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In Kolkata, tea is still served in earthen cups

Bhar maker Shibcharan Pandit stops for a tea break.   | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Soumya

It’s 4.30 in the morning in Kolkata and Shibcharan Pandit has already walked four kilometres. His first stop is a chai shop engulfed in a haze of warm steam rising from a bubbling pot. He takes a chai and when he finishes drinking the unsweetened milky tea, Pandit carelessly hurls the clay cup over his shoulder. It hits a wall and shatters to sudden death.

Pandit’s next cup of tea is another half kilometre away at a stall on Beniapukur Road. He empties the tea in three quick gulps and throws the cup on the road, where the splinters lie, marking the scene of crime.

Each of the clay cups or bhars that Pandit casually drinks from and breaks is fashioned by his own hands on the potter’s wheel.

Every morning for the past four decades, he has stacked 4,000 of these cups onto a blue cart that he pulls on his rounds, delivering leaning towers of tea cups to the dozens of chai shops between Kolkata’s Chittaranjan Hospital and the city’s posh Park Street area.

Hundreds of potters like Pandit provide a daily supply of cups to the city’s ubiquitous chai addas — little ramshackle structures often growing parasitically on pavements, buzzing all day with the unremitting demand for bhar chai from faithful tea lovers.

Waning tradition

Drinking tea from clay cups was once a familiar tradition across North India and Pakistan; but it waned slowly over the years, ultimately succumbing to disposable plastic and paper.

Fifteen years ago, the then-Railways Minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, introduced clay cups in railway stations to give rural pottery a boost. The experiment didn’t take off: within a year, vendors and passengers reverted to cheaper paper and plastic cups. Earlier this year, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal ordered caterers in Varanasi and Rae Bareli stations to use kulhads to create employment for potters, but it’s still early days to say how successful the exercise will be.

In Kolkata, meanwhile, India’s third-most populous metropolitan area, chai-drinkers have continued to cling loyally to the tiny earthen cups.

Nawad Khan, a young tea drinker at the Saima tea centre on Mirza Ghalib Road (where Pandit drops off 600 cups every day), vouches for the clay cup. “It tastes different,” he says, as wisps of steam ascend from the cup he holds. “The tea soaks into the cup and takes on an earthy flavour that can’t be replaced by plastic.”

The cups are crafted from clay scooped from the banks of the Hooghly that splits the twin cities of Kolkata and Howrah as it courses towards the Bay of Bengal. Meant to be used once and discarded, the bhars are fired at high heat, but left unglazed, giving them their crude, raw appearance. The clay’s permeable texture lends that unique smoky flavour.

Drinking hub

Kolkata, known as the ‘tea port of India’, is also the country’s chai-drinking hub. As the capital of British India between 1773 and 1911, Calcutta was the gateway to Chinese tea imports. Then in the 1880s, tea seeds from China were planted in the Botanical Gardens here to test their viability in the subcontinent before being transplanted in Assam and later Darjeeling, regions that grow some of the world’s best black teas today. In the 1960s, when the cheaper CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea processing technique became popular, the culture of tea stalls caught on.

Pandit loves his tea as much as anyone else in Kolkata and downs several bhar chais at the stalls he visits every morning. But back home, at the potter’s workshop, it’s a different story. “Our hands are smeared with clay all day,” he says. His family in Kolkata is a household of men — his elder brother and his 30-year-old son, who are helping him scale up production. “The women of the family are back in the village,” he says.

Cups being prepared.

Cups being prepared.   | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Soumya

Pandit arrived in Kolkata as a runaway in 1976. He was 12 years old when the train he boarded in Chhapra in Bihar ended its journey at Howrah Station. “What else could I have done? My mother had just died, there was no one to look after me,” he says. An older man taught Pandit to make clay cups when he found out that he was a potter’s son.

Pandit’s relocation story is a familiar one. Rickshaw wallahs, chai wallahs, taxi wallahs, doodh wallahs, paper wallahs, paani wallahs: Kolkata’s big city life is fuelled by the blue-collar labour of a huge migrant population.

In Pandit’s neighbourhood, there are a hundred families from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who belong to the Kumhar or potter caste. The potters follow a long, backbreaking schedule of 14-hour workdays. After walking 14 kilometres each day to deliver his bhars, Pandit returns to his workshop-cum-home, a small shed with mud floors that is fractioned into three parts, used by three potter teams. He peels off his shirt, revealing a scar from a hernia operation, and sits sweating over the potter’s wheel. He scoops clay from a smooth grey mound that has been prepared by his son by patiently kneading and beating the lumps out. As the wheel begins to spin, his skilled hands mould tiny new bhars into existence.

Family trade

Meanwhile, Pandit’s son and brother bring in the cups that have been sun-drying on wooden shafts on the roadside. The men create spirals of cups on a bed of hay and drizzle them with ash, in preparation for them to be fired in the afternoon. An invasive and powerful cloud of smoke is always present in the workshop as someone is always firing their kiln. The hot kilns and the afternoon sun warm up the room uncomfortably.

Shibcharan Pandit’s son and brother ready the kiln to fire cups.

Shibcharan Pandit’s son and brother ready the kiln to fire cups.   | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Soumya

After a quick bath and lunch, the men will be back at work by late afternoon. The evening shift stretches on till 10 p.m., as all three men stay at their wheels making the cups.

Potters often supply clay cups to the same chai wallahs for years. Pandit has been making his morning deliveries around Park Street for over four decades. It’s only on the rare occasion when a chai wallah repeatedly receives sub-standard goods — cracked and leaky cups — that he switches to a new potter. If a new tea shop sprouts up on the street, the potter who delivers the first batch of clay cups to it clinches the deal.

Pandit feels that only making tea cups is a grave underutilisation of his craftsmanship. His father would never do this kind of work, he says. “He could make pots so huge, you couldn’t wrap your arms around them.”

Even five years ago, there was some variety in a potter’s work. Clients asked for different sized products, says Upendra Hari, Pandit’s elder brother. “Small tea cups, bigger cups for hot milk, 250g cups for curd, 500g and 1 kg pots for curries and Bengali desserts such as rosagullas. Now plastic has replaced all the bigger clay containers,” he says.

The small chai bhars have survived only thanks to a loyal customer base that is willing to pay a little extra for clay cups. Chai shops in the city offer customers a choice of containers. Clay cups cost the shops 60 paise a piece, while paper and plastic cups cost 50 and 40 paise respectively. To the customer, this usually means a difference in price of three or four rupees.

No new blood

Pandit’s neighbour, Naumi Prajapati, a 40-year-old potter from Jaunpur in U.P., says the problem isn’t that plastic is infiltrating the tea cup market — it is more basic than that. “Where are the potters?” he asks. “Show me one new recruit!”

All the men agree that chai wallahs have to stock plastic because they run out of clay cups by evening. “The demand for clay cups continues,” declares Prajapati. “More people come to Kolkata every day. One chai shop closes, two more open. Think about it — will our people ever stop drinking tea?”

Potter’s wheel

Potter’s wheel   | Photo Credit: Elizabeth Soumya

But Pandit is tired of working 14 hours a day. A decade ago, his wife was killed in a two-wheeler accident back in Bihar. He took the train home when he heard the news, cremated his wife, and has since raised their five children alone. “If I had any other skills, I wouldn’t do this,” he says.

“Yes, I know. People love their bhar chai,” he says. “But a potter has only two hands.”

The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on environment and culture. This essay is from a National Geographic Society and Out of Eden Walk journalism workshop.

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 3:04:15 PM |

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