Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  April 13, 2016

The British Nabobs in India

While conducting my research on the British dress in India during the 18th and 19th centuries, I came across images which showed a blending of British and Indian ways. While most preferred to stick to their usual national dress codes, the exceptions I found are particularly interesting.

When the British first came to India in early 17th century, they preferred to wear their own type of clothing but by late 18th century, when the comfort level had increased, a few British merchants or senior British officers adopted Mughal-Indian fashions and lifestyles. Such people were referred to as nabobs (the corrupt form of the Hindustani word nawab) by their British colleagues and by the British back home. The Hindi- Urdu word nawab means a rich man of high social status. It was a term often used by the British during the 18th century for petty chiefs, who owned considerable sums of money. As Bernard Cohn writes about the British in India:

The one exception to the cultural imperative of wearing European dress was among those whose careers were spent up-country as British representatives in Muslim Royal Courts, where it was usual for some of them to live openly with Indian mistresses and to acknowledge their Indian children. These semi-Mughalized Europeans, although wearing European clothes in their public functions, affected Muslim dress in the privacy of their homes.

The regions which were under the control of Indian rulers and had employed the Europeans for training the army were under Mughal rule and this led to the adoption of Mughal-Indian dress by these select Europeans. They dressed in fine muslins and sat proudly for portraits. Mildred Archer’s book in particular contains some very interesting portraits and examples also hang in the Asian and African Studies reading rooms of The British Library. In figure 1, Captain John Foote, who was a captain in the Indian Army and based in India around 1761-1765, is shown proudly wearing rich Indian attire in a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The copies of this painting appear in many books but the original is in the City Art Gallery of New York. The actual garment worn by him in the portrait still belongs to his descendants.

Another famous portrait is that of Sir David Ochterlony. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society (founded in 1791), Major General Sir David Ochterlony was born in Boston, on the 12th of February 1758. His father was originally from Scotland, and he was sent to India in 1777 as a cadet. Sir Ochterlony was the first British Resident in the Mughal court, responsible for protection of the city and the Emperor. He earned the trust of the emperor and adopted the Indian life style. A painting of Sir Ochterlony in the collection of the British Library shows him dressed in the style of a Mughal king. He wears a fine white muslin jama and blue woven Pyjama with stripes. He can also be seen wearing a patka or cummerband and a red turban. He smokes a royal style hukkah. He sits on the floor on an Indian matress over a Persian carpet, just like the noblemen and women of India. His entire body language is one of the nawabs (nabobs) of the various princely states. He is surrounded by various attendants and watches a dance performance, usually referred to as ‘nautch’ by the British in India.

REFERENCES: (1) Archer, Mildred. India and British Portraiture 1770 – 1825.  Karachi, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979.
(2) Battye, Evelyn. Costumes and Characters of British Raj. Roli Books, Lusture Press.
(3) Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge ; the British in India.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.
(4) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
(5) Unknown. "Sir David Ochterlony in Indian Dress and Smoking a Hookah and Watching a Nautch in His House in Delhi." British Library

Toolika Gupta, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • Figure 1 Captain John Foote by Joshua Reynolds, (1761-65)
  • Figure 2 David Ochterlony, watching a dance performance in India