‘Anglo-Indians of Madras’ — tracing history, culture of the community in Chennai

Shivani Ramakrishnan
The Anglo-Indians of Madras is a documentary series which traces the history of the Anglo-Indian community in Chennai.

While areas in Chennai such as George Town, St. Thomas Mount, Santhome, Royapettah, Vepery, Perambur, Royapuram, Pallavaram, Tambaram and Madhavaram have become bustling commerce hubs today, they occupy a special place in the lives of the small yet vibrant community of Anglo-Indians in the city. It is because these are the areas where the community’s ancestors settled in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

At a time when the city has been reveling in the spirit of ‘Madras Week’ as the Tamil Nadu capital turns 380 years old this year, the Anglo-Indian community fondly recalls its memories of the city through a documentary, ‘The Anglo-Indians of Madras Case Study Pallavaram’ which was screened on August 22 to mark Madras Day.

The homemade production, which has six episodes traces the history of Anglo-Indians in Madras and provides an insight into their lives over the generations. The sixth episode on Pallavaram peeks into the lives of the community in Veteran Lines Colony of Pallavaram which was earlier a cantonment and to this day, has managed to retain its historical charm by the courtesy of its resilient residents.

With the numbers of the community dwindling over the years, the documentary takes a look at the community through the eyes of their brethren and explores their journey through childhood and education, contributions to the cinema, their love for music and the role of their women in society.

At present, there are roughly 35,000 Anglo-Indians in Chennai.

The documentary especially highlights the contributions of the community to the Indian cinema, with members having played extras for ballroom and bar scenes in Tamil films, besides having worked as technicians and musicians on the sets. Andrea Jeremiah, Nicole D’Costa, Genevieve (known in Kollywood as Sriranjani) and Samantha Akkineni are all descendants of Anglo-Indians in the city who have gone on to become popular in the cine industry.

With Madras having been the home of Portuguese, Dutch, French and British settlers in India at various points of time throughout the course of colonial history, the community feels that Madras is the cradle of the Anglo-Indian community in India. The members of the Anglo-Indian community describe themselves as unique, whose people are cordial and welcoming towards outsiders.

An Anglo-Indian couple engaged in dance at the Railway Institute in Perambur circa 1970. (Express Photo: Harry MacLure)

Being an Anglo-Indian myself, I have developed a bit of interest in the community. Back in 2016, we were asked to do something for Madras Week. So we visited a few hubs which were predominantly dominated by Anglo-Indians, interviewed both Anglo-Indians and non-Anglo-Indians who have known us and have interesting things to say about us and visited their haunts. We then put together a documentary and till date, we have made six episodes , said Richard O’Connor, one of the directors of The Anglo-Indians of Madras, while talking about the documentary series.

The documentary has been co-directed and produced by Harry MacLure, the editor of Anglos In The Wind, an international Anglo-Indian magazine. Having been associated with Madras Week for the past 10 years, Harry was a close friend of S Muthiah and co-authored a book, Anglo Indians: A 500-Year History with the late chronicler of Chennai.

Every year, Richard and I do something creative such as a documentary screening or food which are associated with the Anglo-Indian community and can be showcased during the Madras Week. There are a lot of walks on the heritage and history of places in Chennai and we thought that we should do something similar from an Anglo-Indian point of view. That is when we hit upon the idea of the documentary , said Harry and added that the series is a work in progress.

It is a bit nostalgic since we are looking at our ourselves. It is a tale that we want to tell our people especially since we have got more Anglo-Indians in the diaspora than in India. It is one way of saying goodbye to our lives in Chennai and welcoming the new , said Richard, who sourced information and protagonists for the documentary series after sifting through school records, church records and a bit of online research before interviewing close to 250 people.

We are slowly assimilating as a community since we have become integrated over the years. We might be history in 40 years and we want to be a part of recording that history now so that somebody in the future who is researching our community will have some material to work on , remarked Harry.

Celebrations are rife at the Grand Ball of the 11th World Anglo-Indian Reunion 2019 at Hotel ITC Grand Chola in Guindy, Chennai. (Express Photo: Harry MacLure)

The makers of the documentary aim to document the lives of the community in Chennai with a hope that members of the community in other parts of India such as Bangalore, Goa and Kolkata will be inspired to document their history for their future generations.

Over the years, the Anglo-Indian community has embraced the culture of Chennai, with the women dressing themselves up in sarees and churidars. However, the one thing that has not changed is our cuisine. We have special dishes that only Anglo-Indians make and that is something that I do not think will ever change, said Harry, who is currently working on his feature film, "Calcutta, I’m Sorry".

Debbie Westcott runs TI Abroad, an institute for training, development and coaching in foreign entrance exams at Adyar. Hailing from Madurai, Debbie has lived in Chennai since 1992 and features in the Pallavaram episode of The Anglo-Indians of Madras. Since we were the only Anglo-Indian family in Madurai, there was not much of a difference between our culture and Indian culture except for our food and dressing. In fact, even in the eighties and nineties, not many women wore frocks or dresses. Nowadays, many women have begun to dress themselves in western outfits , commented Debbie on the cultural integration.

Wilfred Rozario, the secretary of the Pallavaram branch of the All India Anglo-Indian Association is a native of Villupuram and has been a resident of Chennai for the last 35 years. Speaking about the integration of Chennai culture in the Anglo-Indian community, Wilfred said, Being a microscopic community, Indian culture tends to influence our culture. We tend to become restrictive in our friendships and relationships. Back then, we had time to make play with our friends for hours but with the world changing pace and the city expanding, getting people together is a little difficult.

The earlier episodes of Anglo-Indians of Madras, which featured Santhome, George Town, Royapettah, Vepery and St. Thomas Mount are all available for screening on YouTube under the channel, Pepper Watcher. The upcoming epsiodes of the series will trace the journey of the community in Tambaram, Perambur, Madhavaram and Royapuram.