Rabindranath Tagore sometimes took time off from being a polymath to endorse Indian teas. That is how it is with geniuses: sometimes they take a break and do stuff that is either mundane, or bizarre.
Mozart turned card tricks, Edison played with wet concrete, Emily Dickinson baked cakes and Tagore endorsed Made-in-India products in newspaper ads.
If you are not an Indophile, you would probably be wondering, who in God’s name is Tagore?
Well, to us Indians in general, Rabindranath Tagore was a Nobel Laureate poet who returned the knighthood conferred on him in 1931, and gave India and Bangladesh their national anthems.
To us Bengalis in particular, he was Shakespeare with added skills – apart from penning down plays, he wrote hundreds of poems (for which he is better known), essays, short stories, travelogues and over two thousands songs that have become a way of life with us.
Tagore also painted, and had the then Principal of London’s Royal College of Art as a friend, and rubbed shoulders with Einstein, Yeats, Romain Rolland and similar giants.
Oh, lest I forget, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz were his self-confessed admirers.
On a less esoteric level, Tagore promoted Indian teas.
On a more personal level, he influenced me into reading up on “saucering” – or drinking tea from saucers, a term I picked up from a blogger.
Let me explain. In 1916-17, about three years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore visited Japan and the US on an extended lecture tour.
In his book Rabindranath Tagore: the Moon of Bengal’s Heart, Sri Chinmoy – an Indian spiritual master who taught meditation in New York City – recalled an incident to demonstrate the immense love and respect the Japanese had for the poet.
One day, Sri Chimoy says, Tagore was being hosted by admirers over tea. While everyone was using a cup, the poet began pouring tea into his saucer and drinking from there.
Sri Chimoy then goes on to narrate: “The Japanese at his table started pouring their tea onto their saucers and drinking it his way.
“Finally, one of them asked Tagore, ‘Why are you drinking like this?’
“He replied, ‘This is our traditional way. But why do you have to follow my way?’
“They said, ‘Because you are so great.’”
Frankly, I am sceptical about Tagore using the words “Indian tradition”. For after all, Sri Chinmoy was only narrating a story and did not claim he was quoting the poet verbatim.
I also believe there is no “Indian tradition” of “drinking tea from dishes” as such – as Indians traditionally did not use saucers.
Tea as a beverage in its modern form was introduced to us only in the 19th century by our British rulers, and we picked up their habits.
But drinking from a saucer has never been an English tea custom, so there was nothing here to emulate. If anything, when we adopted the cup and dish, we created our own practice – of drinking from the saucer if the tea was too hot.
Like Tagore did in Japan.
The Russian Evolution
But once my interest on the subject was stirred, I started reading up for information. It was then that I found “saucering” is attributed to different cultures – Russian, Chinese, English working class…
Victor Steinbock, a blogger, says research shows “saucering” is a common Russian practice. “I am not sure I would call it traditional, but it goes back a long way,” says he.
But he associates it more with “the mercantile classes or lower”.
At the same time, Steinbock says Russians have their own traditional tea ceremonies, different from either their Eastern (Chinese) or Western (English) counterparts, but involving dish-like bowls.
“Offering tea to a guest, in a shallow bowl (with no handles), holding it with both hands, is iconic and may well be found in drawings on some particularly kitchie tea packaging even today,” he says.
Like him, a blogger calling himself Sykes Five also believes drinking from the saucer had originated in 19th-century Russia because of the near-boiling temperatures at which the tea was served.
The flat surface helped with the cooling, and like Steinbock, he said this reflected social distinction. “Saucer-drinking was a class-marker”, writes Sykes.
“Russian aristocrats, the true tea-drinking class, were strong enough to drink their tea hot or patient enough to wait for it to cool,” he says.
“Merchants and other climbers were weak and/or hurried so resorted to the saucer. Poor people were said to slurp tea noisily from saucers.”
Blogger Geerte (she uses no other name), refers to the novel Farmer Boy by US writer James Wilder to highlight the working class connection with “saucering”.
Noting that most of the Wilder children in the book mock their father for his “bumpkinish habit of saucer-drinking”, Geerte wonders why.
“It’s possible that non-Russians tried to imitate the Russian custom as a sort of fad. And even in Russia it was a source of anxiety,” she says.
The Chinese Whirl
I asked Amsterdam-based German tea hobbyist Karel Thieme if he knew anything about the origins of the practice, and he said its roots lay in the Chinese Tea Ceremony.
“The ceremony has a high cup and a low cup,” he told me. “The tea is poured into the tiny high cup. Then the low cup is put upside down on top of the high cup. It looks like a little mushroom.”
Then came what Karl called the Moment Supreme. “Turn around, holding the high and low cup tight to each other, gently take off the high cup from the low cup and viola, the tea is now in the low cup.”
The high cup is used to smell the scent of the tea and the low to drink the tea, he said.
“The low cup is like a deep saucer. This was the inspiration that led to small cups (actually the high cup) without ear, and the low cup (the saucer). I hope you get the idea.”
I get the picture Karl, but frankly, I am more confused about the origins of “saucering” than I ever was.
I think there is no particular origin, I think it just caught on – just as fire did so many millennia ago. It belongs to no one.