The month of October was full of fiestas and I enjoyed it with family and a few old friends in Mumbai where the epicentre of my enjoyment was exploring old Mumbai (rather Bombay). Of course my day used to start with a strong cup of black tea and then some reading on the city before my daily expedition started. I feel that old Mumbai has been best captivated in the frame of the British (more precisely British-German) photographer Emil Otto Hoppe in 1929 during his visit to the present day Mumbai. Hoppe's street photographs of India undergoing revolutionary change from an agrarian culture to an industrial nation are unprecedented. Let me edify you that Hoppe often rejuvenated his intellect by sipping a cup of tea in the then famous Green Hotel, located in the heart of Bombay and his camera captured a variety of tea moods of that era - from elite tea drinking parlours (like the Courtyard of Green's Hotel) to local tea stalls. From the camera of Otto to the contemporary tea stalls that have swathed every nook & corner of the country, tea parlours and tea-drinking have gone through a dramatic evolution. And yet, there are things that remain unchanged, retaining a beautiful connect with the past.
Otto's photographs of Bombay & Calcutta (now Kolkata) make it clear that tea-drinking was widespread among the working classes. Like now, tea was made both at home and outside in the pre-independence era. Outside the home, tea is most commonly and easily found at the ubiquitous tea stalls that dot just about every street in India. The tea stall has become a part of the urban landscape and a cultural institution, palpable in the art exhibition titled Chai Wallah and other stories by the artist Vijay Gille.
It's said that many Bollywood playback singers (Geeta Dutt, for instance was known for her penchant for drinking tea) were so fond of tea so there was a proliferation of mobile tea-stalls (like those that we see in every court-complex of modern Indian cities) in the studios of yester-years. Almost all the heritage clubs in India served tea, especially in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore & Kolkata, where these clubs used to be the rendezvous of writers & journalists and tea was a strong conduit for their ebullient networking (as there were none of the social-networking sites). According to the historian Ville Melgén, the taste for tea was developed in India through a dedicated campaign by the producers of tea once production of the crop in India gained momentum. Initially, free samples of tea were offered from horse-drawn carts belonging to various companies. Much before Hoppe visited India (in the early 20th century) Brooke Bond started experimenting with a fleet of horse-drawn vans for distributing teas.
The British tradition of taking tea with a little milk and sugar was introduced along with the samples. But it may be succinctly observed that unlike the British cup of tea, tea in India is not served in a set where the leaves are steeped separately. Rather, now tea in India is consumed with both milk and sugar but the tea leaves are not prepared separately by being steeped. Instead, the tea leaves are boiled along with additions and then boiled again after the addition of milk and sugar. There are many other popular variations depending on regional and cultural affiliations. Popular tea brews in Assam are saah and ronga saah (red tea without milk). In my home-state it is called Cha. In Hindi speaking north India, popular tea brews are Masala Chai and Kadak Chai. In cities like Bangalore & Delhi, I have come across Malai Mar Ke Chai (where a generous dollop of full fat cream is spooned into the cup of tea). A number of new varieties are visible across India, and with the young generation in view, players are also coming up with exciting varieties of flavoured iced tea. If Hoppe would have been alive, he would have certainly been enthralled with a vortex of tea-stalls & cafes - a much more vivid canvas for him to exercise his artistic brilliance.