COLONY, CLUB AND CORPORATION: The persistence of gentlemanly capitalist networks in India from the British Raj to the present day

Skip to Navigation

Skip to Search

31 Mar 2016

Full Text:

‘Members only’: the exclusive social establishments of colonial South Bombay were known as gymkhanas – an Anglo-Indian term for gentlemen’s clubs. Still peppered around the Bombay coastline, they recall the luxury and glamour of the British Raj. And while the infamous ‘No Indians or dogs’ signs are long removed from those colonial verandas, access is still limited to the socio-economic elite.

Today, the Bombay club culture closely underpins the boardrooms of Indian manufacturing firms, especially those established under British patronage and passed down family lines. Research by Shachi Amdekar, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, tells the story of these Indian industrial houses, which used the power of community and networks to rise from the chaos of empire and dominate Indian industry as we know it today.

Moreover, their ascent fashioned a new, parallel indigenous network of elites in Bombay society – one that took on the gentlemanly values of aristocratic England, while engaging the technological advances in textile production of the industrial North.

This league of extraordinary businessmen grew out of Britishness. Developing hybrid cultural sensibilities among selected groups of indigenous locals from Indian trading communities was mutually beneficial, and an important part of the British imperial strategy for its most commercially favourable colony.

For example, on becoming Governor-General of India in 1828, Lord William Bentinck pioneered the mission to ‘raise a middle class of native gentlemen’ as agents for social change and industrial development. According to Thomas Babington Macaulay, then Secretary at War, these ‘may be interpreters ( … ) a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.’ 

The Indian families from specific trading communities (usually Parsi, Marwari and Gujarati) that were taken into this exclusive club enjoyed otherwise unusual privileges. These included being able to retain ownership of their companies, access to finance and technology via informal associations, and political patronage from close personal connections at many levels of the British establishment.

The deal was that these Indian families were to become the local Englishmen – or in their own words, ‘the Brown Englishmen’. And so they did. These colonial partnerships elevated the social position of these family circles, while established friendships and community circles were an important commercial resource in this economy of access and restriction.

Using interviews with these business families and industry experts, as well as archival material from Britain and India, this research examines the socio-economic conditions under which manufacturing industry in India emerged. Specifically, it considers the extent to which the hybrid culture of entrepreneurship that emerged then still persists as businesses have been passed down family lines.

The study follows the story of these elite industrial houses through the end of the Raj, the nationalism of the Indian independence movement and beyond into the so-called ‘License Raj’. It shows how gentlemanly values and club-like elite networks still play an important role in the identity of Indian industry.

Shachi Amdekar comments:

‘We often see the nineteenth century as a time driven by the British industrial powerhouse. Yet the emergence, flow and network of industrial relations in India depicts manufacturing industry as it developed in the broader context of a vast commercial empire.’

‘By focusing on the people – the capitalists, and industrial agents – and their firms, we better understand how international commerce evolved through the use of informal networks and club culture.’

‘Gentlemanly networks emerged from this hybrid British Raj culture and still persist in India’s manufacturing sector. This has important implications about the inherently socialised nature of entrepreneurship today.’ 


The Colony, the Club and the Corporation: The Persistence of Gentlemanly Capitalist Networks in India

Shachi Amdekar

Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge


Mobile: 07899 992138

Add This Social Media Links