Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Chai Why?

The Triumph of Tea in India
as Documented in the Priya Paul Collection

Philip Lutgendorf
"Chai, garm chai!" On my first visit to India in 1971, I regularly succumbed to the railway hawkers' cries ("Tea, hot tea!")1 and acquired an enduring habit—for, like millions of other people, I begin the day with a dose of sweet, strong, and milky tea, infused with the robust "CTC" leaves that (even in Iowa) I obtain from a local Indo-American grocery.  But whereas I initially supposed tea-drinking to be as Indian, and perhaps as old, as the Vedas, I have come to know that it is, in the longue durée of Indian history, a very recent development; one that (in many parts of the country) did not much precede my first visit, or that even followed it.

The process by which tea came to be cultivated on the subcontinent and consumed by upper-class Indians as a social beverage has been fairly well documented — e.g., in historian Gautam Bhadra's pioneering catalogue essay for an exhibition of tea advertising held in Calcutta in 2005, and in Arup Kumar Dutta's celebratory 1992 volume, underwritten by the Assam Tea Corporation, Ltd. A brief but suggestive chapter in Elizabeth Collingham’s fascinating 2006 study of the evolution of modern Indian cuisine, Curry, has further outlined, mainly from English-language sources of the pre-Independence period, the aggressive marketing campaign that helped transmit the tea habit to the masses. My own ongoing research seeks to expand this account by utilizing a range of materials from Hindi and other Indian languages, such as advertisements and articles in newspapers and magazines, literary citations, and oral history and lore, as well as the "visual texts" of popular illustration and signage (Figure 01). I eventually hope to offer a book-length narrative of the mass dissemination of chai, focusing on changes in manufacturing, advertising, marketing, and consumption, and in eating habits, urban space, and social networks. In this short essay, I will summarize the available research on the promotion and spread of tea-drinking in India, making special reference to the charming images preserved in the Priya Paul Collection.

1 I use the spelling that, thanks to Starbucks and others, has now been internationally adopted to render the Hindi word that scholars would generally transliterate "cāy." On its etymology and history, see Mair and Hoh 2009.

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