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  • Networks of Sociability:Women's Clubs in Colonial and Postcolonial India
  • Benjamin B. Cohen (bio)

The club in colonial India has been the recipient of much scorn and little serious study. In literary circles, writers from Kipling to Orwell have portrayed clubs as bastions of white male privilege.1 In Burmese Days, Orwell proclaimed that "In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain."2 In this article, I want to challenge the image established by Orwell of the isolated and exclusive imperial club by examining a set of women's clubs in colonial and postcolonial India. I argue that clubs—created together by Indian and British women—bridged practices of colonial exclusivity, explicitly forging bonds that spanned both race and the colonizer-colonized divide. Further, clubs served as homes away from home for Indian and British women alike. The club served as a homelike space where in each other's company women could enjoy greater freedoms than might be found at home or in the heterosocial public sphere. Within these spaces, clubs served as training ground for participation in public life and nation-building. Clubs inculcated their members with the building blocks of democracy thus preparing Indian women to embrace newfound powers with India's independence in 1947.

Clubs have too often been understood in terms of men's or women's clubs, British or Indian clubs, inclusive or exclusive clubs. However, a closer examination and deconstruction of these binaries reveals that the realities were far more complex. Women's clubs frequently endeavored and achieved social intercourse through diverse memberships, often along racial lines: Indian and British women; Hindu and Muslim women; British and purdah-observing Muslim women; and other pairs.3 Some clubs catered to specific communities, while others brought together diverse communities for social purposes.4 Sociability took several forms. For some women—Indian and British—it meant participating in social activities (teas and lunches, for example) either with [End Page 169] members of their own community ("bonding") or reaching across to members of a different community ("bridging").5 Some club members were also members of other organizations and thus served as links between the club and their other organizational affiliations. For other women, a club's network was an opportunity to promote social skills, in particular those that might lead to action such as political participation (as seen during India's nationalist movement). We shall see how several prominent Indian women belonged to their local club, and at the same time participated in regional and national women's organizations.

Clubs were also part of colonial and political networks that included government officials and their wives. Members from disparate political backgrounds joined and participated in club life, tacitly agreeing to leave politics at the club door. Clubs allowed these individuals to socialize and better understand one another in a space that was neither controlled by the state nor as private as the home. Some members participated both in India and in Britain's clublands, thus bridging the colony-metropole divide.6 Clubs were also at the intersection of different community networks, and their Indian and British founders self-consciously created them as a place where these networks could meet. Hindu, Muslim, British, and other communities overlapped and found common ground under the club roof, thus members participated in and challenged "inequalities of power" along now well understood lines of class, race, and gender.7 Clubs in India, particularly women's clubs, networked together individuals and associations into complex webs that challenge and span simple categories of ruler and ruled, and as Mrinalini Sinha has argued, revealed that the categories of colonizer and colonized were constantly shifting and thus being renegotiated.8 That women's clubs survived into the postindependence era, however, suggests that their meaning and purpose transcended colonial explanations and forces a re-evaluation of clubs and their meanings to Indian women in the postcolonial moment.9

Before proceeding, I offer some brief qualifications. Clubs inherently catered to classes of individuals who could afford their membership fees and dues. Thus, while some clubs admitted individuals...


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pp. 169-195
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