TEA TRAILS

Dr. Romita Ray

Associate Professor of Art History and Department Chair Art and Music Histories

In 2016, I learned how to pluck tea. It was more challenging than I had expected. The women surrounding me, all experienced tea pluckers, broke into peals of laughter as the results of my first, rather mangled round of plucking, were revealed. Twist and pluck, they showed me. Not pull and pluck. It was a Summer 2018 - Tea Trailshumbling moment. I felt like a novice, self-conscious of my untrained, hesitant fingers bruising the leaves. Yet for these women whose livelihoods depend on the speed with which they pluck tea to fill their baskets, a few minutes is precious time. Twist, pluck, and toss.

I am writing a book about the visual cultures of tea in colonial and modern India. This is a story that winds its way through botanical gardens, the shipping industry, family portraits, horticulture, and tea gardens. It’s about war and revolution. It’s about landscapes whose contours have shifted and changed thanks to a plant. It’s about the movement and displacement of people. It’s about innovative technologies and once imperial commodities. It’s about living in remote places where leopards, wild elephants and tigers still roam. Piecing together this story has meant being part detective, part blogger, and part biographer.

I began following the plant in earnest in 2016 with the help of a year-long NEH fellowship. From seed to botanical specimen to tea bush to plantation to forest to planter to laborer to auction house to advertisements and finally, to a cup of tea. I traced its journey in Assam, Darjeeling, Munnar, and Sri Lanka. It took me to London and Calcutta. Learning how to pluck deep in the Dooars in North Bengal was part of this journey with a plant that has led me to the people whose lives are entangled with it, to the landscapes it has shaped, and to the images and design ideas it has inspired.