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Dishes and Discourses: Culinary Culture at Jorasanko

The present paper looks into the culinary culture of the Jorasanko Tagore family. Tagores were perhaps the most popular among the Bengali elites of the 19th century. Social reforms, literary activities, reforms for the emancipation of women, they had something to contribute in each of these fields. Although much has been written about them, culinary culture is something which has not been adequately covered.[1] The paper aims at filling up the gap.

 

The story of the culinary culture of Jorasanko should begin with Dwarkanath Tagore. Dwarkanath, grandfather of Rabindranath was perhaps the largest business tycoons among 19th-century Indians. Shipping, banking, salt, plantations—there was no end to his enterprises. If his earnings were fabulous so was his spending.[2] Dwarkanath, while retaining orthodox Hindu traditions within the family, was also eager to maintain cordial relations with the Europeans. He regularly entertained high ranking British officials at his palatial Belgatchhia Villa in north Calcutta. The villa hosted no less a person than the Governor General and practically every British civilian along with other Europeans (Kling 1976:47). It was exquisitely decorated with draperies, carpets, wall hangings and marble statues with a beautiful garden surrounding it (Kling 1976:47). The guests were entertained with fireworks, nautch performances and musical soirees. Along with this, mouth-watering savouries were served. The editor of a contemporary native daily was perhaps a bit sad for not being invited at the party when he commented:

 

How knives and forks clatter in the Belgatchhia garden/ How good those dainty dishes are that are served/ How would we know/ Only the Tagore Company knows. (Kling 1976:159)[3]

 

About the dishes served to the guests, not much is known. Only this, that several varieties of meat including beef were served. As Dwarkanath was brought up according to the Vaishnava tradition, he never touched meat of any kind but joined his guests in drinking wine. (Kling 1976:47) The same editor regretted:

 

What magic is there in red wine/ How would we know/ Only the Tagore Company knows. (Deb 1987:8)

 

Although Dwarkanath was a close friend and associate of Raja Rammohan Roy, he never became a Brahmo. He preferred worldly comforts to an austere life. But his son, Debendranath, realising the soullessness of leading a life of comfort and pleasure, sought refuge in the monistic faith based on the Upanishads which Rammohan had formulated. Initially, he was given to a life of intense pleasure. Thus once when he celebrated Saraswati Puja at his residence, there was a shortage of sandesh (a popular Bengali sweetmeat) in the entire city as all of it was brought to Jorasanko. He spent no less than one lac rupees for the puja (Chakrabarty 2013:103).

 

Debendranath along with some of his associates formally became a Brahmo on December 23, 1843. In order to celebrate the day he and his friends went for picnic in a garden house. There, Brahmo ceremonies were performed and a sumptuous lunch followed. This was an annual event of revelry. On one of the occasions Debendranath decided to cook the dessert himself, which was payesh (rice cooked in milk with almonds and raisins added). Sufficient milk and sweet were put in as ingredients. Everyone present waited eagerly to taste the dish.

 

When lunch was over, the much awaited Payesh was served. Everyone present tasted it. The taste was a bit out of the way. ‘How is it?’Kartadadamashay (Debendranath) asked one of them. Everyone agreed that it was delicious. But one among them gathered courage and said, ‘It is delicious, but there is a strange smell. It seems to be the smell of over-cooked food.’ Kartadadamashay smiled, ‘There is that strange smell, isn’t there? I just wanted that added flavour.’ Actually, the Payesh got burnt due to overcooking (Tagore 2007:49–50).

 

Debendranath, like his father, liked to entertain guests. Every such occasion was followed by sumptuous lunch.  No one was allowed to waste even a morsel. Payesh was a must for dessert. Without it, the lunch was never considered to be complete (Tagore 2007:49). Though he did not approve of unrestricted westernization, Debendranath maintained cordial relations with the British.[4] In 1886, he hosted a party at Jorasanko, in honour of the Governor of Bengal, Lord Lansdowne (Tagore 2007:116). Though no information is available about the food served to the guests, it is probable that European cuisine from expensive restaurants as well as a choice Bengali dishes were served.

 

About Debendranath’s preferences of food little is known. He had milk every morning. A large bowl full of milk was given to him which he took cupping it with both hands. As it would be extremely warm a silk napkin was spread under the bowl in order to make it easier for him to hold it and in order to make the milk sweet, cows were given a daily diet of gurh or jaggery (Tagore 2007:52).

 

Debendranath fell seriously ill, at 87, in 1904. Following the doctor’s advice he went to Darjeeling for a change of air. Dwipendranth, son of Dwijendranath accompanied him to the hill station. Here Debendranath’s health improved considerably as he had rotis with dal (pulses) and ghee every day for dinner. According to an awestruck Dwipendranath, ‘He (Debendranath) ate each roti by dipping it first in the dal and then in the ghee. I was extremely afraid of such a heavy dinner for such an old man. But strangely nothing seemed to happen to him’ (Tagore 2007:54).

 

Satyendranath Tagore, the second son of Debendranath, went to England in 1862 for the ICS examination. He was a great proponent of women’s education and advocated their freedom from patriarchal pressures (Sen 2012[1956]:204). From England he urged his wife Gyanadanandini to join him. Although initially Debendranath was reluctant to permit her to cross the ocean, Gyanadanandini did go to England breaking the family tradition. In the letters he wrote to his wife from England, Satyendranath gave her detailed advice as to how she should lead life in a distant and unknown land. In one of them he advised her to change her diet:

You would also need to change your diet. I know that our women eat very little. Sea voyage often increases appetite and therefore it is very important that you take a healthy diet. Please have bread and butter for breakfast and chicken for lunch (Debi 2012:57).

 

Gyanadanandini’s stay in England and interactions with the British helped her to imbibe western culture. She introduced celebration of birthdays of children in the family. Sarala Debi recalls that every year birthdays of Surendranath and Indira, son and daughter of Gyanadanandini were celebrated. Chocolate cakes and continental dinner were served (Chaudhurani 2007:55).

 

Rabindranath was the 14th child of Debendranath. When he was young, Tagore did not receive much parental care, common to the prevalent family custom. Therefore he along with his elder brother Somendranath and nephew Satyaprasad, spent much of his childhood in the care of servants. In order to make their charge easier the servants did not allow him to go out of the four walls of the home. In his Reminiscences, Tagore recalled his childhood as one of constant surveillance and subservience (Tagore 2003a:896–99). Such subservience was reflected in case of food that was served. Luchis (flour puffs) were served for breakfast. One of the servants was more interested in saving food for himself than give them to children whom he was supposed to look after. First he gave some luchis, literally throwing them on the plates and then unwillingly asked them if they would like some more. When he was assured that no more luchis were required the servant was considerably pleased (Tagore 2003a:898–99).

One of the earliest poetic attempts by Tagore was about food. Perhaps at the age of ten he wrote:

 

Mix ammshotto (dried pads of mango) in milk/ Add bananas into it/ Flavour it then with Sandesh/ Slurrp, Slurrp and nothing else can be heard/ There are no morsel left for even an ant to taste (Tagore 2003a:908).

The poem suggests the kind of food children had in Jorasanko. Luchi, aamshotto, milk, banana and sandesh—all typically favourite Bengali food items.

 

Tagore recalled that as a child he often saw women of the household making boris (dollops of lentil paste) and mango and jalpai (Indian olive) pickles which were then dried under the sun on the terrace of the Jorasanko house. The terrace was a place exclusive to women who congregated there every afternoon for an after-lunch gossip. And also to keep watch on pickles and boris (Tagore 2003b:500). Food was something of a release for women of the family from their daily rut of household duties. The Tagores were proponents of fusion of the East and the West because of their exposure to colonialism and also an attempt to retain indigenous culture. One of the areas in which such a fusion was noticed was the kitchen. Thus along with common Bengali food items such as bhaat (rice), daal (pulses), maachherjhol (fish curry), postochocchori (vegetables with poppy seeds), boribhaajaa (fried dollops of lentil), aalubhaate (mashed potato), papad (wafers) and paayesh (rice cooked in milk with added flavours), such dishes as Philipini Murgi, Madrasi Salad and Irish Stew were included in the menu (Tagore 1988).

 

Sarala Debi has recalled in her memoir that during her childhood, 1870’s and early 1880’s, there were massive preparations for lunch and dinner at Jorasanko. Rice was cooked and poured in mounds on a clean cloth. Fried aubergine and other savouries were kept at its side. A huge amount of fish was fried along with it. Items suited to the taste of each member of the family were cooked every day. After cooking, food was served on white marble plates and bowls and taken to the rooms of family members (Chaudhurani 2007:9–10).

 

In the 1880’s, when Tagore came of age and gradually emerged in the public sphere, Jorasanko became a hub of cultural activities. Tagore, on his return from England in 1879 brought with him a taste of English culture in the form of Western music. His chief mentors were his elder brother Jyotirindranath and Kadambari Debi, his sister-in-law. Musical soirees, dramatic performances and picnics were regularly organised in Jorasanko (Tagore 2003a:937–43). A ‘Dramatic Club’ was formed of which Tagore and his nephews were active members. The club staged Tagore’s Bisarjan in 1887 (Tagore 2007:22). And for reasons unknown, the club folded up just after the performance. With the subscriptions left in its accounts, a sumptuous dinner was organised. Abanindranath has recalled in his memoir that the food was so delicious that ‘not even a wee bit of morsel was left behind.’ Mutton chops and Neapolitan Cream were among the items served (Tagore 2007:22).

 

Tagore was married in December 1883 at the age of 22. His wife Mrinalini Debi was 11 at the time of the marriage. The great disparity in age and the constant pressure of having to stay in a large household made it impossible for Mrinalini to become the ideal companion to her husband. Tagore took little initiative to train his wife. Instead he chose to discuss literary topics with his niece, Indira Debi.[5] However, Mrinalini Debi, on her own initiative, was able to curve out a niche of her own. With the help of Balendranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath she read difficult Sanskrit texts and also popular literary pieces in English and Bengali. Her knowledge of Sanskrit grew to such an extent that she was able to translate parts of the Mahabharata and slokas from the Upanishads into Bengali (Chattopadhyay 2008:10). She was an excellent cook, an expert in preparing curries, pickles and sweets. Rathindranath, the eldest son of Rabindranath, remembers in his memoirs that whenever his father’s friends visited Jorasanko, Mrinalini took up the responsibility of cooking, and she was praised by everyone (Tagore 1988:18-20). In Rathindranath’s early days, as a student of Brahmacharyasram at Santiniketan, a strict vegetarian diet was prescribed for the students, Mrinalini often invited them home and cooked them tasty dishes. Cooking brought Tagore and his wife closer to each other. Tagore liked to make innovative experiments with food and these dishes were prepared by Mrinalini. Hemlata Debi notes that both of them were often seen together in the kitchen (Chattopadhyay 2008:18).

 

Rabindranath and Jyotirindranath was invited to the provincial conference of the Bengal Congress at Natore in 1897. The Raja of Natore, Jagadindranarayan Chowdhury, a family friend of the Tagores was the main organiser. Abanindranath, who was also among the invitees, recalled in his memoirs that the conference was a grand affair. The Raja had organised it in such a way that everything was ready at hand on the bidding. On the way to Natore, Tagore and his party had to cross the river Padma. 

Lunch was served on the deck (of the steamer). Tables and chairs were arranged on the deck itself. There was a long table, on one side of which sat a Congress big-wig. On the other side, we boys sat with Dipuda (Dwipendranath, son of Tagore’s elder brother Dwijendranath). As lunch commenced, the Congress big-wig was served first. He picked up seven cutlets all at once. By the time the plate reached our side, nothing was left. Same was the case with pudding. ... Then, an irritated Dipuda instructed those who are serving to bring the plates to us before the others got hold of it. ... They did so and we had nothing to worry after that. (Tagore 2007:70)

 

 

In 1901, Tagore set up the Brahmacharyasram at Santiniketan, modelled on the Vedic hermitages of ancient India. As Tagore was fascinated by the virtues of brahminism he decided to bring up his children along with a few others as brahmacharis, who were supposed to lead a celibate and austere life (see Tagore’s letter to Jagdish Chandra Bose in Tagore 1993:37). The students were asked to follow a strict vegetarian diet. According to Rathindranath Tagore, the eldest son of Rabindranath and one of the first students of the Brahmacharyasram, the food was comparable only to a prison diet in its monotony (Tagore 2010:45). Muri (puffed rice) and gurh (jaggery) served for breakfast. On Wednesdays menu altered a bit with luchi and sugar. Lunch and dinner had the same bland food. The pupils had to eat quietly and in a disciplined manner. They were not allowed to criticize the food and after each meal, they were required to wash their own plates (Tagore 1988:57). Tagore himself was following a vegetarian diet which could have been due to shortage of funds and also because he wanted to share the same food that was served to the students and the inmates (Mukhopadhyay 2010:78). His fascination for vegetarianism was well known and even later in life he often switched to a vegetarian diet. Lila Mazumdar, the eminent writer and also an excellent cook, recalls an incident in 1931. Then she was working as a teacher of English in Pathabhavan, Santiniketan and Tagore was then making yet another experiment with vegetarianism.

 

Every afternoon some of us went to meet the poet. ... One day he asked what did you teach the class today? I told him that I had asked the boys to write an essay on the cow. ‘And what did they write?’, he asked eagerly. ‘They wrote among other things that the cow is a ‘domesticated vegetarian’, I answered. He was startled, ‘Oh... indeed a domesticated vegetarian... they have perfectly described me. I, too am a domesticated vegetarian. (Mazumdar 2004:16)

 

Rani Chanda, a student of Art at Santiniketan in the 1920’s and '30’s has given an account of the culinary habits of Tagore. He had his morning tea at early dawn. After having tea, he went forth with his writings. Visitors were invited to join him and he filled their cups himself. Along with tea, he had bread spread with butter or jam and boiled eggs and cereals for breakfast (Chanda 2007:103).

 

During lunch he ate very little and always used a spoon and a fork. While eating he never used his hands. A full course lunch had to be served even though he ate very little of it. A large plate with bowls used to be placed before him and he would open lids of bowls and see what was in them. Then some of these bowls were sent to the inmates of the ashram to judge their tastes and preferences. One got the mutton, another got the curry while yet another got the payesh. After most of the items were thus distributed, he took his own little share from that which was left. In case there was a visitor at the table, he was invited to have lunch with the host. Lunch was always concluded with a bowl of curd (Chanda 2007:106).

 

English cuisine was served during dinner. Soup, roast chicken or fish and pudding were the most common (Chanda 2007:106). During travels, food had to be served to those who were accompanying him. Any slackness of this rule irritated Tagore. Chanda remembers that once Tagore had scolded her for serving food to him alone and not to a guest who was travelling in the same compartment. He was so upset that he decided not to eat that evening (Chanda 2007:107).

Tagore could not eat the same food for a long time. Most of the time he altered his preferences on the advice of friends. Once he decided to have only boiled vegetables with wet rice (panta bhaat) every day. This was quickly replaced by an egg diet. From breakfast to dinner he had only eggs and nothing else. This was followed by two glasses full of neem juice every day. Tagore could only taste the bitter juice (Chanda 2007:108). The peak of his culinary experiments reached when according to a suggestion by one of his friends, Tagore decided to have parathas fried in castor oil. His attendants and associates tried to dissuade him but to no avail. He offered the first paratha to Rani Chanda but she vehemently refused. However, Tagore liked the taste and decided to continue with the novelty until it was replaced by a more novel experiment (Chanda 2007:109).

 

Tagore’s culinary preferences reflect his interest for cultural co-existence as well as maintaining his health. The presence of both Bengali and Continental cuisines proves the former while his fascination for neem juice, eggs or vegetarian diet points to the fact of his efforts to remain healthy. Moreover, it also suggests his interest in experimenting rather than remaining static and falling into a rut. This was an extension of constant experiments in literature.

 

A review of culinary culture of the Tagores’ makes it clear that cultural interaction between the East and the West, of which they were perhaps the greatest proponents. Along with beef mutton chops, Neapolitan cream, cutlets, pudding and Irish stew, there was an easy coexistence of boribhaja, posto chochhori, ghonto, maachher jhol, luchis and paayesh.  From Dwarkanath entertaining European guests at his villa to Debendranath hosting a party in honour of the Governor of Bengal there was a continuous interaction to colonialism. However Dwarkanath retained his Vaishnava social prerogative in not taking beef but opted for wine. Debendranath liked indigenous dishes as payesh but certainly served European dishes to high ranking British officials. Satyendranath advised his wife to have chicken and bread during her journey to England. Chicken was something which Bengali household did not often opt for. It was popular among Europeans. Gyanadanandini too imbibed western culinary tastes and introduced chocolate cakes and English food for birthday celebrations.

 

Fascination for the West was compounded with the incipient love for indigenous culture. Tagores since the late 1860’s organised such ‘patriotic’ events as the Hindu Mela which exhibited indigenous items in order to display the distinctiveness of Indians over the Europeans. The incipient patriotism got an impetus under Satyendranath and Jyotirindranath in the 1870’s and '80’s. Thus indigenous items of food were cooked in order to maintain the cultural status.  

 

For Tagore, food reflected transformation from boyhood to maturity. From luchis thrown on the plate by an unwilling servant to the sumptuous lunch at the Bengal Provincial Conference, food traced different phases of life. His switching over to a vegetarian diet during the Brahmacharyasram phase reflects the tilt towards Vedic Brahminism. His experiments with food, his constant switch over from vegetarian to non-vegetarian and vice versa reflect his refusal to fall into a rut—an extension of the constant experiments that he did with his literary styles and themes.

 

References

Chakrabarty, Ajit Kumar. 2013. Maharshi Debendranath Thakur. Kolkata: Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi.

 

Chanda, Rani. 2007. Gurudeb. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

Chattopadhyay, Purnananda. 2008. Kabipatni Mrinalini. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

 

Chaudhurani, Saraladebi. 2007. Jiboner Jharapata. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishers.

 

Deb, Chitra. 1987. Thakurbarir Andarmahal. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

 

Debi, Gyanadanandini. 2012 [1956]. Puratoni. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

 

Debi, Pragnasundari. N.d. Aamish o NiramishRanna (‘Non-Vegetarian and Vegetarian Cuisine’).

 

Heimsath, Charles. H. 1964. Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

 

Kling, Blair. B. 1976. Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India, Berkley: University of California Press.

 

Mazumdar, Lila. 2004. Kheror Khata. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

 

Mukhopadhyay, Prabhat Kumar. 2010. Rabindra Jibani, vol. 2. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

Sen, Pulinbihari. 2012. ‘Satyendranath Thakur: Banglar Stree Swadhinotar Onnotomo Pothikrit’ (‘Satyendranath Tagore: One of the Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Bengal’), Appendix to Puratoni by Gyanadanandini Debi. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.

 

Tagore, Abanindranath. 2007 [1941]. Ghorowa. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

Tagore, Purnima. 1988. Thakurbarir Ranna (‘Thakurbari Cuisine’). Kolkata: Ananda Publishers

 

Tagore, Rabindranath. 1993 [1957]. Chithipatra, vol. 6. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

———. 2003a [1912]. Jibonsmriti in Prabandha Samagra, vol. 1. Kolkata: Bikash Publishers.

 

———. 2003b [1941] Chhelebyala in Prabandha Samagra, vol. 1. Calcutta: Bikash Publishers.

 

———. 2007. Chhinnapatrabali. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

———. 2012 [1942]. Chithipatra, vol. 1. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

Tagore, Rathindranath. 1988. Pitrismriti. Kolkata: Jignasha Publishers.

 

———. 2010. On the Edges of Time. Kolkata: Visvabharati.

 

 

 


[1] The recipes from the Tagore kitchen have been collected by Purnima Tagore, grand-daughter of Dwipendranath Tagore, in her Thakurbarir Ranna (‘Thakurbari Cuisine’, 1988). Pragnasundari Debi, daughter of Rabindranath’s elder brother, Hemendranath, had also collected a number of recipes in her Aamish o Niramish Ranna (‘Non-Vegetarian and Vegetarian Cuisine’, unpublished). But these are not historical works but merely collections.

 

[2] For an excellent study of Dwarkanath’s life, see Blair B. Kling, Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

 

[3] The allusion here is to Carr, Tagore and Company which Dwarkanath co-founded with one of his European friends.

[4] Debendranath never approved of western style social reforms like legalising Widow Re-marriage or the Civil Marriage Act of 1872 where the couple had to declare that they were neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Christian but Brahmo before marriage. For an account of the Act see Heimsath (1964:88–96).

 

[5] See for instance Tagore’s letters to Indira Debi throughout the period 1891 to 1895 collected in Chhinnapatrabali (2007). As against this, his letters to Mrinalini Debi collected in Chithipatra, vol. 1 (2012) discuss only common household matters.