It’s a Monday morning in New Delhi and 10 well-dressed women gather around a table at one of the Indian capital’s best restaurants for lunch.
They chat, laugh and enjoy themselves like at any other get-together – except one of them will come away from this gathering with quite a bit more money than the others, because this is a kitty party.
Despite the name, kitty parties have very little to do with cats. Rather, the term here refers to a pool of money for communal use made up of contributions from a group of people.
A kitty party then is essentially a rotating savings group, with each member contributing a predetermined sum every month to the common “kitty” or communal fund.
Each member takes turns to be the hostess, with the order often chosen at random, and whoever’s turn it is to host that time gets given the kitty money when the party’s over.
Nowadays, this money is often used for a little self-pampering or to buy a special treat.
But when kitty parties first got started soon after India was partitioned in 1947, they offered something of a lifeline for middle-class women in the north of the country – mostly Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – whose families had been uprooted by the upheaval and who were trying to get back on their feet.
The parties themselves began as simple affairs, often held at the home of that month’s hostess who would serve other members with food she had cooked herself.
But as time progressed they became more lavish and with the dawn of Indian consumerism in the 1980s, kitty money began to provide the country’s wealthier women – those from lower income brackets having neither the time nor disposable income required to take part – with some measure of economic autonomy, enabling them to buy big-ticket items such as furniture, or a TV for the household.
Despite this, “kitty parties tend to be derided by the general public”, according to Norwegian social anthropologist Anne Waldrop who published a research paper on the phenomenon in 2011, because of their association with gossip, luxury consumption and “the three S’s – shaadi (marriage), sona (gold) and saris”.
Though as Waldrop notes, this derision is at least partly caused by a lack of knowledge, because “documentation of woman-to-woman friendships [in India] has been rare, as women have historically been confined to the family sphere”.
For 51-year-old financial analyst Kavita Lunawat, joining a kitty party provided a way to expand her social circle when she moved from Mumbai to Chennai 19 years ago.
“I was new to the city and wanted to make some friends. I thought this would be a good way to strike out,” she said. “We have bonded well, taken several trips, hosted themed parties, and usually meet at restaurants for lunch.”
Although similar to the rotating savings and credit associations known as “chit funds” that have existed in India for centuries – offering access to money for large purchases in return for the payment of regular subscriptions – kitty parties have evolved over the years to include parlour games, guest speakers, tarot card readings and even cookery demonstrations in addition to the main monetary element.
Today, kitty parties can also be found in other places around the world where there is an Indian diaspora presence.
Smita Chabria, who lives in Singapore , belongs to a group whose career-minded members meet regularly for cocktails and dinner. The 42-year-old said the stereotype of kitty parties being full of bored housewives is out of date.
“We have intellectually stimulating conversations and love the chance to step out of our careers, and enjoy some female bonding,” she said.
Amita Sahni started her group in the US some 20 years ago as a “family kitty with our husbands and children, [though] now of course the children are all grown up and live away,” she said.
Sahni found new members among like-minded Indians while working in a bank, some of whom went on to become her family’s “closest friends”.
“We meet at homes and enjoy home cooked food, play games like Bingo and dumb charades, and generally have a theme for every meeting,” said the 64-year-old.
There are kitty parties to suit almost every occasion, from the philanthropic to the spiritual. One group in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu state, called Sakhi Saheli (friends) organises events and raised funds for the underprivileged. Couples’ kitty parties are also popular, offering a chance for partners to get involved.
Anita Aggarwal, a 45-year-old resident of Delhi – where many such groups can be found – described “high-society kitty parties [that] have become very lavish and ostentatious” with members who put in up to 100,000 rupees (S$1,900) every month.
“There are even gold kitties, where people contribute grams of gold every month,” she said.
“Entertaining at home is passé … it’s become all about flaunting designer wear and bags, and holidays in Europe .”
Richa Kapoor, a 50-year-old fashion designer based in Chennai, said the 80 or so members of her group believe in “social networking” and their meetings, which are always held at five-star hotels, feature fashion shows, yoga demonstration and other forms of entertainment.
“It’s therapeutic to meet friends, and relax without any obligations or expectations,” she said.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic , kitty parties have been forced to go online – with some of their members gaining new skills just to stay in touch.
“For the first time, I had to figure out how a Zoom call works, but it has been worth it to see my friends, at least virtually,” said Aggarwal.
Although kitty parties tend to get a bad rap as unprogressive, antifeminist affairs, Akanksha Pandey, a clinical psychologist at Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, said they allowed Indian women, who “often spend their lives taking care of others”, to practise self-care.
“People often judge women who are members of a kitty party as gossip mongers, or those who don’t have a life,” she said.
“[But] these associations help them build a support system, generate savings, strengthen social connect and express bottled up feelings, which nourishes their emotional health.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.