Saturday, March 02, 2013

Social life in Madras, 1810

Extract from the diary of Lady Maria Callcott visiting different parts of India from 1809-1811. Here, she describes the typical social life of a British lady in Madras.

I was two evenings ago at a public ball in the Pantheon, which contains, besides a ball-room, a very pretty theatre, card-rooms, and virandas.

During the cold season there are monthly assemblies, with occasional balls all the year, which are very well conducted. The Pantheon is a handsome building; it is used as a free-masons lodge of modern masons, among whom almost every man in the army and navy who visits Madrass enrols himself.

The only other public place at Madras is the Mount Road, leading from Fort-George to St Thomas's Mount. It is smooth as a bowling-green, and planted on each side with banian and yellow tulip trees. About five miles from the fort, on this road, stands a cenotaph to the memory of Lord Cornwallis. It has cost an immense sum of money, but is not remarkable for good taste; however, I love to see public monuments in any shape to great men.

It is the fashion for all the gentlemen and ladies of Madras to repair, in their gayest equipages, to the Mount Road, and after driving furiously along, they loiter round and round the cenotaph for an hour, partly for exercise, and partly for the opportunity of flirting and displaying their fine clothes, after which they go home, to meet again every day in the year.

But the greatest lounge at Madras is during the visiting hours, from nine o'clock till eleven, when the young men go from house to house to retail the news, ask commissions to town for the ladies, bring a bauble that has been newly set, or one which the lady has obliquely hinted, at a shopping party the day before, she would willingly purchase, but that her husband does not like her to spend so much, and which she thus obtains from some young man, one quarter of whose monthly salary is probably sacrificed to his gallantry.

When all the visitors who have any business are gone to their offices, another troop of idlers appears, still more frivolous than the former, and remains till tiffin, at two o'clock, when the real dinner is eaten, and wines and strong beer from England are freely drank. The ladies then retire, and for the most part undress, and lie down with a novel in their hands, over which they generally sleep.

About five o'clock the master of the family returns from his office; the lady dresses herself for the Mount Road; returns, dresses, dines, and goes from table to bed, unless there be a ball, when she dresses again, and dances all night; and this, 1 assure you, is a fair, very fair account of the usual life of a Madras lady.

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