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Made in India

In the 19th century, the British began growing tea in India. A connnoisseur captures the brew's potted history.

art and culture Updated: Nov 13, 2010 00:45 IST
Paramita Ghosh

The story of 'discoveries' is the story of chance. And so it was with tea — in India. In 1833, the East India Company sour at the end of monopoly over Chinese trade, was looking for alternate sources. The plant was found growing in the wild in Assam.

"Chubwa in Dibrugarh was India's first tea garden. Our leaf was found to be longer than the Chinese variety, but tea is tea," says the 73 year-old connoisseur and former parliamentarian Prafull Goradia, twice a member of the Tea Board. With academic Kalyan Sircar, he has just published a voluminous book, The Saga of Tea.

The first lot of Indian tea was auctioned in London in 1838. Goradia joined the Kolkata office of J Thomas and Company, the single largest tea auctioneer in the world in his twenties.

Goradia's book is both a photographic account — there is plenty of text as well — of his time in tea and of a certain professional class of 19th century Englishmen who as planters, botanists, managers and agents were making a living in the east and south of pre-independence India. Despite the climate change, for their memsahibs, it was a plush life. Picnics, elephant rides, bird-shoots — and all this while trussed up in crinoline, bonnet and lace.

The black and white photographs also include hard-up workers in various stages of toil. Men and women, many of them tribals, are shown waiting for the day's wages at the table of the Burra Babu, the boss.

The Saga of Tea, says Goradia, will be followed by a second volume, mini-biographies of tea companies. "In Europe and in the US, tea is back as a health drink. Russian scientists say it prevents cancer... Let's talk about it."