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 humbling 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.
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.
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.