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Gendering Sports in Colonial Bengal

Basudhita Basu ( is a research scholar at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata.

The early 20th century witnessed important shifts in the Bengali Hindu elite’s images of women’s public role. The number of educated women increased even if it was within the limited domain of urban communities. The “games ethics” influenced the women and it was placed in the broader perspective of their emancipation. Different schools and colleges with their motto of holistic education and the contemporary magazines highlighted the importance of women’s health for future motherhood. Their role in the sporting field remained gendered and female agency in this sphere had to negotiate with forms of patriarchy.

The Census of 1911 (Calcutta) highlighted the remarkable replacement of joint family system by the nuclear families in Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta. Even though the urban elite accepted the idea of considering wife not as a “property,” but as a “wife,” their identity was tied to her husband as a companion (Dutt and Sarkar 2010: 214).This sentiment produced a new trend in the larger context of valorisation of motherhood by nationalists.

As elsewhere in India, in Bengal also the nationalist ideology and its movement made motherhood central to maintaining an orderly home for the new woman. With the change in the conjugal relationship between the husband and wife, the wife was seen more as a true companion of her husband. The wives often wished to live up to such expectations. The educated husband frequently appeared in the role of teachers (Raychaudhuri 1999: 83). The removal of the purdah system also brought a few women to the forefront. Satyen Tagore created a sensation by taking his wife out in an open carriage (Raychaudhuri 1999: 84).

All such progressive movements created a path for women’s public role in late colonial Bengal. Even earlier some women possessed a passionate desire to learn reading. For example, despite having 12 children, Rassundari Devi taught herself to read by finding time from her hectic household duties. The colonial government also encouraged female education by establishing a school at Bethune, followed by several schools sponsored by reformist religious institutions such as the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj and Theosophical Society (Forbes 2007: 83).

In the late 19th century, women’s education was a priority agenda of the emerging reform movements. Women’s access to physical education was given an emphasis during the debates on their education. While a section of people believed that physical culture should form a part of the curriculum, another section of people asserted that physical activity on a regular basis was not only unnecessary, but also could be detrimental to the kind of role women were expected to play in the family (Chatterjee 2015: 76).

The question arises here is whether this ambience made the pioneers of reform movements to think about the physical conditions of women? Or, what were the other factors which actually allowed the girls to come out of their zenana and participate in physical education or take part in sports?

Suparna Ghosh in her article “Sporting Nationalism in Twentieth Century Bengal: The Gendered Perspective,” argued that the growth of “new woman” and her “womanhood” can be understood in the light of the conception of the effeminate babus of the 19th century Bengal, who were weak and fragile. Hence, the revival of their strength was needed. This new woman was now assigned a specific and crucial role in rearing a special breed of men who would be brave, patriotic and nationalistic. The nation needed strong sons to fight against colonial rule and to infuse the sense of self-respect among the people. The nation needed daughters to lend support to their nationalistic men (Ghosh 2013: 109).

Sarala Devi, who had contributed a lot for improving the health and physique of the youths, established an akhra and a byayam samiti as well as a physical culture club. But she never took part in displaying physical exercises in public. But the situation became favourable after 1920s when women became associated with the revolutionary movement. Physical fitness was an important prerequisite for participation in revolutionary movement and its foundation was laid in their school and college days. For instance, Kalpana Dutta and Preetilata Waddedar, who were associated with Chittagong Armoury Raid in 1930, used to play badminton together in the Khastagir Girls’ High School in Chittagong. They continued their sporting activities as students of Bethune College. Leela Roy nee Nag, was associated with Sri Sangha and founded the Deepali Sangha for playing tennis, badminton, ha-du-du every day in the Bethune College premises (Ghosh 2013: 109).

Women’s Emancipation in Journals

The contemporary journals were full of details with respect to the revival of the powers of women. But quite interestingly they were all advised to keep themselves healthy, but not to fight for their nation (as was the case for men), but to produce healthy children. It was said that they had to be healthy to procure healthy children. The journals also mentioned that women could protect themselves only through physical exercise. This was talking indirectly about women emancipation.1 In one issue of Cooch Behar Darpan, Jaitindra Bhusan Ghosh wrote about the incidents of women’s kidnapping appearing in the newspapers. In Bengal, he wrote, the number of outlaws and their operations were steadily increasing. Against this background, he continued, if Bengali women were physically strong, they would not have to face such disgrace. The author also compared Bengali women with women in other countries where they were not considered as weak or abala as Bengali women. Along with education of those women, a special emphasis on the development of physical culture was also given. But unfortunately in case of Bengal, though some arrangements were made for education, physical education was neglected.2

This article began with the question of empowerment of women. It asked the women to be strong and advised them to protect themselves by practising physical exercise. But the second half of the article was somewhat different. It stated that the future of any nation depended upon the child and the bearer of that child, the mother. Thus, to secure a healthy and a prosperous child, a woman should do physical exercise. The article continued that

subsequently these strong women would become a wife, then a mother … The health of the future citizens of a country was dependant on the physical health of the women. Therefore, like their male counterparts they should take to physical exercise.3

Another article published in Bharatvarsha mentions that the motherhood and rearing of children were equally important for women, harping on the same tune that women who would become mothers in future would discharge their duty to rear children and ensure their proper education. Therefore, she must educate herself about physical culture and its benefits. The article also suggested that the future mothers of the nation had to give special emphasis on improving their health.4 Both these articles were advising women to take part in several exercises like skipping, playing lathi, sword fighting and swimming, etc, which would enhance their physical strength.5

Gender specifications had always been an important issue in sporting culture. Even dance and performance, which were considered as the domain of women, had gender specifications. At Santiniketan, while teaching dance, Rabindranath Tagore was always particular to teach Manipuri Tandava and Cholam as well as Kathakali to boys and Lasya and cymbal dance to girls (Dutt and Sarkar 2010: 218).

Similarly, in sports, women took part in those sports which would facilitate them to retain their femininity. Femininity urged women to participate only in sports that involved graceful movements because women were considered frail, and therefore, unable to tolerate the kind of physical contact that one would expect in men’s sports. For instance, Prabartak strongly recommended slow cycling for women because fast cycling was considered harmful for the physical build of women. Cricket and soccer remained a male monopoly (Ghosh 2013: 113).

Physical Education for Women

The missionary women educators believed in imparting education to girls and boys equally. They regarded physical exercise as an integral and necessary part of education. The subject of physical education for Asian girls was introduced by the missionary girls’ schools. The missionary teachers believed that education in English-language schools founded by Christian women would help raise the Asian girls and women from inferiority and deprivation, and would develop females with better minds and physically improved bodies (Brownfoot 1992: 85). In colonial Bengal, like Malaya, the accounts of several contemporary school women inspectors reveal that in the early 20th century, physical education for girls received more attention in the missionary schools when compared to the state-run schools. By 1913, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was very active in Bengal. The weekly lectures on drill for teachers were held at the YWCA. Drill was taught to children at all missionary boarding schools in Bengal and in a few “Hindu Schools” that had female teachers. In the same year, Miss Bose, a Christian school inspector, noted that drill could not be introduced in schools run by pandits owing to the supposed repugnance towards physical training among Hindus. She, however, felt that this problem could be addressed with women teachers and that introduction of physical training was the right measure towards ensuring a better health for native girls (Chatterjee 2015: 79).

Educational institutions like Bethune School tried to regularise this curriculum among their students whose enthusiasm in this regard reciprocated the measures of the school authority. To imbibe the team spirit among the students, the Gokhale Memorial School also organised sporting events in a regular course. Kathi (stick) play was popular among women students of various educational institutions as a part of the training in new Bratachari movement. A large number of girls’ schools in Bengal had adopted the Bratachari movement with physical as well as moral benefits for their students and teachers (Chatterjee 2015: 82).

From the beginning, the Bethune College had facilities for sports and games among the day scholars and boarders. Regular provisions were made for the physical exercise of the boarders in 1988. In 1920, the college authorities made arrangements for extracurricular activities for the students. In 1922, special arrangements were made for physical exercises. In the following sessions, during 1924–25, the Bengal Social Service League arranged to deliver a course of lectures at the Bethune College on “Health in the Home” which was attended by students in large numbers. It had been mentioned in the reports that the health of students’ community was in a bad state. This was revealed in the health examination conducted by the university. The interest in physical culture steadily increased and about 20 students joined a voluntary drill class in 1926–27.6 During the tumultuous age of 1928–35, when Indians were craving for swaraj, the college decided to introduce a well-qualified physical instructress, Dorris Webber. Webber did excellent work in organising physical training in both college and school. Drill was taken to with zeal by the girls. In 1934, a provision was made for an all-sided growth of corporate life in the college by adding four departments, for socials and excursions, debates, magazines and sports.7 Later, the Old Girls’ Association offered a silver cup of ₹30 for inter-class competition in game. This turned into an annual function. On the Foundation Day celebration of the University of Calcutta, they, among other girls of different colleges, led the March Past.8

Basketball and tennis: In 1936, the post of the physical instructress was made permanent. Various sports like basketball and tennis were improved. In 1937, on the College Day, a basketball tournament was organised between the current girl students and former girl students of the school. With the passage of time, sports were given more importance. In order to develop this competitive spirit of the students, they were encouraged to join the Womens’ Inter-Collegiate Sports Association. Like the inter-house tournaments of English schools they started having inter-class badminton tournaments.9

Cycling: In the early 20th century, the girls started to engage in recreational forms of sports. As a part of leisurely sporting activity, girls used to practise cycling before college hours. Ashoka Gupta, a student at that time, for example, fondly recalled her wonderful experience of cycling with her friends Preeti Dutta and Saivalini (Ghosh 2013: 1853).Cycling was significant as it could be associated with women emancipation. In colonial Malaya, among the Malayan young women, cycling was very popular as it played a prime role in bringing Asian girls out into the public. Gertrude Owen, was the one who emphasised the role in bringing Asian girls out into this arena by emphasising the role of the bicycle as a tool of female emancipation by the 1930s (Brownfoot 1992). However, how much of this sporting dimension of women’s emancipation was replicated in Bengal remains a question to be probed.

Badminton: Badminton was another popular leisure activity for college girls. In 1921–22, a tennis court was laid out on the southern side of Bethune College and both lawn tennis and croquet were also introduced for the girls. However, the girls remained most partisan to badminton more than any of the other games (Ghosh 2013: 1853). Badminton and tennis—along with bowling and swimming—were games which improved feminine characteristics like the broadening of the hips (Chatterjee 2015: 76).This might have been the reason why girls readily accepted badminton.

Even the girls of Scottish Church College showed interest in playing badminton, as did the residents of the Lady Jane Dundas Hostel. According to the college magazine of September 1910, the badminton club had 26 members and every afternoon the shuttlecock was kept busy. The enthusiasm of the ladies seemed to encourage the teaching staff too. The college magazines hardly lost an opportunity to publish such sporting amusements with greater attention:

The enthusiastic Badmintonites of the Lady Jane Dundas Hostel finished their yearly competitions sometimes ago, and on 23 December the prize were presented to the stalwart conquerors at the annual social function of the club. Several of the Professors have been trying their skill with the Shuttlecocks lately, and the students were afforded rich amusement one afternoon on witnessing the enthusiastic efforts of four of our young professors in a hotly contested match. The LID Hostel students display a vigour of body and mind which goes for to prove that true sport is one of the world’s greatest physician. (Bandopadhyay 2008: 76)


Drill: Another physical exercise which was given much emphasis was drill. Contemporary journals and newspapers were advising women to participate in drill. Missionaries in colonial Malaya also emphasised on drill. To quote Brownfoot,

From the 1890s up to the first world war it seems that ‘Drill’, gym and Calisthenics, involving mechanical forms of exercise, were part of the regular educational programme in a number of the English-medium girls’ schools. (Brownfoot 1992: 93)

In Bengal too, the missionary schools and colleges gave importance to drill. In 1899, the Calcutta Girl’s High School, which had been established under the patronage of Lord Canning, started classes for drill. It was supported by the various evangelical denominations of the city with the principal, Miss Widdifield, as a key centre. The gallery of the website of this school shows pictures of young girls playing basketball. The motto of the school was providing the girls with holistic education.10

The native schools also gave importance to drill. In these schools, organisation of Saraswati Puja, an annual worship of the goddess of learning, was an occasion for highlighting the proactive role of women in educational institutions. This puja was performed by the students of the Binapani Girls School with great vigour. The girls performed drills to entertain the chief guest Maharaj Kumar Sailendra Kumar Deb Bahadur.

The Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School, under the presidency of the Raja of Burdwan, was also a strong advocate of physical education for women. An attractive drill display, apart from usual entertainment programmes like recitation, drama, etc, by the pupils on the Fourth Founders Day of the school, was well-appreciated (Chatterjee 2015: 83). The autobiographical memoir of Lila Mazumdar talks about the tradition of the St John’s Diocesan Girls’ Higher Secondary School of giving away separate prizes to students for proficiency in drill as long back as in 1921. In the annual report of the United Missionary Girls’ High School (UMGHS) of 1935, it was clearly mentioned that every year special companies were formed in the Classes V to X which functioned in the organisation of games such as badminton, netball and tenniquoits. An inter-company drill contest was held twice in the year. Even a school for Hindi-speaking girls had pledged the UMGHS to send some teachers and senior students to teach drill, badminton and ball games (Chatterjee 2015: 83).

Participation in competitions: To take the leisurely activities of the women to a competitive level, various sports competitions for women took place in Calcutta. But unfortunately they were not allowed to be members of any clubs. The only exception was the Calcutta Ladies Golf Club (CLGC), a club for European ladies, which had begun in 1891. The CLGC, led by Peddler, could no longer take the humiliation of not being allowed to play at will at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club or the Tollygunge Club. They approached the local authorities who allowed them to lay a nine-hole course on the maidan, provided they did not construct any permanent structures. The ingenious ladies got over this problem by constructing a clubhouse on wheels which could be moved (Das and Das 2008: 88). Much later, various public sporting events helped the girls to come to forefront. Some of such events were Women’s Athletic Sports and Girls Inter-School Provincial Athletic Championship organised by Anandamela, which witnessed the participation of more than 200 girls from Calcutta and other districts. A long programme of nearly 45 events like flat race, cycle race, hurdles, sack race, high jump, relay, balance race, etc, were organised as part of the event. Various other local clubs and organisations took up the issue of women sports seriously and organised a number of sporting events. Notable among them were the Bharat Stri Shiksha Sadan Sports, Women School Championship Meeting, Alpha Athletic Sports, Shanti Sangha Sports, Jatiya Yuba Sangha Sports and the Amherst Athletic Sports (Chatterjee 2015: 84).

The ladies sporting competitions, held under the auspices of ladies sporting union, were successful and interesting events and the first of its kind in India, in which, the Bengali and Marwari girls displayed swords and daggers so skilfully that the whole audience was stuck with high admiration (Chatterjee 2015: 84).During this time, there were various institutions like girls’ schools, colleges and private clubs which organised sporting activities for women. The Victoria Institution, a girls’ college in central Calcutta had organised its first annual sports meet in the college compound in 1937 (Chatterjee 2015). The newspapers and journals carried out news about women’s sports. In one of the issues of Bharatvarsha it was given:

Girls are also participating in Sports. Recently physical exercise has been introduced in schools and colleges and even in girls school. Education department of the Calcutta Corporation has asked its primary schools to see that the students regularly participate in physical exercises. Recently it has been seen that various sports competitions in various places of Calcutta are being held. We feel that many more such competition should be held in our country.11

Another journal gave updates about another sporting event:

This year’s sport competitions of the Women’s’ Inter-College is a memorable thing. Women students have seen to be no longer averse to physical education. It has been noticed that even female Muslim students participated in various sports. Female students of Scottish College, Ashutosh and Victoria College participated in the sports wearing frocks. Female students of Lady Brabourne College participated in sports wearing Pajamas. Kumari Santa Basu became champion in the competition held in Calcutta.12

The names of winners were also published and thus formed an idea about the types of games in which they took part. In the Anandamela Sports, Roma Chakravarti of the Bethune College became the winner of 100 yards flat race and Beti Edwards was the winner of Low Hurdle Race (86 yards) in the city athletic sports. In another competition of Anandamela, Ramala Bandopadhyay became the winner of the 75 yards flat race.13 Even married women got an opportunity to participate in a few sports competitions which took place in Calcutta. In one of the reports it was said:

In the month of February at Calcutta Women’s Garden in a badminton match Nirmala Devi, the wife of Vice-Principal of Deaf and Dumb School and Srimati Toru Devi, wife of Sri Dhirendronath Mukherjee, Professor of City College ranked first and had been awarded a cup.14

Women were allowed to participate even in the Bengal Olympic Sports. There were competitions of sports like like tug of war, 100—metre flat race, hurdle race and high jump,15 which were considered as men’s only sports. But women started to participate in such games also.

In the early 20th century, the domestic position of women changed as encounters with colonial policies continually modified women’s relations with men, giving rise to new agencies, innovation and restrictions (Naha and Chatterjee 2013: 201). In many ways they were able to act quite independently and could become pioneers and innovators. Hence, they often could keep pace with and sometimes even be ahead of, metropolitan or other colonial situations. For example, in the United States and in the Philippines basketball was deliberately restricted as a sport for both American and Filipino girls from about the 1910s because it was considered unsuitably competitive and unladylike. But in Malaya it was introduced with inter-school matches and conducted competitions (Brownfoot 1992: 92).As in Malaya, women from Calcutta took part in basketball competitions. A picture depicted the basketball team of the Victoria Institution, Calcutta, as the winners of the inter-college Hindustan Standard Challenge Cup (Naha and Chatterjee 2013). Schools and colleges like Loreto House (LH), La Martiniere for Girls also participated in certain competitions. In fact, in the LH, girls used to become the champions in senior basketball league matches.16 In 1929, the Women’s Basketball Association of Bengal came into being sponsored by the West Bengal Basketball Association. It developed its own panel of women referees and solved the “referee problem” (Ghosh 2013: 115).

Swimming: Amitabha Chatterjee writes that swimming was another form of sport which often raised the eyebrows of the conservatives. Girls, hitherto restricted to private domains, were drawn to the swimming tracks. Amrita Bazar Patrika reported an article on women’s swimming with a caption “Swimming for Grown up Girls in Hedua.” It mentioned that the swimming pool of the Cornwallis Square Park was reserved exclusively for women every day from 5:30 am to 6:30 am when the swimming club was kept entirely closed, to keep women swimmers entirely out of sight of the general public. The National Swimming Association supported this step, while the college girls who lived in the neighbouring hostels appreciated the innovation with delight; Brahmo Kumari Roy, president of the Bengal Provincial Women’s League, wholeheartedly supported the project (Chatterjee 2015: 88).

In a swimming competition organised by the Shanti Sangha in Dacca, a 10-year-old girl, named Amiya Debi, showed excellent swimming skills, which was wholeheartedly cheered by spectators. She swam two miles in only 35 minutes (Ghosh 2013: 116). Sabitri Rani Khandelwala swam for 15 hours in Hedua Swimming Pool and she had won the gold medal at Rangoon, with her hands and feet tied together.17 This reflected great patience, strength, grace which were cultivated through women’s participation in sporting events.

During the phase from 1935 to 1942, Ila Sen had established herself as an excellent sportswoman, who was equally proficient in athletics, basketball, badminton and tenniquoits. She represented India in Olympic Games in 1940, thereby proving the worth of Bengali girls (Ghosh 2013: 116).


Cricket and soccer: But women were never accepted in cricket and football. These two sports remained under men’s dominion. Brajaranjan Ray attempted to start an annual soccer tournament for women, under the aegis of the Women’s Sports Association, established in 1929. He had to face severe opposition from the educated stratum of the society. The decision to start an annual soccer tournament for the girls’ college of the city was treated as an attempt to promote vulgarities. Consequently, only the Victoria Institution and Asutosh College consented to participate in the tournament. Due to parental opposition, Bethune College was not ready to field a team with men referees, linesmen and spectators. Purna Ghosh attempted to play soccer and became the subject of ridicule.Despite considerable opposition, Women’s Sports Federation was formed in 1938 (Ghosh 2013).

Another important point in this connection was the dress code followed by women taking part in the competition. It was noticed that the Bengali women wore sarees, which were not at all suitable for sporting purposes as it created hindrance to free movement. But the Anglo–Indian women readily accepted shorts, skirts or frocks. Thus, it could be concluded that though they took part in sports, they could not completely give up their old traditional values which continued to create barriers to their participation in sporting events as free agents. Yet, schools, especially the missionary institutions played a critical role in the changes that Bengali girls had experienced. Women’s physical education started with light exercises and drills, and finally got structured and institutionalised, resulting in the development of numerous competitions and events at regular intervals, thus, creating a new space for athleticism of women.


1 Cooch Behar Darpan, 1349 (B S) 1942, Paila kartik.

2 Cooch Behar Darpan.

3 Cooch Behar Darpan.

4 Bharatvarsha, 1339 (B S) 1933, Poush.

5 Bharatvarsha.

6 “The Reorganised Bethune School. With College: With College Classes,” 228666/004.

7 Op cit, p 54.

8 Op cit.

9 Op cit, p 93.


11 Bharatvarsha, Baishak, 1349 (BS) 1942, May.

12 Cooch Behar Darpan, 1940, 21st issue.

13 Bharatvarsha, Baishak, 1349 (B S) 1942, May.

14 Desh, 1933, Phalgun (March).

15 Sachitra Bharat, 1937, Volume II, Issue III.

16 Bharatvarsha, Kartik (November), 1937.

17 Bharatvarsha, 1349 (BS) June 1942.


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Updated On : 13th Sep, 2017


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