Taste of life: The leaf cups vs brass bowls debate swings an election
In 1935, the Government of India Act granted a large measure of autonomy to the provinces in British India. The Act abolished diarchy and introduced direct elections, increasing the franchise from seven million to 35 million people. Accordingly, provincial elections were held in the winter of 1936 - 37.
While the election campaign was going on, on December 5, 1936, a letter written by one Dattopant Supekar appeared in the Marathi newspaper “Jnanaprakash”. It asserted the importance of the forthcoming elections and urged the residents of Pune to choose their representatives wisely. But, it also admonished the candidates and their followers for downgrading the level of public discourse.
“We are supposed to elect our representatives to the Legislative Assembly, and what are some people talking about? Plates and bowls! Why is this even a topic of discussion? We should concentrate on issues of national importance. Let us not worry about which bowls to use when one is hosting a feast”, the letter said.
Though this letter did not name anyone, the jab about “plates and bowls” was clearly directed at Bhaskar Balwant, alias Bhausaheb Bhopatkar, who, six years earlier, had endorsed the use of bowls made of brass, instead of leaf cups.
Bhopatkar was a leading lawyer, who in April 1905, had launched a Marathi newspaper named “Bhaala” (Spear) to support staunch Hindu nationalism and equally staunch orthodoxy. Bhopatkar and “Bhaala” played a very important role in the socio-political scenario of 20th century Maharashtra.
In May 1931, he wrote a small article in his newspaper condemning the practice of using leaf bowls, or cups, and plates during feasts. Small sticks used to put the plates and bowls together often caused injuries, he argued.
Eggplant and potato curry, spiced buttermilk, rice and lentils was the common menu then, and the leaf cup filled with buttermilk would be supported between the mound of rice and the thick curry. According to Bhopatkar, this was not a pretty sight. The buttermilk would spill over and the plates often tore up. The solution was to give up the practice of using leaf cups and plates and to switch to brass utensils.
Unlike several leaders of those times,
Bhopatkar did not ignore the socio-political impact of rituals and behaviour related to food. He made it a point to make his readers aware about what he thought were the best practices when it came to cooking and devouring food.
Charity dinners were in vogue in Great Britain and British India in the early 20th century. Bhopatkar emulated those and started the tradition of commemorating the death anniversary of Lokmanya Tilak by organising charity lunches.
The menu would be sheera (suji ka halwa), potato curry, puri and rice. The event was quite popular in Pune for several years after 1923, and was known as Lokmanya Bhojan. For many years, he would distribute sheera near Tulsibaug on the birth anniversary of Tilak.
Bhopatkar clearly loved sheera. Around 1930, a movement was launched by some Gandhian followers to oppose tea and tea shops in Maharashtra. Sugarcane juice was endorsed as a substitute for tea. Young men were encouraged to open sugarcane juice parlours in Bombay and Poona.
Bhopatkar wholeheartedly supported the move, but at the same time wrote that people who did not like sugarcane juice should continue drinking tea if they wished so. The British always ate something while having tea, so one should ideally have some sheera with lots of almonds and ghee with tea, he wrote. If one could not afford eating sheera everyday, non- Brahmins should open bakeries and bake biscuits for Brahmins, he opined.
When elections were announced in 1936, Bhopatkar decided to contest. His brother, LB alias Annasaheb Bhopatkar, was contesting too on the Democratic Swarajya Party ticket. Both campaigned against each other. While swadeshi, autonomy, untouchability were the bigger topics of discussions, the issue of use of leaf bowls/cups and plates too cropped up, albeit inadvertently.
If Bhausaheb were elected, he would make the use of brass utensils mandatory, people were told during a couple of rallies. This obviously did not go well with some, because using brass utensils meant spending much more money for the feasts. Many voters were annoyed because this was hardly an issue for them and they hated that it was being discussed, albeit on a small scale, during such an important event.
The Bhopatkar brothers lost the election, not entirely due to the unwarranted attention towards leaf cups.
Nevertheless, the discussion around the use of leaf cups continued with much gusto for a few years after the elections were over. Bhopatkar actively campaigned for the abandonment of leaf cups, because the issue had generated a renewed interest during the elections. Pune slowly gave up on them and embraced brass/aluminium and later, stainless steel utensils.