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

An Imperial Thirst

Although the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is thought by some to have originated on the southern slope of the Himalayas, its cultivation and wide consumption—already prevalent in ancient China—did not develop on the Indian subcontinent until the late colonial period. Even then, it occurred only because the British, who had acquired the tea habit from the Dutch and ultimately from the Chinese, sought an alternative to the monopoly on the supply of leaves held by the latter, and began experimenting, starting in the 1830s, with tea cultivation in the hills of Bengal and Assam. Finding that the plant indeed flourished there, they began exporting tea leaves to Britain, and this expanded supply of inexpensive tea, coupled with the ready availability of cheap sugar from plantations in the Americas, helped to dramatically transform the diet of the British working class during the Industrial Revolution, who increasingly relied on sweetened tea with milk as an easily-prepared source of energy-boosting caffeine, calories, and carbohydrates (see Sidney Mintz's superb study of the history of sugar, Sweetness and Power, 1985, especially pp. 108-150).


An advertisement for the Thomas Lipton Company, published in the "Coronation Durbar Souvenir" edition of the Express in 1911 (Figure 02), conjures a vision of tea as a gift from brown-skinned colonial subjects, being offered to smartly dressed English ladies and a monocled gentleman, against a backdrop of an orderly "garden" plantation, with its bungalow-style factory building. Yet this imperial infusion, steeped in porcelain "china" pots, accompanied by pitchers of warm milk and spoonfuls of sugar, had already begun to be savored by the bhadralok ("well bred") residents of Calcutta. This taste begins to be attested to in Bangla literature and advertising after ca. 1880, but it was initially restricted to a comparatively small Anglophile elite. Indeed, much pre-Independence tea advertising (including the majority of the relevant images in the Paul Collection) suggests such a target audience, emphasizing comfortable bourgeois domesticity, modernity in costume and furnishings (e.g., the sari-clad tennis player of Figure 03, with her Westernized blouse and smart white sneakers), and the elaborate and expensive (by Indian standards) equipment required to brew a "proper" cup of tea (as in the gleaming bone china "tea service" of Figure 04).

My own interest is especially in the subsequent spread of tea consumption, mainly in the twentieth century and (in many parts of India) only during its second half, and in its diffusion both geographically and socio-economically—via the indigenized boiled and "ready-mixed" concoction usually known as cāy, , or cahā, which was often made speśal ("special") by the addition of extra cream, sugar, and savory spices—to become the proletarian beverage par excellence: the diurnal and all-day "fuel" of the "casual economy" of rickshaw drivers, artisans, and day laborers, no less than of the "formal" one of office "babus" (clerks) and shopkeepers (the white-collar worker of Figure 05 is enjoying "special" tea, which is further characterized as lajjatdār or "delightful"), and the quintessential "Indian drink" carried to the West by generations of backpacker-tourists.

Yet the triumph of tea on the subcontinent (which continues, in the early twenty-first century, in some parts of South India that once exclusively favored coffee) was a slow and sometimes contested process, intertwined with and dependent on such phenomena as urbanization, improved rail and road transport and increased human mobility, the breakdown of caste and caste-related dining practices, and the rise of advertising and aggressive marketing. British interest in creating an indigenous consumer base for their export crop, reflected in the Indian Tea Cess Bill of 1903, did not immediately spark a great demand for tea, and was countered by the arguments of Mohandas Gandhi and other nationalists that the consumption of this "imperialist" and capitalist beverage (which required centralized large-scale cultivation and processing) was both physically and politically enervating for Indians (on the condition of tea estate workers, see, e.g., Piya Chatterjee's 2001 study, A Time for Tea).

Although full-leaf Darjeeling and Assam tea remained a comparatively expensive commodity, and most pre-Independence advertising was aimed at a middle class audience, cheaper grades of "dust" and "fannings" (fragments of leaves that were a by-product of tea processing) also began to be marketed. An example is Brooke Bond's "Kora Dust," placed in Figure 06 in the context of a rural "folk" festival featuring musicians, dancers, and (improbably) the company's prominently displayed packaging, with a logo featuring the Madonna and Child. Such "crude" blends were often issued in small packets, displayed in perforated chains (mālās or "garlands") and sold for "one ānā" (one-sixteenth of a rupee) in small dry-goods shops. These packets were also sometimes distributed as free samples by bicycle-riding promoters employed by tea blending companies, who visited small towns and villages.
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