Tea Trends

India aur Chai – The story of how Indians got into the habit of drinking tea

India aur Chai

The wafting aroma of roasted tea leaves, crushed ginger, cardamom and mint leaves being brewed in a concoction of milk and water can give a dopamine rush to many Indians, and might even convince them to stop what they’re doing and take a chai break.

It won’t be wrong to say that Indians are addicted to tea. But, the tea we drink today was not exactly what we consumed until the colonial rule of the British began. So, how did tea end up becoming our favourite go to drink and now we even buy them even from an online tea shop in Gujarat? Here’s the story.

The Cultivation of Tea in India

The British have always loved their tea, and they brought this habit with them when they came to the Indian shores. But the British officers and their families found it difficult to source tea leaves for their favourite beverage. The United Kingdom had been importing copious amounts of tea from China and the English East India Company (successfully) waged battles to protect its supply because it was so highly valued. But China’s monopoly on tea manufacturing wasn’t too pleasing for the British. The colonists eventually chose India as a different location to produce tea and in the early 1800s, British India started cultivating tea.

The Cultivation of Tea in India

Not that there weren’t efforts made to cultivate tea in one of their most prized colonies. In the Beginning of 1774, efforts were made to cultivate smuggled tea plants and seeds in the foothills north of Delhi, but it wasn’t successful. Then, in 1823, an Assamese cousin of the Chinese variety was discovered. During the subsequent “tea rush,” large areas of subtropical forests were converted into British-owned tea plantations. Between the first eight chests of Assam tea auctioned in London in 1839 and 1888, and as a result India surpassed China as Britain’s largest tea supplier.

A failed first attempt at introducing tea to Indians

Tea drinking in India has snobbish origins, having crept down from elite circles of society. The first generation of tea drinkers in India were Kolkata’s ‘office babus’ and Bhadralok residents, who sipped the beverage in traditional British style: black tea mixed with milk and sugar in chinaware.

A failed first attempt at introducing tea to Indians
Image source - The Hindu

However, early efforts to introduce tea to Indians, which began at the turn of the twentieth century, failed. More than 90% of tea was exported during the first three decades. Tea was primarily marketed within the country to the British and Anglophone classes, who eagerly imitated their masters. Unsurprisingly, advertisements from these decades praised tea as a natural product brought to Indians by the progressive and civilising British Raj. But it seems like Indians then weren’t too keen about this concoction. Cut to 2022, people now love and try many variants in tea every day, and even buy lemon tea online in India.

The chai-time propaganda

However, the Great Depression of the 1930s sent the colony’s tea planters on a frenetic search for a new domestic market. The state gave a significant boost to the Tea Cess Committee’s previously scattered efforts to encourage domestic tea consumption. Reorganised as the ‘Indian Tea Market Expansion Board’ (ITMEB), it arguably launched one of the largest marketing campaigns in Indian history, armed with a massive budget. A veritable army of ‘tea propagandists’ descended on India, tasked with instilling in them a love of tea. They drove around in vans, handing out millions of “pice packets” and sample teacups. ‘Demonstration’ teams would frequently invade festivals and bazaars to teach the ‘correct’ way to prepare tea. All-female teams were also used to deliver British tea to orthodox, purdah-observant homes. Tea breaks in the workplace were also actively encouraged, with the argument that this would result in a more refreshed and productive workforce. An array of eye-catching signage and advertisements were created to encourage Indians to prepare and consume tea in the ‘correct’ British manner. These were frequently displayed in public places such as train stations and bazaars.

The chai-time propaganda
Image Source - Goya & Priya Paul's Collection

The colonial colours in our chai

The ‘tea-propagandists,’ like any social campaign, had their own ideology. In the patronising tone of the white coloniser, campaign literature claimed that drinking tea would help Indians imbibe qualities described as characteristic of the British, such as being more alert, energetic, and punctual. Advertisements from this era cleverly exploited current social discourse to lionise tea, capitalising on the so-called “woman question” and concerns about national integration. Publicity campaigns appropriated nationalist sentiment to herald tea as a “national drink” capable of uniting the subcontinent’s diverse communities. Similarly, tea brands during this time period, which invariably catered to middle and upper-class consumers, used images of empowered women in comfortable and westernised bourgeoisie settings to present tea as a marker of the cultured, modern Indian household. Thus, ITMEB attempted to distance tea from its imperialist associations while also marketing it to a conservative society seeking modernity.

Indian Government's intervention of making 'Tea' into 'Chai'

Indian Government's intervention of making 'Tea' into 'Chai'
Image source - AFP

Government interventions, such as the reorganisation of ITMEB into the ‘Tea Board of India’ in 1953, compelled wealthy foreign planters to sell their holdings. In a particularly ironic shift of strategy, tea was now incorporated into the nationalist project of state-building and pan-Indian unity. Aside from persistent marketing and advertising efforts, the abundant availability of affordable tea in post-independence India played a significant role in the spread of chai’s popularity.

While full leaf tea was primarily consumed by the upper classes, most Indians preferred so-called “low grade” grainy tea. These ‘danedar’ varieties, processed with CTC machines, produced the potent flavour and fragrance that Indians adore. Furthermore, the proliferation of improved versions of CTC machines in the 1960s and 1970s transformed the tea industry. Affordable tea became widely available in the market, with brands such as Lipton Yellow Label’ or Brooke Bond Red Label selling it widely. Today, tea has become such an ingrained part of our lives, we have moved on to healthier versions of our favourite beverage. Indians now even buy lemon tea online in India.

Chai.. Kal, aaj aur kal...

Chai is a drink that arose from the long simmering of the colonial encounter in the Indian teapot. The story of tea emphasises the power that images and advertising have over our choices and perspectives in the age of capitalism. Chai is remarkable in that, despite its clear colonial origins, it morphed into a completely indigenous avatar and became accepted as a drink of South Asian heritage.

Chai does have the Rishton ka Swad in it, and while many variants and flavours continue to emerge, the core taste still remains the same for many Indians. Check out our shoptulsi.com, our online tea shop in Gujarat, where we sell your favourite Kadak chai in variants of Gold, Brokens and Classic.

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