Tag Archives: masala chai

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

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