Taste of Life: When women waited for Ganeshotsav to drink their fav beverage

Published on Sep 08, 2022 04:43 PM IST

Ganeshotsav in Pune and coffee forged a rather amusing relationship towards the beginning of the 20th century

The original home of coffee plant is believed by some to be the mountainous regions of Abyssinia whence it was introduced into Arabia in the fifth century though the cultivation was not intensive till the 15th century. (REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE)
The original home of coffee plant is believed by some to be the mountainous regions of Abyssinia whence it was introduced into Arabia in the fifth century though the cultivation was not intensive till the 15th century. (REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE)
ByChinmay Damle

The year 1942 proved to be unsettling for Punekars. While the city was facing acute shortage of food and kerosene, there were brownouts and blackouts due to the fear of enemy planes attacking the city during the ongoing World War. August saw brutal killings of several innocents during the Quit India protests. Hence, Ganeshotsav was eagerly awaited since it was expected to bring much-needed calm and peace to the city.

But, the festival was a subdued affair that year. According to a report in daily “Jnanaprakash”, the immersion ceremony was briefer by two hours than the previous year and lasted for 18 hours. The report mentioned there were fewer classical concerts and some Ganesh mandals chose to stay away from constructing big pandals. The report ended with a mention of coffee not being served in many wadas and mandals.

The original home of coffee plant is believed by some to be the mountainous regions of Abyssinia whence it was introduced into Arabia in the fifth century though the cultivation was not intensive till the 15th century. The credit for discovering the use of the beverage and encouraging cultivation of the plant goes to the Arabians. The Dutch were the first to introduce coffee into Europe from Arabia while the French followed them.

The habit of coffee drinking spread slowly from Arabia, but in the Islamic countries it faced opposition from priests as coffee houses had become more popular than mosques. To check this, coffee was heavily taxed.

D Edwards who lived in London in the 17th century and travelled to Turkey often for business acquired the habit of drinking coffee. He brought a Greek servant, Pasqua Rossie, to brew his favourite beverage. Edwards’ friends grew so fond of it that to prevent their too frequent visits to his house, he recommended Rossie start a public coffee shop. This was opened in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. Coffee shops rapidly multiplied, but the beverage soon met with as much official opposition in London as it had sustained in Constantinople. Charles II, in 1675, viewed these shops as the meeting places for “disaffected persons”, and a royal proclamation was issued for their suppression.

Tea and coffee faced strong resistance in India. But by the early 20th century, coffee was being consumed by the so-called “higher castes” in Madras and Mysore Presidencies.

Ganeshotsav in Pune and coffee forged a rather amusing relationship towards the beginning of the 20th century. Tea and coffee were the beverages brought to India by the Europeans and hence were shunned by the natives. In the 1880s, the use of tea, coffee, and European liquor by some wealthy Hindus had become common in Poona, according to the Bombay Gazetteer published in 1884. While the use of matches and kerosene increased in Poona, small quantities of tea and coffee were brought from Bombay. The coffee farms in Mundhwa might have ceased to exist by then.

Mahatma Gandhi launched protest against the consumption of coffee soon after coming to India. The beverage was seen as an emblem of Western colonialism since all the coffee Indians drank came from areas colonised by the Europeans. In Maharashtra, tea faced criticism during the 19th century. The famous “tea party” in 1892 created a huge rift among the liberals and the conservatives in Pune. While the 20th century Pune saw tea gaining slow popularity among the working class, coffee began to be adopted as a cultural marker for the Maharashtrian Brahmins, despite protestations by the likes of Gandhi. Men could not drink tea at home because of religious taboos and could also not visit tea shops. Coffee seemed to be a safer bet as most criticism was directed against tea.

On one hand was the fear of “Western culture” tainting the purity of Indian, rather, Brahminical middle-class culture. On the other, was the attraction for the “new”, and the desire to belong to the elite class. Drinking coffee was a sign of modernity. It was not an everyday affair.

Coffee began to be served at classical music concerts. Several Marathi autobiographies, articles published after 1920 do not fail to mention the drink while chronicling a concert.

Watching Marathi dramas of Balgandharva was a marker of cultural elitism. After the 1930s, it was replaced by plays that had women artistes. The lady of the house had rarely attended a concert. But now the likes of Mogubai Kurdikar, Kesarbai Kerkar and Hirabai Barodekar were performing on stage, and women were seen enjoying the renditions.

More female students were appearing for matriculation examination in the 1930s. Married men like Prof Harshe and Prof NS Phadke had remarried in order to “satiate their intellectual thirst” which their “uneducated” wives were unable to. These events had started a debate on such marriages, but they also created a fertile ground for some women who wanted to study in colleges.

In a short story that appeared in the magazine ‘Vasant’ in 1946, the hero Kamalakar falls in love with his competitor in a debate competition held at Fergusson College. She studies in another college and wins the competition. But Kamalakar is not attracted to her intelligence and wit. He sees her drinking coffee after the contest and is convinced that she is a “free-spirited”, “modern” woman, a perfect fit in Mumbai where he wants to settle down after getting a degree.

Women drinking coffee during concerts, plays and Ganeshotsav manifested modernity and class.

Newspapers advertised “coffee tablets”, and coffee mixed with chicory. Some ads showed it was beneficial for health. These ads carried photos of smartly dressed women and men sitting on dining tables and drinking coffee in brass cups. Dining tables were a rarity in Pune in the 1930s, found in bungalows near the Deccan Gymkhana.

The “educated” and the “wealthy” drank coffee, the proletariat drank tea.

Most Indians have always “cooked” tea and coffee. The tea or coffee powder is either added to boiling milk, or milk is added later and the mixture is boiled. In Maharashtra, the coffee powder was added to boiling cow milk. The whiter the coffee, the wealthier the host. Nutmeg too was grated into the coffee generously.

Coffee drinking by women bothered many. Women were supposed to be the flag bearers of religion and culture. If they drank coffee, the culture would be ruined, they argued.

A letter in “Gruhalaksmhi”, published in March 1929, lamented the increased consumption of coffee by “high class” women in Pune and Mumbai. The author, one Mrs. Lad from Mumbai, was worried that women would lose their ability to conceive if they kept drinking the beverage.

Ganeshotsav was the perfect opportunity for women to drink coffee. It was a religious and cultural event, and one of the very few chances to be part of a large social gathering.

Fortunately, women today do not need to wait for the annual Ganeshotsav to enjoy their cup of coffee.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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