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Mahatma Gandhi and his anti-tea campaign

Steaming cup of tea
Image caption The popularity of tea in India took many years to grow

Tea is one of India's most popular drinks and by this time next year, it may get the official seal of approval as the country's national drink. But for many years, it was viewed with suspicion and even fear.

Thanks to British colonial policies of the first half of the 19th Century, India remained the world's largest producer of the leaf until 2006, when China overtook India.

But unlike China, in most of India there was no ancient tradition of tea drinking.

And as late as the 1950s, stern proscriptions by nationalist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi were dampening domestic demand, and meant India was exporting more than half its tea.

So how did the cuppa overcome such a hostile market to stand at the brink of national drink status?

Viceroy Curzon introduced the Tea Cess Bill in 1903 to tax the Indian trade, raise a fund and promote marketing.

Over the previous two decades China's share of the London tea market had fallen from 70% to 10%, replaced mostly by India's and Ceylon's.

By 1900, tea was a large part of British household spending, but the market, although the largest, was starting to go flat.

Image caption 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.

Image caption Much of India's tea is sold on the streets

In his forthcoming 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 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.

He called tea "an intoxicant", in the same class of avoidable substances as tobacco and cacao.

Image caption India produces a quarter of the world's tea

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.

Image caption The traditional way of serving tea in India - in earthen cups

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."

Amitava Sanyal is a freelance journalist and writer

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