 20th century. Being shaved, even while still half asleep, epitomized for some the luxury of Indian servants. Even working-class British soldiers stationed in India would employ Indians to shave them while they still slept in their barracks bunks. The chair depicted here is a planter's long-sleever, the arms extended to provide a foot rest.

"Comic" postcards depicting the foibles of Indian servants--the lazy bearer who rests when his employer is away; the punkah-wallah who nods off when he is supposed to be awake pulling the rope that works the fan which cools his sleeping sahib (Madras and Bangalore: Higginbotham and Company); early 20th century.

"Inoculation against the Plague, Bombay"; "Military Cemetery, Dagshai, India"; postcards; early 20th century. From early days the British saw India as a place of danger and early death, especially due to disease.

An Introduction

1. The Passage to India | interviews

2. Running Your Empire | interviews

3. Life in the Bungalows | interviews

4. Imperial Diversions | interviews

5. Never the Twain? | interviews

6. "No More India to Go to" | interviews

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