The Social History of Coffee in 19th & 20th century India

Led by Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya, the project explores the trajectory of coffee as a commodity and its consumption in the domestic Indian market, a subject that has not been analyzed systematically. Although tea is considered the national drink, it is coffee that has a longer history in India. Taking the introduction of large scale production coffee in India in the 1830s as its starting point, the project aims to sketch out a long term history of consumption in order to understand where it stood in the hierarchy of hot beverages, if there was a change in social attitudes toward it, who the consumers were, and to analyze the politics of consumption in the sense of what guides the choice of a particular beverage. The hypothesis guiding this research is that as a foreign exchange earner, coffee has historically been meant for the export market, with the domestic market being systematically addressed for the first time in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. In the post-World War II era, when new markets were opened to Indian coffee, the domestic market was relegated to the background again, until the MNC run café chains were opened. One peculiarity of the Indian coffee market is that, just as in the 1930s, in the 1990s the coffee industry focused on the urban educated Anglicized/globalized middle class. Now, when India is said to be in the grip of a ?coffee culture?, the emphasis is still on its consumption in public spaces. The project will study the official records of the coffee industry and records produced by coffee planters in the colonial and post-colonial period, commercials in the media and literature in regional languages, and incorporate anthropological research among local operators in the market and urban consumers in order to find out how consumption, private and public, has featured in the coffee industry?s agenda. Exploring the role of the state, the industry, and the agency of the actors on the supply and demand side, the current project intends to contribute to the relatively new genre of the history of consumption in South Asia, with reference to the history of the consumption of coffee in India in particular, and to the larger sociological discourse on consumption and the consumer.