TEA: ITS SOCIOCULTURAL DIMENSIONS IN COLONIAL INDIA

Tea, ‘the second most commonly drunk beverage after water’ Ellis, is now being cultivated in more than 61 countries (2018), and consumed by not less than 54 nations (2016). There have been so many varieties of tea, prepared and consumed in so many different ways, all tuned in their respective ecological as well as sociological settings. Britain had no tea of its own, India had. Yet it was the British who grew a tea culture of its own since the time of King Charles II, more accommodative than the ceremonial tea of the Chinese and Japanese traditions, which later globally accepted as a standard.

TeaTypeTable

Camellia Sinensis Categories Courtesy:@Leaves of Tea Ring

While the tea culture varies, the tea as such is one and the same everywhere – basically a wild shrub called camellia sinensis. The ancient wisdom of tea processing has been modernized in colonial India. The manufacturing process transforms the tea into six types – black, oolong, green, yellow, white, and pu-erh each having distinctive characteristics requiring special ways of preparing, serving and taking for enjoying the drink most satisfyingly. In the beginning tea was prepared with spices and herbs, and consumed as medicine. The remedial value apart, herbal tea is always a popular beverage in countryside because of its strong aroma and heady taste. Nonetheless, herbal tea is a misnomer as it is made of alternative combinations of herbs and spices, milk and butter, sugars and salts and optionally tea leaves. Gandhian ‘Tea Recipe’, for example, lists no tea at all. Sanyal The recent herbal teas sound like new versions of Gandhian tea now being marketed as Tulsi tea, Adrak tea, Malai tea, Rhododendron tea, and the like. The Kahwa tea, is however different being the soul-warming drink of the Kashmiris and a part of their culture. All these refreshment drinks of dissimilar taste and flavour meant for people of different mind-sets than those who enjoyed tea the way Tagore’s Gora did, or a Nazrul did in Favourite Café.

 

 

poeticTea

Poetic Tea. Lu Yu’s book, the Ch’a Ching, tea ceremony

The branded tea of the modern society is rooted in ancient culture. Kakuzō Okakura found a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealization. It has no arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa. Okakura The first book on tea, Ch’a Ching, that the gifted poet and tea-expert, Lu Yü (733-804), penned with precise details on tea’s origins, cultivation, processing, and preparation. A thousand year later the British drew upon the classic when they started producing tea themselves. Koehler  It is important to note that the British accepted the practical and spiritual aspects of tea making believing that the magic of making tea comes, when the leaves begin to develop their unique flavours and aromas, almost mystically transforming into something far richer.

Darjeeling’s Toy Train by Carsten Bockermann

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway 1881. Photocredit:Carsten Bockermann

As the process has been simplified from Lu Yu’s instructions formulated thirteen centuries ago, machines instead of hands do the rolling now. Fermented tea is essentially baked rather than pan-cooked—it sticks to ancient principles. In Darjeeling, tea makers remain ‘stridently, adamantly orthodox’ in their processing. Orthodox tea contains just a handful of steps to turn  green leaves into finished Darjeeling black tea before the tea gets sorted, graded, and packed. Koehler From the beginning to end, tea, except low-grade commercial tea/ tea-bags, is dealt with human touch, even when the process is mechanized. Tea is not industrialized, but grabbed the full advantage of industrialization for worldwide distribution and marketing of finished products from the remote gardens whence the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway opened in 1881, cutting travel time and transport costs significantly. Darjeeling tea found its final footing within five years as reflected in 1885 statistics of sales reaching 9 million pounds. Bengal

II

Like most of the colonial things – bungalows, furniture, utensils, dresses or dishes, Indian teas are Indian by origin – pure or crossbred, which the Britishers shaped their way to lead a comfortable and decent life. As we know, Britain never grew tea until 2005, but grew a tea culture over two centuries ago that they enriched a great deal in colonial India, apparently with newly acquired intelligence of Chinese and Japanese tea traditions.
The British tea culture follows the ancient norm that ‘tea drinking should be treated with reverence and be accompanied by beauty but also restraint’, moderation is the very essence of tea. Ukers It demands a tad of sophistication nurtured in modern societies. One needs to acquire a taste for the cup of tea that a British queen and a Chinese sage may savour spiritually rather than palatably. When today’s tea culture is overwhelmingly British in character, it is already popular in most of the tea loving nations, including United States. Sirkin
Tea grew naturally in Indian soil, while tea culture grew in Indian mind through a long process of social interactions under influences of political and economic events. To my perception, the politics and economics had played a significant part in bringing in the ‘tea habit’, contrary to ‘tea culture’. Taking tea is discouraged by Swadeshi followers on the plea that tea is ‘injurious to heath’ and a ‘foreign’ drink. Gandhian political agenda against tea was directed to ‘tea habit’.

Gandhiji and other leaders during the Swadeshi Movement

Gandhi, once himself a tea lover, recommended his atypical ‘Tea Recipe’ for the mass that had no tea leaves in it to risk habit formation. Sanyal  It seems to be his Swadeshi fervor that made a scientist like Acharya P.C. Ray to declare tea a poisonous drink ignoring factual findings. In response, the Tea Board did publish a statement of Dr. Meghnad Saha in favour of tea, to counter Swadeshi deterrent. There had been also a section of Brahmos and their sympathizers who boycotted tea in protest of British planters’ inflicting torture on the coolies found and reported first by Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarkanath Ganguly, two volunteers of Sadharan Brahmosamaj Banerjee. The political aversion to tea was an issue reflected in Naukadubi of Rabindranath, Parinita of Saratchandra, and possibly many more contemporary stories. Interestingly, both the writers and most of their contemporaries and immediate successors happened to be tea devotees. So was Swami Vivekananda.Vivekananda The kind of tea they enjoyed was generally the British black tea, with milk/ sugar, or none just like the one Abdul Rahman served to Syed Mujtaba Ali in 1930’s Kabul (vide Deshe-Bideshe).

When people drink tea, they are expected to acquire certain manners and behave in a particular way, in terms of which a tea culture is defined. Tea etiquette, styles of tea-ware, ambience of tearooms – all contribute to a tea culture distinguished from all others. Close interactions between any two cultures enrich both. We have understood this better in this era of rapid globalization, which is also an era of collaborative entrepreneurship. The manufacturing of Chinese tea-pots in British fashions is a case in hand. The Chinese, so far we know, brewed tea directly in the cup instead of using a teapot, which they never had. The traditional Chinese teacups had a lid but no handles, presumably because they liked to feel the warmth of the tea while holding the cup. If it’s too hot to hold, it’s too hot to drink. Fixing handle, or ear, to a cup is an idea implemented by the British. The design of teapot we use today is basically European. The first teapots created in Europe were of a heavy cast with short, straight, replaceable spouts. “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company recognized the growing demand for such items as teapots and began importation in larger numbers. The company commissioned china directly from Chinese artists and craftsmen, using patterns sent from England and geared to European tastes, stereotypes, and market values”. Designs fell into four main areas (1) mock-ups of Oriental designs, (2) designs adapted from European prints, (3) coat of arms for major European families,(4) and the innovative teapots -such as those with the now standard internal spout drain. The Company directors were especially concerned that teapots not drip and so stain the valuable linen that they also marketed. Anonymous]

Not only teapots but the entire range of tea-ware was fashioned by the British, often with Indian motifs and materials, and increasingly by Indian artisans in spite of their being obliged to do work by hand, while the Europeans both accelerated and perfected by means of machinery. Williamson  The tea-set, including cups and saucers, tea-spoons and tea-strainers, milk-jug and sugar-pot, teapot, tea cozies, tea-mats, sets the mood of a tea drinker before s/he takes tea. Tea-drinkers ‘take tea’ in a special way, which, I fear cannot be described aptly by any English verbs that we know. Surely, it is not that we ‘drink’ tea as we do drink milk or water, or even coffee. We do not sip tea like sherbet either, but do it by faint smacking of our lips inaudibly on the brim of the tea cup and relish slowly the enigmatic taste and aroma of the golden liquid afloat inside.Tea retains a strong association with nature. A good tearoom must be having a like ambience with windows to allow natural light, and flowers around.

Tearoom is quite different from a coffee shop, which often tend to be set up more like a bar, offering quick coffee drinks that can be drunk while standing or while seated on a bar stool or similar chair unsuited for long sitting.Goodwin Tearoom needs everything there should be styled to allow sitting for hours long as tea incites endless parleying – being an acknowledged stimulant for adda, or rap sessions without agenda. Tea and adda are inseparable components of tea culture.

TeaTable @Purwaaii. – Friends Caffe. Courtesy: Kolkata on Wheel. – Adda. Courtesy: @Scoopwhoop. – India Coffee House, Albert Hall

The word ‘adda’, found in Sanskrit and Pali literature was used in various senses by ancient writers, like Bharata and Chanyakya. Das As it was broadly indicated, adda once meant a place of assemblage for a purpose, like the ‘Buddhist adda’ once found in old Dhurrumtollah Street. The modern usage of the word broadens its import. As Collins Word online suggests, ‘It is a form of intellectual exchange among members. They talk about almost everything in jovial mood’. In context of tearoom, adda simply means chatting or free discussions with no agenda, participated by regulars and casuals as often as they like. It is a process of exchanging minds on any subjects imaginable. It is a common privilege of the tea-room goers to take part in adda but not without submitting to the unspoken norms of tea-culture prevailing there. While the tea-room-adda is a global trend, its pattern of behavior differs widely depending on the given living standards and traditions.

Japanese takes no sugar in tea, and their teahouse never serves sugar determinedly, but obliges customers cordially if they want it for sweetening an English tea instead. The English, while taking tea, detests letting out audibly a ‘ssss’ sound of breath through the mouth past the tongue. Appreciation of sound depends on one’s culture. It needs a cultured refinement to appreciate a pianissimo in western or Hindustani classical music, when a bursting sound of fireworks needs no cultural refinement at all. Appreciation of a quality black tea can never be expected from uninitiated tea drinkers to whom an herbal tea is the best choice and an orthodox black tea insipid.

We learnt from history that India have had tea before the British smuggled the Chinese tea to India. Along with the tea plants they also brought in India the stolen Chinese know-how of tea gardening, which India never had occasion to know because of not having any tea gardens but forests of tea trees.  The tea habit in India was grown initially by the British through massive propaganda launched by the governmental agencies and industries for economic gain. Their objectives were only to introduce tea to the people and promote sales. One has only to glimpse through the old newspaper ads and publicity posters to realize nothing was there to motivate a tea culture. Neither the study books tell about the tea etiquette, nor any leaders spoke anything contributing to the tea culture, yet the India historically speaking has imbibed a strong cultural affinity toward tea. And that culture, largely in British way, but certainly not exclusively British, as we have already exemplified in my last post ‘Ways of life in colonial Calcutta’. The scenario of Calcutta tea culture found in the hundred year old Favourite Cabin crowded by the firebrand intellectuals had little in common with Flury’s grand ambience except that they both served black tea in ceramic cups. It is unthinkable for the Favourite Cabin to keep Flury’s gentle silence with the presence of a buoyant Nazrul at tea table.

ANYTIME TEA TIME Courtesy: Tea-Pot, Fort Kochi

Their tea-table manners were also more like Indian. As the expert admits that whatever tea seeds you sowed in Darjeeling, it grows to a ‘Darjeeling tea’; similarly, the British tea culture grown in India turns into Indianize British tea culture, more Indian than British. European ladies and gentlemen have always some fixed times for socialization over warm cups of tea, while in Indian culture it is anytime a tea time

Here, in India, it is adda that takes the first position in defining tea culture. The old deshi tea-rooms in Calcutta never cared much for manners and etiquette unlike the British ones. The tea-rooms were being used in Calcutta as meeting spots for lively exchange of minds and hearts, sharing views and news with known, half-known folks or even strangers. The spirit was somewhat akin to the Oxford coffeehouses of 1650s, where ‘the mind-stimulating benefits of the beverage complemented the spirit of sober academic discussion and debate evident at the university there’.White After 1860s, tea took the place of coffee as the major beverage and served in the British coffee houses, including ‘Mr. Lloyd’s Coffee-house’ in London, favoured by ship owners, merchants, and marine insurers – the origin of the celebrated insurance firm, Lloyd’.

These archaic coffeehouses were called ‘penny universities, because for a penny any man could obtain there a pot of tea, a copy of the newspaper, and engage in free conversation with wits. They served as a basic model for the English gentlemen’s private clubs popularized by English upper middle-class men and women in the late 19th century and early 20th century. By the close of the 18th century the popularity of coffeehouses had declined dramatically. Already by the 1750s consumption of tea, which many people found to be a sweeter, more palatable drink of choice, easy to make and cheaper, was beginning to rise. Cowan

The Club. Engraving by James Doyle

Literary and Political Clubs rose in popularity and the frivolities of coffee-drinking were lost in more serious discussion. Tea was also gaining in importance as Society’s beverage of choice. The East India Company at this time had a greater interest in the tea trade than the coffee trade. The Government’s policy was to foster trade with India and China and it offered encouragements to anything that would stimulate the demand for tea. Tea had become fashionable at Court and in the Tea Houses and was growing in popularity with the public. Boswell

India never had a coffee culture parallel to English one, its production and consumption being confined in some South Indian states, yet it seems that the bygone institution of British coffeehouse had surprising similarity with the tearoom culture developed in colonial Calcutta.

III

This century begins with a startling fresh digital memory of billions of terabytes to absorb the swiftly outdating modern-time and an alarmingly fast growing social dementia making the yesterdays already fuzzy in public mind. I fear, we have already forgotten many old acquisitions. The tea culture is one such thing.  The millennium citizens become insentient to identify its fine distinctions. We pain to see tea is now being redefined in terms of the medicinal masala chai that was in vogue before the beginning of the tea cultivation  – a long stride backward.

The real tea has lost its relevance in the 21st century society. A recent opinion survey of NDTV on Tea versus Coffee discloses the increasing popularity of coffee among Indians. It was ‘a moment of triumph for the coffee shops walked into a tea-drinking country’ offering a luxurious and genteel beverage as alternative.Channi-Tiwary Some historians of coffee-house culture, however, were skeptical of the innate politeness of coffee since there were also some coffee-houses like a Molly King’s Coffee-House, notorious haunts of London’s lowlife.White

As indicated before, coffee-culture in India has been geographically restricted and historically insignificant, contrary to the British experience. Coffee had the same place in London and Oxford of 17th and 18th centuries as the tea had in colonial India. Coffeehouses were then club-house like joints somewhat akin to Indian tearooms in spirit. The rejoinders of NDTV survey marked a reverse trend of opening up across the country tearooms like Chaayos, Taj Mahal Tea House, Bubble Tea Café, etc. These offer the comfort of a beverage many of us love, reinvented and served in a relaxed and casual café environment. Channi-Tiwary

April this year, Quora published an interesting response to their question ‘Why do the majority of Indians like tea rather than coffee?’ The responder claims it was not tea but coffee, black or espresso, what the majority of Indians prefer. It was also observed that some senior citizens still stick to tea out of habit, and currently many people take green tea because it is good for health. Quora The tea habit is a concept closely related to tea culture, which is still being maintained by the senior citizens, and most likely it will end with them, leaving an assortment of reinvented herbal chai for the newer generations broken away from nearly two thousand year tradition of Lu Yü to start a new one from zero.

Before Calcutta bids it a farewell, we may recite a requiem to the tea culture, remembering some good things it did to our society:

  1. The early tearoom in Calcutta was a place to take tea, talk, read news, and collect worldly knowledge paying a thin dime just for the cup of tea; everything else were free. We may call those tearooms by the name of Penny University as the Londoners did for their Coffee shops operated in mid-18th Century as cheap learning centres. Among other things tearooms in Calcutta helped bringing about necessary attitudinal change to tolerate differences in socio-cultural values and political idiosyncrasies.
  2. Tea has been popular among rich and poor. It had an egalitarian character that incited rich social mixing. Vernacular tearooms, or deshi tearooms, offered space for meeting with friends and strangers free from the social conventions of class and deference.
  3. Tea has no arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, neither the simpering innocence of cocoa. Okakura The cups that cheer but not inebriate.Cowper The tearoom has a ‘civilizing’ atmosphere, and a role in urbanizing the migrants from less advantaged locations. It was analogous to musafirkhana where travelers get first taste of the city life, or where students get oriented to new campus life.
  4. Tea was instrumental in bringing family together. Even before the introduction of instant tea bag, making a cup of tea has always been a simple and quick process for anyone to perform. Taking tea comfortably at home prepared by the caring hands of fair ladies was a good reason for meeting family members and family friends more frequently.
  5. Tea-making happens to be also a new occupation for a housewife. Women for the first time through tea parties, take leading position in social gatherings, administering tea-shops or running tea-stalls.
  6. Tea in India and many other places, like Ireland, is served as a gracious offering to guests as welcoming gesture. Tea has been a symbol of bonhomie in tribal as well as in civilized society. To the writer of Religion of Man, Rabindranath Tagore, making tea personally for his guests was always a pleasure. Chanda.

    Tagore with Count Okuma, PM Japan at tea in 1916

Every human institution decays, so does the tea culture. History records ups and downs, and often interprets every step in terms of their relationship with immediate past and latest trends. Likewise we may consider the followings as possible reasons why the tea culture goodbying Calcutta, the city that nurtured it.

It is the altering value systems of the city that destabilized the climatic condition necessary for the tea culture to sustain. To the millennium everything advertised in the name of ‘tea’, for example, gulabi tea, mallai tea, etc. are readily acceptable as tea. Except the manufacturing companies, not many are there who can smell the difference between a bagged black tea and orthodox leaf tea..

The litterateur and intelligentsia, like Nazrul Islams and Subhas Boses, ceased to be seen in deshi tearooms. The plebian city sticklers occupied the empty seats there for quick energizing sips.
The newspaper in tearoom has lost importance. Current affairs and general knowledge are now readily and cheaply available in social media. The dwindling leisure time in modern life is almost entirely used up by mobile chatting, which is largely responsible for making the generation lonely and egocentric,  apathetic to tearoom culture.

REFERENCE

  1. Anonymous. (2009). History of Tea, LGOL27 Portal. Last updated : 23-Feb-09. https://www.gol27.com/HistoryTeaChina.html
  2. Banerjee, Dipankar. (2006). Brahmo Samaj and North-East India. Delhi: Anamika. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=GE2o4QQV7UgC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=Ramkumar+Vidyaratna+and+Dwarkanath+Ganguly&source=bl&ots=6ominLanpJ&sig=ACfU3U2mTX2VU3Z25u5yr1of9Og3mh2bBQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiNgLjk7cbmAhV_zjgGHYewBpQQ6AEwA3oECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=Ramkumar%20Vidyaratna%20and%20Dwarkanath%20Ganguly&f=false
  3. Bengal District Gazetteers: Darjeeling ; Ed.by Arthur Jules Dash. (1947). Calcutta: G.P.Press. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.150149
  4. Boswell, James. (1791). The life & times of Doctor Samuel Johnson. Stories of London – portahttp://stories-of-london.org/samuel-johnson-5/
  5. Chakraborty, Sumita. 2016. “শান্তিনিকেতনে চিন ও জাপান.” Parabas, 2016. https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pSumita_china-japan.html
  6. Chanda, Rani (2007). Gurudev. Calcutta: Visvabharati. https://archive.org/details/Gurudeb-Rani-Chanda
  7. Channi-Tiwary, Harnoor. (2018). Tea vs Coffee: Which is India’s Favourite Hot Beverage? In: NDTV Convergence, Updated: March 12, 2018 https://food.ndtv.com/opinions/tea-vs-coffee-which-is-indias-favourite-hot-beverage-1246860
  8. Cowan, Brian. (2005). The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. Yale UP. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjq4JGVmsfmAhUpzjgGHb0hB-MQFjABegQIAhAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbhsecglobal.files.wordpress.com%2F2014%2F03%2Fsocial-life-of-coffee.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2ynOBv82H95N20ip5E-Ikg
  9. Das, Jnanendra Mohan. (1917). Bangla Bhasar Abhidhan ( বাঙ্গালা ভাষার অভিধান). Allahabad: Indian Press. https://archive.org/details/Bangla_Bhasar_Abhidhan_1917_by_Jnanendra_Mohan_Das
  10. Ellis, Markman. (2014). Tea, the second most widely consumed drink, after water — a meme. Tea in Eighteenth-Century Britain April 21, 2014. https://qmhistoryoftea.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/tea-the-second-most-widely-consumed-drink-after-water-a-meme/
  11. Goodwin, Lindsey (2017) Coffee Bar Definition. The Pruce Eats Portal. Updated 11/27/17
    https://www.thespruceeats.com/coffee-bar-definition-765033
  12. Koehler, Jeff. (2015). Darjeeling: a history of the world’s greatest tea. London: Bloomsbury. https://www.goodreads.com/user/new?remember=true
  13. Lu Yu. (1974). Cha ching. The classic of tea. Boston; 1st ed. Little, Brown
    https://www.amazon.com/Classic-Tea-Origins-Rituals/dp/0880014164/ref=pd_sbs_14_t_1/147-0179330-7137150?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=0880014164&pd_rd_r=dddc49fc-6a1f-4754-b82c-ffc76e13cbcb&pd_rd_w=zAATb&pd_rd_wg=mR0UB&pf_rd_p=5cfcfe89-300f-47d2-b1ad-a4e27203a02a&pf_rd_r=HC08A16M8H6139AZTY99&psc=1&refRID=HC08A16M8H6139AZTY99
  14. Mandelslo, Johann Albrecht von. 1669. Voyages Celebres & Remarquables, Faits de Perse Aux Indes Orientales. London: John Starkey, and Thomas Basset. https://archive.org/details/voyagescelebresr00mand/page/n8.
  15. Okakura, Kakuzō . (1906), The Book of Tea. London: Putman’s
    https://archive.org/details/bookoftea00okakrich/page/n8
  16. Quora, Opinion survey (2015).Why most of the Indians like tea but not coffee? Quora Portal. Ap 14 2015
    https://www.quora.com/Why-do-the-majority-of-Indians-like-tea-rather-than-coffee
  17. Sanyal, Amitava. 2012. “Mahatma Gandhi and His Anti-Tea Campaign.” BBC News Magazine, May 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17905975.
  18. Sirkin, Austin. (2013). Hey, America—You’re Drinking Your Tea Wrong! In: WonderHowTo Portal. 01/10/2013. https://steampunk.wonderhowto.com/how-to/hey-america-youre-drinking-your-tea-wrong-0141235/
  19. White, Matthew. (2018). Newspapers, gossip and coffee-house culture. In: British Library newsletter; 21 June 2018. https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/newspapers-gossip-and-coffee-house-culture

Ramdulal Dey: The Millionaire Bengal Merchant, 1752-1825

east-indiaman-calcutta-harbor-1974_frans-balthazar-solvyns

Frans Balthazar Solvyns captured this American East Indiaman at anchor in Calcutta harbour in 1794. His painting offers a tantalizing glimpse of America’s forgotten India trade in its prime.  Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum.

 

রামদুলাল দে, ১৭৫২-১৮২৫

Backdrop

Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire Bengal merchant of late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the foremost name in the chronicle of Indo-American maritime trade. Trading in Calcutta was one of the very important mercantile experiences of America during her early phase of modern globalization. They reached Calcutta in 1775, on the ship Hydra, jointly owned by the Americans and the English. It was a critical time for the newly independent Americans. Being cut off from the West Indies and deprived of their traditional market, they were on the look for a new opportunity for trading. In the context of Napoleonic wars, the opportunity came their way to replace Europe’s East India trade. The wars kept all British ships busy in territorial defense. The European colonial powers were in constant conflict around Indian and Atlantic oceans. America, being a neutral nation, held a strategic position to exploit seaborne trading across troubled seas.
American’s trade with British India began to grow extensively from 1790. In an average America sent 30 to 50 ships annually to Calcutta only. As it was estimated in 1806, within some years America had imported goods from Calcutta worth of at least three millions of dollars. ‘Calcutta was the most active Indian port for their commerce. Americans in India never established a commercial house as they did in China. Nor did they use the European agency houses. Instead they made use of the services of the banians, or the Indian brokers. With East India Company background, the banians at Calcutta were already reputed professionals. A small number of banians took advantages of the situation and became specialists in the American trade. Ramdulal Dey, Asutosh Dey and Promathanath Dey, Rajindra Datta, Kalidas Datta, Rajkrishna and Radhakrishana Mitra, Ramchandra Banarjee, Kalisankar and Durgaprasad Ghose were some of the early banians who carried on big business in Calcutta with the Americans. Among them Ramdulal Dey was the first and most famous banian connected with the American trade.

Early Life

Ramdulal Dey was also known as ‘Ramdulal Sarkar’, ‘Sarkar’ being a honorific title used in  his family. Ramdulal also wore a compound surname ‘DeSarkar’ combining his hereditary title and the surname, comparable with the  DeSarkars – common in some parts of eastern India. In intimate circles Ramdulal was better known by his sobriquet ‘Dulal’, ‘Doolal’ or ‘Dolloll’. In later years when he married his grandson off to a girl of higher caste, Ramdulal changed his family surname ‘Dey’ or its variant ‘De” into Brahmin sounding honorific ‘Deb’. (See Huttum /Kaliprasanna Singha)

ramdoolaldesarkar

Ramdulal De

Ramdulal Dey, alias Dulal Sarkar was the eldest son of Balaram Sarkar, a poor villager of Rekjani, a hamlet near Dumdum. His only occupation was to impart Bengali writing skill to the children of the peasants backed by his rudimentary knowledge of Bengali and the gifted skill in calligraphic art he had. During the Mahratta invasion of 1751-52, Balaram with his expectant wife fled from his ancestral home for good. On their way, Ramdulal was born and began his journey of life with empty hands. Balaram, before he died, could give him nothing, not even rudiments of his own vernacular to his child. Ramdulal had already lost his mother. It was his maternal grandfather, Ramsundar Biswas who took the orphan boy to Calcutta where he lived ‘upon the fruits of beggary’, and his wife used to husk rice for the market until she could secure a stable job of a cook in the house of a wealthy merchant at Hatkhola. She brought in her grandson, Dulal, to stay with her. The master of the house, Madanmohan Dutta, Dewan of Export Warehouses, ‘the rival in wealth of Rajah Navokrishna’, did not mind adding Ramdulal to the long list of his dependents. Here Ramdulal managed to receive his first lessons from the pundit engaged for the sons of his master. He had only to buy erasable palm leaves for mastering alphabets, and plantain leaves for copying texts. His will and energy made him soon an excellent penman and a fast accountant. He also picked up by then some broken English.
Madanmohan must have found in Ramdulal his qualities before offering him the job of Bill Sarkar on a salary of Rs 5/- a month. ‘Even out from this contemptible amount he contrived by rigid parsimony to save as much as a hundred rupees’, which he invested in a timber depot at Bagbazar with the purpose of helping his grandpa. Being much impressed with these admirable traits in the character of his young protégé, Madanmohan promoted Ramdulal to  Ship Sarkar  on pay of 10 rupees a month, ‘with lots of buxies, alternated of course by blows from ship captains, mates and crew.’ In all weathers, he was to go out into the mouth of the river at Diamond Harbour to superintendent the loading and unloading and discharge of cargo. After Khejuri   Diamond Harbour was the place of anchorage for foreign vessels. In one of his trips he chanced to see a foundering vessel with full cargo close to the mouth of the Hooghly. Out of habit Ramdulal assess the nature of the wreck, cost of recovery and its worth.
After a short while, Ramdulal was sent to attend an auction at Tulloh and Company for certain items to buy. Sadly, all those items were sold out before Ramdulal stepped in. Right that moment, the auctioneer was lustily crying up a wreck – an item out of their next lot. The wreck was no other than the one Ramdulal had recently witnessed. He was tempted to bid with his master’s money. His bid, perhaps the only bid, was accepted. Ramdulal bought the wreck paying fourteen thousand rupees out of his master’s money. Before he left the place, an English gentleman rushed to him insisting on reselling the ship to him. After a long-drawn haggling the Englishman stumped out handsomely and got the sale transferred in his favour.

diamondharbour_cargoships

Diamond Harbour Cargo Ships      Courtesy: Alamy

Back to his master, Ramdulal narrated the whole sequence before he humbly handed over to him the entire resale amount of nearly a lakh of rupees. His master, one of the progenitors of the Nimtala Duttas, had a princely soul. He blessed the boy – so unlike the world, so Roman in his honesty, and said, “Ramdoolal, the money is yours … you sowed the seed and you shall reap the harvest.” It was a treasure to a sarkar of 10 rupees a month. The windfall gift made up the working capital for his business venture that made him exceedingly rich and one of the richest in Calcutta during the lifetime of Madan Dutta. Ramdulal, however, never missed the occasion of receiving from his master his ten-rupee stipend and his blessings on pay days.

Banian of American Merchants

india-calcutta-launching-of-merchant-ship-circa-1798-by-frans-balthazar

Launching of Merchant Ship at Old Fort ghat Calcutta. c.1798. Artist Francis Balthazar. Courtesy: PEM

In no time Ramdulal made a fortune by careful investment and good luck. During growth of consignment trade and agency houses, he was attached to Fairly Fergusson & Company as their banian agent. At the same time he worked independently for other traders, equipped with his outstanding negotiation skills, market intelligence, and his all-round support service, including, establishing local market connections, organizing dadny merchants, market promotion, and financial assistance as well. He was on great demand. His cooperation was also sought by all British agency houses. Ramdulal partnered with the American traders rather than the European companies or English private merchants. Apart maritime trade, Ramdulal had active interest in stocks and shares, and real estates. The genius of Ramdulal, according to his biographer, could transform dross into gold. However, he owed his earthly prosperity mostly to the American merchants whom he served as their local agent, and also invested his own capital with them. American merchants used his credit in their coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal region and shared profit with Ramdulal.

 

From 1790 American trade with British India grew fast. Mostly the merchant houses of Boston, Salem, Beverly, Philadelphia, Providence, Marblehead, Yankee and New York sent their ships regularly to buy Bengal goods. Every house had its own banians stationed in Calcutta.

Salem_shipping_waterfront -colonial_color

Scene along the Salem waterfront c.1770-80 Courtesy: PEM

Annually 30 to 50 ships sailed to Calcutta, carrying cargo of dollars, iron, lead, brandy, Madeira and other wines, fish, spermaceti candles, mackerel, beef, beer, ice, variety of Europeans articles, tar, large and small spars. On their return the ships took varied types of Bengal goods, including tea, sugar, indigo, linseed, saltpeter, gunny bags, and most importantly, textiles. Many advertisements included lists of Indian textiles, such as bafta, gurrah, mamoody, and bandanna as well as names of the towns, like Alliabad, Dacca, Gaurypore, etc. where the cloths were made. ‘Every housewife in Salem knew the difference between gurrahs and mamoodies’. Of all the textiles exported to America, white cotton goods were by far the most common, although printed and dyed cottons, silk goods, especially handkerchiefs, mixed silk, cotton goods, and woollen shawls were also important. [See Bean] As recorded, the total American trade for the ten-year period beginning from 1795/6 exceeded by about one-fourth that carried on under the flags of all overseas partners including European nations. [See: Islam, ‘Yankee Maritime’]

The Americans carried on the bulk of their trade through the Indian brokers. It was not simply because of economic reasons they did it, but for the strategic advantage of having the highly competent and experienced Calcutta banians by their side.

RajenDutt_andOthrs_Claymodel

Calcutta Banians (clay models) Courtesy: Peabody Museum

The early Americans had treated the Indians with informality, humour and respect. Ramdulal Dey was the most prominent among them, and became a household name among the contemporary American business houses. He exhibited the greatest activity and fascination in alluring the trade of the America to the horbours of Bengal. The bulk of American business passed through Ramdulal’s hands. He came to be quoted as an authority in American commercial circles. So great was the confidence which his constituents in the new hemisphere reposed on his ability and his integrity, that for the first time in the history of Indian commerce, the merchants of America dispensed with European Agents in Bengal altogether. [See: Grish]

The extent of Ramdual Dey’s American connection may be guessed from the array of merchants of whom he was the sole agent in Bengal. The list found from the books of the period immediately following his death.

BOSTON
G.R. Minot, G. Warren, J.Young, J.S. Amory, T. Wigglesworth, J.I. Coleridge,
H. Irving, J.J. Bowditch, B.Rich and Son, E. Rhodes, F.W. Everitt, W. Godard,
Mackie and coleridge, H.Lee, O. Godwin, Theuring and Perkins.
NEW YORK
Messrs. Lennox & sons, G.S. Higginson, Messrs. C & D. Skinner, Messrs.
Singleton & Mezick, S. Austin Junior, W.C. Appleton, E.B. Crocker, E.
Davies, J.J. Dixwell, W.A. Brown, A. Baker junior, G. Brown. T.C. Bacon, M.
Curtis, Baring Brothers

PHILADELPHIA
Messrs. Grant & Stone.

SALEM
Pickering Dodge, W. London

NEWBERRY
The Hon’ble E.S. Rant, J.H. Telcombe.

MARVELHEAD.
J. Hooper

One of the American merchants fondly dedicated a vessel to ‘Ram Dolloll’ and named after him. The vessel sailed carrying Ramdulal’s consignment to Calcutta thrice during his lifetime. Among the ships he owned, Kamala, and Vimala were named after his two daughters, and the ship ‘David Clerk’ was named after one his American business partners and a personal friend.

eastindiamarinehall

Salem Harbor. Originally served as a sign over the door of the first East India Marine Hall. Oil. 1803. Courtesy: PEM

American trade brought about ‘a new dimension to the cultural and commercial milieu of the city’. The American way of conducting the business helped in fostering some sort of cultural intercourse between Bengal and America. The Peabody Museum, Salem and the Essex institute in Massachusetts still hold nine portraits of banians in their collections are the potent survivors of such relationships. The portraits were commissioned by the banians for presentation to the Americans and business associates. The practice of commissioning and exchanging portraits is a tantalizing indication of cordial relationships as between equals. ‘In 1801 twenty-two American merchants in gratitude presented a life-sized oil on canvas, the first portrait of George Washington by William Winstanley . . . to their banian Ramdoolal Dey under whose guidance they had all prospered in the Bengal trade.’ [See: Bean]

Rags to Riches

The illustrious shipping magnet may serve as a striking example of ‘vertical mobility’ from poverty to wealth. Like two contemporaries, Akrur Dutta, and Krishnakanta Nandy (1720-95), Ramdulal rose to eminence from humble and obscure origins. Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire of the early 19th century, left estates worth of Rs 33,01,424 of which the Calcutta and suburban properties accounted for Rs 6,17,750, yielding an annual rent of Rs 25,314 (1825-26). By contrast the rural properties, all close to Calcutta, were worth only Rs 58,5000. He also left behind sundry promissory notes of the Hon’ble Company, shares in various insurance companies, sundry bonds mainly from Europeans, sundry bills including China supercargoes bill, notes from Rustomji Turner & Company, Davidson & Company, Palmer & Company, etc; ship David Clerk, shares in Sauger Island Society; and balances due from different companies. When one of the two sons of Ramdulal Dey died in 1854 his estates in Calcutta were worth Rs Rs 3,62,862 and the value of his zamindari properties was more than Rs 2,00,000. The proportion of zamindari properties to urban real estate demonstrated a substantial increase in one generation.

Ramdulal had a noble heart and a humanitarian mindset. His charity was proverbial. He liberally donated for the cause of education and social welfare unquestioningly. He was a benefactor to the greatest educational institution of early colonial Calcutta, the Hindu College. Ramdulal was ready to extend help to suffering humanity anywhere; He had sent donations to the flood and famine victims in Bakhargunge, Madras, and as far as in Ireland. Ramdulal established ‘Atithisala’ an asylum for the destitute in Belgachia. At Beneras, he erected 13 Shiva temples. For sanctification of the temples alone Ramdulal spent around Rs 2,22,000. Besides, public charity, Ramdulal in private helped the poor and needy in many ways. He kept aside Rs 70 a day for the relief of distressed persons. He employed three physicians for visiting the poor patients to administer medicines and provide medical comforts at his expense.

End of Journey

Ramdulal was a pious man. In spite of being fabulously wealthy he lived a simple life. The only regret he had, that his ambition for ‘Gostopati’ or the community leader of the Kayastha samaj remained unfulfilled. Ramdulal and his adversary, Raja Nabakrishna, were engaged in constant wrangling, backed up by their respective bands of supporters, বাবুর দল (Babur Dawl) and রাজার দল (Rajaar Dawl), where bards, jesters, and common citizens took part. The power struggle between the leaders also encouraged local talents to compose street music, street plays, cartoons etc. contributing to urban folk art and literature of lasting entertainment value and historical significance.
Ramdulal breathed his last on April 1, 1825. His two sons, Asutosh, and Pramathanath, famously known as ‘Chhatu Babu‘, and ‘Latu Babu‘, respectively, performed the ‘Sradh’ ceremony of their father with unprecedented grandeur spending nearly five lakhs of Rupees. Asutosh alias Chhatu Babu, himself a musician, was one of the leading connoisseurs and patrons of classical music. His nach ghar was famed for the performance of the celebrated musicians and dancers of the country. The family maintains the cultural tradition till now. Because of their social graces, Asutosh and Pramathanath, noted for their largesse, were called as the ‘Babus of Bengal’. The epithet highlights their refined taste, affluence and extravagance. The two brothers kept up the social and cultural status to a large extent, but not the level of prosperity Ramdulal had passed on to them. The vast wealth of Ramdulal Dey was rapidly dwindled down due to many a reason. With the failure of Union Bank in 1848, the condition of Banians declined in all respect, and Deys were no exception. Their unfortunate commercial speculations and land investments were among the other reasons, besides the extravagance of his successors who frenziedly pursued their fads and hobbies as well as their noble craze for the performing arts. The house of Ramdulal Dey and his sons, delinked with its eventful past, remains a glorious centre of patronage of classical music and stage art in Bengal.

 

SELECT REFERENCE LIST
Bean, Susan S,’Calcutta Banians for the American Trade: Portraits of Early
Nineteenth-Century Bengali Merchants in the Collections of the
Peabody Museum, Salem and Essex Institute’, Bombay 1990.
– ‘The American Market for Indian Textiles, 1785-1820: In the
Twilight of Traditional Cloth Manufacture’, Peabody Museum of
Salem, 1990.
Chakrabarti,Ranjan, ‘The Brown ships in the Indian Ocean: The American
Merchants and the Bengali Banians 1790-1880’, in Business history of
India, Kalpaz, Delhi, 2006.
Chakrabarti, Shubhra, ‘Collaboration and Resistance: Bengal Merchants and the
English East India Company, 1757-1833,’ Studies in History, 1994, vol. 10, No. 1.
Chaudhuri,Sushil, ‘European Companies and Pre-modern South Asian
Commercial System- A study of Bengal in the Eighteenth
Century’, Calcutta Historical Journal, XI: 1-2 (1986-87).
Ghose, Benoy, ‘Some Old Family Founders in 18th Century Calcutta’, Bengal
Past and Present, Vol. 79, No. 147, 1960
+Ghosh, Grish. C., Ramdulal Dey: The Bengali Millionaire, Calcutta, 1868.
Islam, Sirajul, ‘Americans in Calcutta Bazaars in the Early Nineteenth Century:
Images and Interpretations’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of
Bangladesh, Golden Jubilee Volume (1956-2005), 2005.
*Rahman, Murshida Bintey, Banians in the Bengal economy, 18th and 18th century. Dacca
University. 2013
Roy, Tirthankar. What is modern and Indian about the business history [ Book review]
LSEPS, 2015
Verny, Michael A, ‘An Eye for Prices, an Eye for Souls: Americans in the Indian Subcontinent, 1784-1838.’ Journal of the Early Republic 33: 3 (2013)
* Used extensively in this write up.
+ Courtesy : Dr Alok Ray for providing access and help

 

 

Calcutta Peoples, 1876-1901

India'sMostKnownHindoosthan - Solvyn
কলকাতার লোকজন, ১৮৭৬-১৯০১
Calcutta was purchased by the English in 1698, and declared a Presidency Town of the East India Company in 1699. A long time after, following the treaties made in 1765 between the East India Company and the Mughal Emperor and Nawab of Oudh the Bengal Presidency turned into an administrative unit that brought Bengal, Meghalaya, Bihar and Odisha under direct control of the Company.
The characteristics of the Presidency town, its demographic pattern and behavior have been fast changing ever since. Researchers find that the early estimates of the population were partial and untrustworthy. The Calcutta population, estimated by Holwell at 409,000 in 1752, appeared to be ‘very far too high’, and arrived at also by including some outlying villages, beyond the Maharatta Ditch. It also conflicts with the contemporary statistics of Calcutta houses, which was still less than 15,000.

HinduBuildings-Solvyn

Hindu Buildings

It was not before 1876 that a complete Census was taken. The population then enumerated for the whole area of modern Calcutta was 611,784, which grew to 612,307 in 1881, to 682,305 in 1891, and to 847,796 in 1901. On the last two occasions the increases have amounted to 11 and 24 per cent, respectively. The city was seriously overcrowded by European standards,; more than half the population have less than half a room per head and 90 percent, have three-quarters of a room or less. In Burrah Bazar no less than 9,531 persons out of 31,574 are crowded four or more into each room.
In 1901 the mean density was 41 persons per acre for the whole city, and 68 in Calcutta proper. The wards in the centre of the native commercial quarter were the most crowded ward is Colootolla with 261 persons to the acre, followed by Jorasanko (202), Jorabagan (201), and Moocheepara (199). Whereas, in the southern part, the suburbs of Alipore and Ballygunge were of lowest density. The greatest increase in population during the previous decade has occurred in the wards already most populous in 1891.
It can be noticed that young Calcutta with its broad-based multi-ethnic character was destined to be a cosmopolitan city. Only a third of the population of Calcutta in 1901 had been born there, and the rest in other parts of Bengal and one-seventh in other parts of India. The number of persons born in other countries in Asia is 2,973, in Europe 6,701, in Africa 96, in America 175, in Australia 80, and at sea 9. In the whole population there are only half as many women as men. This is due to the large number of immigrants, among whom there are only 279 females to 1,000 males.
Of the number born in other parts of Bengal, the Twenty-four Parganas supplies nearly one-fifth, and large numbers come from Hooghly, Gaya, Patna, Midnapore, and Cuttack. Of those from other parts of British India, the majority are admitted from the United Provinces, chiefly from Benares, Azamgarh, Ghazlpur, and Jaunpur. Of other Asiatics, the Chinese, who congregate in China Bazar and the Bow Bazar and Waterloo Street sections, account for 1,709, of whom only 141 are females. Of those born in Europe, 5,750 are British and 951 come from other countries, France (176), Germany (168), and Austria (108) alone having more than 100 representatives.

EuropeanBuildings-Solvyn

European Buildings

No less than 57 different languages are spoken by people living in Calcutta, of which 41 are Asiatic and 16 non-Asiatic. The Bengali-speaking population numbers 435,000 and the Hindi-speaking 319,000. About 31,000? persons speak Oriya, 29,000 English, and 24,000 Urdu.
By religion 65 per cent are Hindus, 29-4 per cent, Muhammadans, and 4 per cent. Christians, leaving only about 1 per cent, for all other religions combined including 2,903 Buddhists, 1,889 Jews, and 1,799 Brahmos. Hindus preponderate in the north of the city, while the chief Musalman centres are Colootolla and Moocheepara, and the outlying wards near the docks and canals.
Brahmans (83,000) are the most numerous caste, and with Kayasths (67,000), Kaibarltas (37,000), Subarnabaniks and Chamars (25,000 each), Goalas (23,000), and Tantis (21,000) account for more than half the Hindu population. Among the Muhammadans 91 per cent, are Shaikhs and 5 per cent. Pathans, while Saiyids number 8,000. Europeans number 13,571, and Eurosians 14,482. See Imperial Gazetteer of India, v.9 for more

Official statistics apart there are varied types of personal writings, including history, memoir and travel books reflecting on demography and ethnography of Calcutta. There were also some painters who left faithful visual representations of Calcutta populace. Baltazard Solvyns, a Belgian artist, during his stay in Calcutta (1791-18040 did more. He committed himself to portray systematically the people of Calcutta, categorized by race, religion, language and occupation, living in White Town and Black Town. Three of his etchings are being posted here.Courtesy: Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr, Solvyns Project at Texus Univ.

The view at the top is of a marketplace crowded by men and women in varied dress-styles – an etching by Balthazar Solvyns; captioned: Of the Nations Most Known in Hindoostan.

Zenana Bathing Ghat, Calcutta, c1890

zenenaGhat(crp)Glennরামচন্দ্র গোয়েঙ্কা জানানা ঘাট, কলকাতা, c১৮৯০
The Zenana Ghat was one of the most beautiful bathing ghats on Hooghly, viewed standing with its elegant dome next to Mullick Ghat (hidden behind Armenian Ghat). It was built presumably in late 1880s or early 1890s by Ramchandra Goenka, father of Sir Badrinath Goenka. A leading businesman Ramchandra earned a reputation for the philanthropic works he did all over India, including his home town Dundlod, Rajasthan where he built the beautiful Chhatri of Ram Dutt Goenka and the adjacent well in 1888. He was one of the founders of the Calcutta Pinjrapole, the very first social organization of the Calcutta Marwaris, and established a Vidhowa Sahayak Samiti (widow helper association) in 1899. This institution also helped orphan children below the age of fifteen. The Zenana Ghat meant exclusively for women, which still stands on the river bank with its historic edifice.
This is a cropped view of the original panoramic photograph taken in 1944 by Glenn S. Hensley

Suttee : Preparing for the Immolation of a Hindoo Widow, 1826

সতী সহমরণ প্রথা, ১৮২৬
Preparing a Hindu widow for immolation as seen in this painting is a realistic depiction of the rite of Sati as was practiced in Hindu society. The practice was formally banned in 1798, but continued in the surrounding areas. From 1812 onwards, it was Raja Rammohun Roy who started his own campaign against Sati. His petition against Sati also took place in 1829. The practice finally was banned by The Bengal Sati Regulation of 1829 – a legal act promulgated in British India under East India Company rule, by the then Governor-General Lord William Bentinck. This made the practice of the immolation of a Hindu widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband—illegal in all jurisdictions of British India and subject to prosecution.
This painting is made by Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877), a self-taught amateur artist, who served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period made a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India.