Reading the leaves

‘Chai pe charcha’, and the cultural history of tea in India.

Updated: March 5, 2014 12:25:08 pm

By: Badri Narayan

‘Chai pe charcha’, and the cultural history of tea in India.

In the 1970s, drinking tea in the house was not approved of in Bhojpuri villages. Youngsters were forbidden to drink tea, and only the older people of upper caste families, who could afford sugar and milk, drank tea. Poor people, who could not afford these, did not. When guests visited, they were offered sherbet. Only when marriage negotiations took place were guests offered tea and biscuits. There were a few tea stalls along highways — in kashbahs and villages, they were rare. The people who sat there were considered bahera, laphua and bigrail (unemployed people who had nothing better to do than gossip over tea).

Today, after the construction of highways that link with villages, tea stalls have become very common. They are considered good sources of income for the owners and for the people who work in them. Still, in the village’s cultural milieu, sitting around in tea shops is frowned upon. Yet, tea stalls have also been converted into meeting points for villagers and addas where people passing through might obtain information about villagers for marriage negotiations or send information to someone whose address is not known. They have now been transformed into public spaces in villages, since earlier public spaces like fruit orchards are no longer accessible to ordinary people.

The BJP’s strategy to use tea stalls as a space for election propaganda may have both positive and negative results for the party. On the positive side, the party’s visibility will increase as people from adjoining villages also visit the tea stall. So information spreads rapidly from just one village tea shop. But this information inhabits a superficial space. It does not enter the values, the memory and the culture of the people, since tea stalls are still not an accepted part of the village milieu.

Tea drinking as a habit for common people has been beautifully documented by Gautam Bhadra, an eminent cultural historian. He shows how British colonial polices in the first half of the 19th century made India the largest producer of tea in the world, until it was overtaken by China in 2006. But in most of India, there was no ancient tradition of drinking tea. By the early 20th century, however, it had become a drink for the Indian upper- and middle-classes in Calcutta.

During the nationalist period, there were stern proscriptions by nationalist leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi, to stop people from consuming tea. Gandhi even wrote a chapter in his book, Key to Health, explaining why tannin, the compound that gives tea its astringency, was bad for human consumption. So people involved in the nationalist movement did not consume tea. In the villages, several proverbs and idioms were coined as warnings against tea. In the process, negative beliefs about tea also emerged. One major belief was that drinking tea led to loss of strength. Thus, tea became a symbol of bad or decadent culture in the north Indian village.

In order to counter such beliefs and to spread the market for tea in India, the British government issued several advertisements in newspapers. One advertisement showed a powerfully built man consuming tea, which was meant to dispel the idea that tea leads to loss of strength. Gradually, as the aggressive advertisements and marketing strategies made inroads in villages, the negative ideas about tea were removed. Affluent people started drinking tea, although the younger generation was still kept away from it.

Today, tea is linked to the livelihood of many villagers, and many migrants who return to their villages open tea shops with their savings. They have developed a large network around their tea stalls. These networks receive and disseminate information. Many of these tea stall owners are glad to be associated with Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, especially since Modi relates himself with them in his campaign. But many tea sellers also feel they will not benefit from this link, that the symbolic association, and along with it their concerns, may fade once elections are over.

It is interesting that this idea for spreading their political message was handed to the BJP on a silver platter by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. Now, other parties have entered the fray. For example, the RJD’s Lalu Prasad has started distributing tea and biscuits to people, claiming that he was the original tea stall owner. The Congress is distributing “Rahul milk” in Gorakhpur. It remains to be seen how much parties gain electorally from this innovative technique of disseminating political messages.

The writer is professor, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad

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