Syracuse University Magazine

Research Snapshot

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Project: The Visual Cultures of Tea Consumption in Colonial and Modern India

Investigator: Romita Ray

Department: Art and Music Histories

Sponsor: National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

Amount Awarded: $50,400 (January 1–December 31, 2016)

Background: Transformed into a botanical novelty and a prized beverage, the tea plant emerged as one of Britain’s most lucrative, albeit controversial, commodities in the 18th and 19th centuries. It nurtured the taste for an exotic drink, triggered revolutions and wars in two continents, and altered the landscapes of India where it was cultivated as a British colonial product. It is within such a broad framework that I am writing a book about visualizing tea in India, first under the auspices of the English East India Company in the late 18th century; next, from 1857 onwards, under the management of the Victorian Raj; and finally, from 1947 onwards when tea drinking transitioned from an imperial tradition into a national pastime in post-independence India.

As an art historian, I am drawn to the visual cultures that evolved from the leafy plant—cultures that were defined by a wide range of artistic and spatial practices, and scientific inquiry and innovation, just as they are today. In effect, I study botanical specimens and illustrations, tea utensils and furniture, portraits and photographs, advertisements and commercial packaging, and horticulture and plantation landscapes.

In 2016, a year-long fellowship awarded by the NEH enabled me to travel to India, the UK, and Sri Lanka, where I undertook an extensive detective hunt in archives, herbaria, libraries, private collections, museums, research institutes, and plantations. I also consulted with botanists, soil scientists, planters, archivists, tea industry stalwarts, pluckers, forestry officials, and brokers, who deepened my understanding of how the tea plant has crystallized into a contemporary Indian product while continuing to be a living fragment of colonial science, commerce, and aesthetics.  

Impact: My project engages with the dynamic interface between the arts and the sciences. As exciting are the global threads of history that I am tracing in the story of Indian tea. How, for instance, did Chinese tea traded by the East India Company trigger the Boston Tea Party even as the company’s involvement in the Canton tea trade shaped the beginnings of the tea industry in India? Tracing such links is essential to contextualizing a story that is both local as well as global, especially at a time when the histories of colonial trade and power continue to influence our world. 

Two new collaborations emerged from my sabbatical in India: one with the Tocklai Tea Research Institute in Assam, and another with the Indian Tea Association headquartered in Kolkata. Digitizing the histories of botanical specimens, tea planters, scientists, and the trade connections between Kolkata (Calcutta) and London are some of the projects that will be launched through these collaborations. 

While in India, I presented some of my ideas at an international conference and during a guest lecture at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. An interview with a leading Indian newspaper was followed by an invitation from Teabox.com, an online purveyor of tea, to write posts for its blog site (ranked fifth among the world’s best tea blogs). Writing blogposts—a first for me—has made me step outside of my academic books and articles, to share some of my research experiences and ideas with tea connoisseurs across the world.  

 



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Spiridione Roma, The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, 1778 Ceiling painting for the East India House, London 

©The British Library Board, Foster 245



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Flowering tea tree, Lloyd Botanical Garden, Darjeeling, 2016 ©Romita Ray