Bengali meals is deeply influenced by Tagore, however not the one you suppose

Within the Bengali cultural milieu, there are few issues that haven’t been influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, the revered playwright, poet, thinker and all-round renaissance man. Even meals right here has his imprint. An ardent cosmopolitan, Tagore’s culinary curiosity and love for kitchen experiments, blended together with his globe-trotting life-style, bequeathed a meals custom that may be a melting pot of influences.

However influential as he could also be, Rabindranath wasn’t the one who morphed the Tagore kitchen into a permanent lodestar together with his progressivism. That position was performed by his grandfather Babu Dwarkanath Tagore.

An illustrious industrialist and a pioneer of the Bengal renaissance, Dwarkanath’s kitchen turned out among the most opulent repasts in nineteenth century Calcutta, combining one of the best of Jap and Western gastronomy. When he travelled to England in 1842, he was accompanied by three Hindu servants and a “Mussalman khansama” whose curries and pillaw thrilled London’s connoisseur circles. “Tagore’s khansama was a legend in his personal proper and was typically consulted to show the ‘Chef de Delicacies’ in a number of English households the artwork of constructing curries,” wrote civil servant Kissory Chand Mitter in his 1870 Memoir of Dwarkanath Tagore. Such was the recognition of his cooking that his dishes got here to be referred to as “Dwarkanath Dishes”.

Even after dying, Dwarkanath’s identify remained related to curry. John Plotz, a scholar of Victorian literature, recounts in his e book Transportable Property: Victorian Tradition on the Transfer, how nineteenth century memsahibs, who rejected the whole lot Indian throughout their keep within the colonised land, would return dwelling with elaborate recipes for Indian meals, provides of curry powder and Kashmiri shawls. One recipe they beloved to take again was “the late Baboo Sir Dwarkanath Tagore’s extremely esteemed curry powder”.

Dwarkanath’s culinary encounters are recorded in his diaries. In a single entry, he in contrast a wide range of purple fish he encountered in Ceylon with the acquainted kuthla of Bengal. Concerning the fruit in England, he was typically stuffed with reward: he preferred peaches, plums, nectarines and strawberries (they style finest with cream and sugar, he recommended), however disliked gooseberries and currants (they had been too bitter for him). In one other entry, he described intimately a multi-course dinner in Greenwich, the place the menu comprised eel cutlets, fried flounder, roasted fowl and tongue, a curry that was “not good”, currant and cherry tarts, and seed pudding.

Bengali meals is deeply influenced by Tagore, however not the one you suppose
A bust of Dwarkanath Tagore at Nationwide Library, Kolkata. Credit score: Arjun Sarup/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License].

Rule breaker

However what made Dwarkanath distinctive was his subversiveness. His department of the household, the Tagores of Jorasanko, had been religious Vaishnavs and disciples of the Goswamis of Kdiardah. Solely Brahmin cooks had been allowed of their kitchen. Their weight loss program was strictly vegetarian, to the extent that even alliums like onions and garlic had been verboten within the family. Their cousins, the Tagores of Pathuriaghata, used to scoff at this inflexible conservatism, calling them the “bigots of Mechhuabazar”.

The Tagores had been, after all, not alone in following this orthodoxy. This was a time when meals and commensality had been particularly circumscribed by stringent caste-based guidelines and Hindu notions of purity and morality. Muslim cooks had been an anomaly in orthodox, upper-caste Hindu kitchens, and sharing a meal with mlechhas (impure foreigners) may very well be grounds for social ostracisation.

Nudged by commerce, circumstance and conviction, Dwarkanath chipped away at these guidelines. Brahmin cooks within the kitchen had been changed with Muslim khansamas personally chosen by his pal, the reformist Ram Mohan Roy. Going a step additional, Dwarkanath started consuming meat, though it wasn’t straightforward at first. “The primary time the brothers [Dwarkanath and Ramanath] took meat they had been sick,” Ramanath’s spouse is quoted as saying in Krishna Kripalani’s e book Dwarkanath Tagore: A Forgotten Pioneer. “[They] grew to become used to it after persistent making an attempt.”

The taboo round alcohol was damaged as nicely. “It’s stated that Dwarkanath used to take solely a small glass of sherry at mealtime,” writes Kripalani. “He took wine not a lot as a result of he loved it [but] as to hitch the then vogue of breaking outdated traditions within the identify of preventing superstitions.”

There have been two causes for Dwarkanath’s transformation. The primary was his sweeping enterprise empire: spanning the whole lot from coal mines to banking, the empire made it needed for him to socialize with the alcohol-swigging, meat-eating English. The opposite was his pal Ram Mohan Roy. Dwarkanath shared Roy’s imaginative and prescient of a modernising undertaking based mostly on conciliation between the coloniser and the colonised. And since Roy ardently supported liquor-drinking and meat-eating, so too did Dwarkanath in due time.

Inside limits

From his kitchen, Dwarkanath pushed the boundaries, albeit by no means too far. The Tagores had been Pirali Brahmins, a subgrouping that, because the story goes, had misplaced its ritual standing after by chance inhaling the odor of beef. “Dwarkanath…couldn’t have risked additional issues by consuming beef,” writes Samaren Roy in Bengalees: Glimpses of Historical past and Tradition. So, Dwarkanath served beef to his friends, however by no means ate it himself. Kripalani additionally factors out that meat was cooked “throughout the compound however at a long way from the home. Earthen vessels used for the cooking [of meat] could be thrown out of the compound.” Lastly, to sidestep non secular injunctions, Dwarkanath purchased a home at 5, Belgachia in Calcutta in 1823 for the only real function of entertaining his European friends and elite Indians who loved meat and alcohol.

The Belgachia villa was so grand that Mitter referred to as it the Kensington of Calcutta. In his e book, Mitter describes a grand ball and supper hosted by Dwarkanath for one Miss Eden for which the home was changed into a “fairy scene”. The rooms had been bedecked with lights and mirrors, Mirzapore carpets, crimson Damask and inexperienced silks. Uncommon orchids and decorative shrubs festooned tabletops and stairways, and hundreds of decorative lamps illuminated the grounds and the waterworks.

The feasts on the Belgachia villa, writes Mitter, had been “unsurpassed and the corporate distinctive… The menu consisted of an infinity of French and Oriental dishes of which the Kabobs, Pillow and Hossainee Curry weren’t the least appreciated.” To clean all of it down, there have been European wines of the choicest classic.

Via the years, whether or not serving pulao or kebabs, one factor that didn’t change was Dwarkanath’s hospitality. Educationist Sudripta Tagore, a scion of the Tagore household, hypothesises that the long-lasting Thakur Bari recipe for smoked ilish, made by first deboning the fish, was invented throughout Dwarkanath’s time in order that his European friends might savour the delicacy with out worrying about its million bones. One other characteristic first launched by Dwarkanath that grew to become fixed within the Tagore kitchen was the employment of Muslim Khansamas and French cooks. A number of members of the Tagore household point out them of their writings.

Private assaults

Dwarkanath’s extravagant life-style and revelries on the Belgachia villa grew to become the topic of satires and acerbic limericks. One wit wrote: “Within the backyard at Belgachia/knives and forks rattle/What do we all know of the fun of khana?/It’s recognized solely to Tagore and Firm.” One other author was extra astringent: “The flag flies excessive over the red-light district. With nice celebration the hemp burns, drunk in Mecchuabazaar having nice enjoyable.”

Blaire B Kling, in his 1976 e book Associate in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Jap India, writes in regards to the insults consistently hurled on the industrialist. If not him, the derision was directed at Carr, Tagore & Firm, the primary Anglo-Indian mercantile firm launched by Dwarkanath with William Carr in 1834 to import alcohol. “What do we all know of the standard of wine, Tagore Firm is aware of,” went one critic. One other wrote, “Blessed Calcutta, Blessed Saturday. What magnificence is there in holding the bottle.”

In accordance with Kripalani, whereas it was widespread amongst nineteenth century Baboos of Calcutta to fraternise with East India Firm officers and serve them meat and alcohol (even at non secular features like Durga Puja), nobody confronted a smear marketing campaign like Dwarkanath. “If Dwarkanath was the favorite goal, the presumption is that the true supply of the grudge towards him was his open advocacy of all liberal causes and his ill-concealed ridicule of spiritual bigotry,” writes Kripalani.

So vicious had been the critics at instances that they didn’t even spare his private life. One attacker wrote: “Ingesting cherry and Champagne, consuming ham and beef. If my spouse leaves me, I shall take a fairly damsel on my lap, smoke two cigars and darken the room with smoke…” One can assume this was partially a reference to Dwarkanath’s religious Hindu spouse Digambari, who refused to share her husband’s mattress due to his meat-eating, wine-drinking methods.

Orthodox Hindus neither accredited of his soirees at dwelling nor his European sojourns, which required him to journey throughout the kala pani and eat with impure foreigners. As Mitter notes, there arose a unanimous cry, amongst Baboos, Pandits, even the Piralee and Tagore clan, for his excommunication from the Hindu society. However Dwarkanath unflinchingly held his floor. “They who had anticipated he would eat the common-or-garden pie and carry out praschittro (penance) perceived that that they had caught a Tartar, and the motion initiated by them was nipped within the bud,” wrote Mitter.

Final travels

Dwarkanath returned to England in 1845, attending quite a few suppers, dinners and banquets thrown by the higher crust in his honour. At a dinner hosted by the Duchess of Inverness on June 30, 1846, he had a shivering match and, adopted by weeks of remittent fever, died. He was solely 51. His grandson, Satyendranath Tagore, who was Rabindranath’s elder brother and the primary Indian to turn into an Indian Civil Service officer, wrote to his cousin Ganendranath on August 25, 1862: “He took nothing however just a little rice and curry ready by his servant Hooly and just a little orange jelly, and no wine besides claret.”

Lengthy after his dying, Dwarkanath’s nice granddaughter Pragyasundari Devi, the writer of the long-lasting cookbook Amish O Niramish Ahar, honoured his reminiscence by naming a dish after him. Referred to as Dwarkanath Phirni Pulao, it’s made by layering ghee-soaked saffron-tinged pulao and luscious phirni made with aromatic kamini atop rice, almonds and candied ash gourd. An opulent deal with that doesn’t shy from excesses, it’s match for a prince – one of many sobriquets Dwarkanath Tagore was honoured with.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a meals and tradition author, based mostly in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Meals Writings for 2022.

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