Calcutta Club stirs up colonial tensions by barring Bengali artist

One of India's most celebrated social institutions, the Calcutta Club, has sparked an angry backlash from the city's intelligentsia after refusing to allow entry to a Bengali painter who was wearing traditional clothes judged to be in breach of strict regulations.

The artist, Shuvaprasanna, who uses just one name, said he went to the club last week for a dinner hosted by a friend and had worn his preferred garb of a long-sleeved shirt, or kurta, and traditional pyjama trousers. But on arrival, he was told he would not be permitted to enter because his clothes were not suitable. "For me, someone's dress focuses on their own personality, comfort and taste. What [the club officials] are trying to do is impose a feudal mindset. It's a British hangover," the artist declared last night. "Some Bengalis think they have blue blood and want to create an elite. In a democracy people are equal; why are they trying to interfere with people like me?"

It is not the first time that the Calcutta Club has been at the centre of such controversy. India's most famous artist, MF Husain, who died last week, was once refused entry for not wearing shoes while the choreographer Ananda Shankar was also turned away for not complying appropriately with the dress code. A former governor of West Bengal also reportedly turned down an invitation to an event there because he was asked to change his usual clothes.

The city of Kolkata is home to many so-called gentlemen's clubs, all of which aspire to varying degrees of exclusivity. Ironically, the Calcutta Club, which has reciprocal arrangements with the Oxford and Cambridge Club on London's Pall Mall and the National Liberal Club in Whitehall, among others, was established amid a mood of equality.

Given that the city's Bengal Club only admitted white members, a group got together in 1907 to establish a club that locals could use. The club's first president was the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. Despite such egalitarian roots, however the club only deemed to admit women four years ago.

The decision to refuse entry to Shuvaprasanna, who had been invited to dinner by 73-year-old Chuni Goswami, probably the city's most famous footballer, has sparked an angry response among the city's celebrated artistic and literary community. On Monday, protesters gathered outside the club waving banners and rubbishing what it said were the club's "regressive colonial rules... 64 years after independence". They handed over a letter to the club asking that it change the rules. "After 64 years of independence it is time to come out of the colonial yoke in every respect of social life," the playwright Bibhas Chakraborty told The Hindu newspaper. "The club should allow members and invitees to wear clothes that are decent and comfortable without compromising on their cultural richness."

Among those who have added their weight to the protest is the actor and film director Aparna Sen, who said: "This is a very stupid rule. Why cannot one wear kurta and pyjamas? It's acceptable Indian dress, it's decent, it's attractive. As long as the clothes are modest then I don't see what the problem is."

But it seems the Calcutta Club has no plans to change those rules, at least not yet. The club's CEO and secretary Col B Mukerjee said yesterday that dress regulations allowed certain Indian clothes, but not those being worn by Shuvaprasanna when he arrived for dinner. "He was not in regulation dress," he insisted. "He was outside the regulations."