Tea plantations were started in India by the British in 1830’s, primarily for export to Britain. Among Indians, tea drinking in the modern sense started only in the early 1900’s, when the British-owned Indian Tea Association began an earnest effort to popularise tea in India. They organised several promotional campaigns – tea stalls were set up in cities and towns, factories were encouraged to give tea breaks to their workers, and even home demonstrations were organised. When the railways arrived, tea stalls were set up at rail stations as well. After a slow and dispiriting start, tea drinking gradually spread in India, gaining momentum after the Second World War. By the end of the 1900’s, Indians were drinking almost 70 percent of a huge crop of 715,000 tons per year.
By 1900, tea was a large part of British household spending, but the market, although the largest, was starting to go flat.
Advertisement for tea from the 1930s
The Indian Tea Association, an industry group made up of British companies, turned to the second largest market, the US – the former colony that 150 years earlier had used the opposition to rising tea taxes as a rallying cry for independence.
When the US economy and London tea prices crashed at the end of the 1920s, the association then looked towards the Indian market.
By then the brew was enjoyed by not just the Singphos and Khamtis, the two Burmese-origin tribes in India’s hilly north-east that had enjoyed tea for centuries.
It had become a drink for the Indian upper and middle classes in Calcutta, the colonial capital that had become the world’s largest tea port.
Cultural historian Gautam Bhadra has gathered a pile of circumstantial evidence on the growing Indian – and indeed Bengali – habit of drinking tea in the 1920s and ’30s.
“We became sure of an Indian tea habit in the 1920s not just from the celebratory poems published in the Sahitya magazine,” he says.
“Amritalal Basu’s 1926 sketch, Pintur Theatre Dekha (Pintu Goes to the Theatre), mentions trouble that erupted when someone tried to hide a shortage of tea by serving boiled neem leaves in earthen pots. It’s the first reference of having tea in earthen pots in India.”
The “Indian antidote” affected the habits of others, too.
In his research paper, “Chai Why? The Triumph of Tea in India as Captured in Advertising Imagery”, University of Iowa Professor Philip Lutgendorf observes that the Zoroastrian families which immigrated to Mumbai in the first decades of the 20th Century were used to drinking tea as a “milkless infusion of black leaves, sucked through a lump of rock-sugar held in the cheek”.
But they changed the way they made “chai” in their cafes to suit British-Indian tastes.
“Irani chai,” writes Lutgendorf, “once dispensed in more than 400 corner eateries that proliferated throughout Mumbai between roughly 1920 and 1960, was typically produced in large samovars in which tea leaves boiled for hours in sweetened water; meanwhile, a huge pot of full-cream milk simmered on an adjacent burner, becoming continually richer and more condensed.”
But the habit in India was not nearly as pervasive as the tea producers would have liked.
Bishnupriya Gupta, economic historian at the University of Warwick, reckons the Indian market was a mere 8.2 million kg (18 million lbs) in 1910, a year Britain bought 130 million kg. Through the 1920s, Indian demand crept up to about 23 million kg.
One reason for this low demand and slow growth was the vociferous opposition to tea within India – and especially against labour practices at tea plantations – that had been aired by nationalist leaders from as early as 1906.
A reflection of this is found in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novella Parineeta, published in 1914.
The main character, Lalita, does not have tea because Shekhar, her love who is influenced by the nationalist movement, does not like women drinking tea.
In late 1870s the drinking of tea was in fashion all over India and commonly a part of everyday informal social meets. [Mandelslo] We can see from contemporary writers that ladies and gentlemen had occasions to socialize themselves many a time a day – at breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, supper, dinner, and after-dinner – and never without cups and shimmering teapots to induce sharing of minds. Calcutta was then a city of ceremonials and carnivals.
Tea-parties were enlivened with spirit of sociability where anything could be discussed, less the delicate subjects like tea growing and its politics and economics. Tea and the Britain have a shady history. ‘The British brought tea to England by way of monopolistic trade, smuggling, drug dealing, and thievery’ as modern research admits [Petras]. The Colonial India produced highest bid tea in auction markets by employing bonded labourers from Assam and North Bengal. From Calcutta, troops of hair-dressers and shoe-makers of Chinese origin were also called to join on the presumption that every Chinese a good tea-plucker. The plight of these hapless slaves was first known when Ramkumar Vidyaratna and Dwarkanath Ganguly reported in Sanjibani(সঞ্জিবনী) aroud 1886 [Ganguly] long before Mulk Raj Anand portrayed their misery in his famous Two leaves and a bird appeared in 1937. [Anad]
In the early 1920s, Acharya Prafulla Ray, an eminent chemist and a passionate nationalist, published cartoons equating tea with poison.
Later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a chapter in his book, A Key to Health, explaining why tannin, the compound that gives tea its astringency, was bad for human consumption.
Gandhiji called tea “an intoxicant”, in the same class of avoidable substances as tobacco and cacao. He was strongly opposed to the intake of tea as “tannin when taken internally impairs digestion and causes dyspepsia.” Instead, he suggested that honey, hot water and lemon as nourishing drinks.
Another widely held belief was that tea made the skin darker. Among a people obsessed with fair skin, especially in north India, this amplified the political message as a taboo.
Facing such unprecedented hostility, the tea producers needed as much help as they could muster.
The Tea Cess Committee was morphed in 1933 into the unambiguously named Tea Marketing Expansion Board, a precursor to today’s Tea Board.
It started putting out illustrated advertisements at railway stations with instructions for brewing tea and with the Board’s counter-claims about the drink’s health benefits such as “increased stamina”.
In the 1930s and ’40s, vehicles decorated with a large kettle travelled through the urban and semi-urban areas of Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra explaining how to brew tea.
Boiling was encouraged as an antidote to the Indian “poison” – and it is still how tea is made across India.
Even private companies undertook their own promotion.
“Before independence, Brooke Bond carts would go around the old city offering to make free tea for anyone who brought milk. They would then boil the whole thing on the cart,” says Sanjay Kapur, chief executive of San-Cha Tea House in old Delhi.
“I suppose that was a very Indian way of getting rid of the supposed bad things in the tea.”
The combined efforts contributed to the doubling of Indian consumption in the 1930s.
Still, the Indian market remained relatively small through the 1940s.
After 1947, tea became even more of a precious foreign exchange earner, rather than something to drink at home.
In 1950, 70% of the 280 million kg (617 million lbs) produced in India was exported.
The biggest turn happened in the 1960s when the working classes took to tea in numbers. Gautam Bhadra ascribes this sudden and substantial spurt in “roadside tea stalls” to the coming of CTC – “crush, tear and curl” – a method of making black tea that produces a cheaper dust, one that lends itself to boiling.
Today, India accounts for a quarter of the world’s production.
“In 2011 India consumed more than 850 million kg out of the 988 million produced, but prices suffered between 1999 and 2007,” says Bidyananda Barkakoty, chairman of the North Eastern Tea Association and one who has lobbied hard for tea to be labelled a national drink.
The designation would help build India’s tea brand overseas, he says.
While Mr Barkakoty trains his eyes abroad, Roshni Sen, deputy chairman of the Tea Board, looks within: “A 2007 study told us that the Indian demand is rising faster than production. That means we may have to import.”
Chai although an English import is now a part & parcel of middle class lives in India. According to a research, tea was introduced as an instrument of hegemonic control of the colonized by the colonisers but now is an essential part of most of the Indian households and we export the tea to our former colonisers!
However today most take take in India which is not the simple aromatic brew elsewhere: its a concoction of boiled leaves mixed with lots of sugar and milk. Masala tea is also an Indian derivative.
Another change which has occurred in the last few decades in the field of Indian tea culture is the disappearance of the traditional cup-and-saucer along with tea pot, tea cosy and milk pot! Now the brewed tea has been generally replaced by a boiled concoction of tea leaves, milk, sugar and masala (adrak during winters) poured directly in mugs!
The old brewed variety is now only reserved for the connoisseurs and tea aficionado!
• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi