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How Do You Like Your Tea?

The way we drink tea in India reveals and enforces ideas of caste, class and gender hierarchy. Shweta Ghosh lifts the lid on the issue in her documentary, Steeped and Stirred.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published: August 17, 2016 12:14:12 am
  The way we drink tea in India reveals and enforces ideas of caste, class and gender hierarchy. Shweta Ghosh lifts the lid on the issue in her documentary, Steeped and Stirred. A still from Steeped and Stirred.

Picture you upon my knee,
with tea for two,
and two for tea,
just me for you,
and you for me.

As this song from 1925 America swells with emotion, the screen is covered by a green carpet of a tea garden. From one corner, leaf pickers enter in a row. The song reaches its climax in a factory where machines pour out dry leaves into massive containers. After a shot of a stylised clay cup in a cafe, a young man says, “I love tea.” The simple introduction to Pune-based filmmaker Shweta Ghosh’s documentary, Steeped and Stirred, holds no hint of the grim story of exploitation that follows in the next 50 minutes. “Everybody puts tea on a pedestal. It is said to be our national drink, one that speaks for who we are and how we function as people but, when we look under the surface, we see how the culture of tea drinking has an inherently class, caste and gender angle,” says Ghosh, 28. The film is produced by Delhi-based Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Excerpts from an interview with Ghosh:

How did you become interested in tea?

My father is a big tea lover. My mother was more a coffee and milk person. Over time, I took to tea. I thought why not combine my academic background in cuisine with my love for tea. Around that time, I began to come across many articles an tea that piqued my interest and realised tea wasn’t a mundane subject.

One of the first things you do in the film is bust the myth that tea is an integral part of Indian culture.

We think that India has been drinking tea for ages but the phenomenon is only a hundred years old. Prof Gautam Bhadra at National Library, Kolkata, says in the film that there is mention of tea in the Northeastern frontiers as a herb used by tribal people. Tea cultivation started in Assam and Darjeeling and the culture of tea in Bengal started in late 19th century only. Tea was even considered taboo and people would say things like lat lag gayee (become addicted). Advertisements were strategically placed to encourage tea drinking.

What was the extreme case of discrimination that you found about tea drinking in India?

In Gujarat, there is a two-way tea system, with steel cups for Dalits and ceramics for non-Dalits. I learnt about the Ram patra, a tea cup or a saucer that is kept outside non-Dalit houses. When Dalits come to these houses, tea is poured into the Ram patra for them from above.

After drinking tea, the Dalits wash it and put it back in their spot. Upper caste people won’t even touch the Ram patra. This really shook me during the shoot.

What were the other kinds of divisions?

We have shown how tea and gender interact. A well-lit café is considered safe for women and tea stalls are not considered proper. Then, there is a question of affordability — the leaf versus CTC. CTC (Crush, Tear and Curl, which is grainy and rounded) is looked down upon but is sold throughout India because leaves are expensive.

You stick to a story of exploitation through the film. Why did you decide to include songs and scenes from films?

I am a big fan of popular culture. The film is heavy on interviews and verbose. The songs and scenes from films show, in a light way, how tea is such a deep part of us that we drink tea, talk tea, sing tea and dance tea.

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