From Seamless to Steam-less: The Decline of the Bengali Āddā
Ah, to close one’s eyes and remember the ‘City of Joy’. The trailing trams, the marble building of the Victoria Memorial, the majestic Howrah Bridge, the quaint lanes and bylanes, and the roadside phuchkas.
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Before I open my eyes and start to type again, one more thing that the world associates quintessentially with Kolkata comes to my mind. It is the āddā - the feeling of a conversation about anything and everything over steaming cups of cha from the nearby tea stall, over a cup of coffee from the Coffee House, or on your friend’s verandah. Kolkata’s signature āddā, with its intellectual, animated discussions, convinced the world of the staunch Bengali belief – “a sound mind is a key to a sound body”. Bengal clearly showed the world a different path to health.
Traditionally bulging with witty banter, the beautiful lanes of North Kolkata now sadly stand empty, derided of leisurely chatter and devoid of the beloved āddā, which brews ideas no more. The innocent āddā spirit is being replaced by parties and nightclub outings. Bengal is embracing the commercialised concept of happiness it was once allergic to. The urban lifestyle of Kolkata has changed dramatically over the past four decades and the effect has also trickled down to the suburbs.
Bengal’s art of debate, banter, and chatter goes back to the colonial era when an elitist class of academically prolific Bengali men first emerged. No documented evidence pinpoints when āddās began; however, historians think this culture emerged in early nineteenth-century colonial Bengal. The āddā served as an occasion for colonial guild members to come together and talk about various topics. Some scholars believe that the Bengali āddā had its genesis in the lack of social gatherings besides weddings and the pujo.
The Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri wrote that social life in Calcutta was very less as compared to society in Europe. He waxed eloquent thus, “The heaviest social exertion in this sense that they [Bengalis in Kolkata] could or would undergo was to pay formal calls.” Thus evolved the Bengali āddā, the embodiment of Bengali gatherings over food and hot drinks. This Bengali innovation ushered in a new intellectual culture and life as well as the practice of conversation over food. Journalist Sagarika Ghosh calls this the “Bengali Renaissance”, a period of social and intellectual ferment in the state. It was carried forward and spread amongst the Bengali youth by the newly established Calcutta University, and other colleges under its aegis.
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In the twentieth century, āddās started taking roots in public instead of private places. The Nationalist Movement, already gaining ground, was further popularised through the āddā. It helped form a distinct cultural identity of Bengalis, as opposed to British imperialism. People met and discussed new ways to protest against colonial laws in these āddās .
Much as one tries, the Bengali āddā cannot be defined in any one way or sentence. Dipesh Chakraborty, an Indian historian, termed it ‘the practice of getting together with friends for long, informal, and un-rigorous conversations’. It usually involves talking over food like Bengali sweets (mishti) or fried snacks like samosas with countless cups of tea. Scholar Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay called the āddā “a place for careless talk with boon companions”. Professor Krishna Bose of University of Calcutta symbolised it as something “typically Bengali”. While expressing her pride over oral culture she remarked that, “ The thing about an āddā is that it moves fluidly - you could be discussing Charles and Camilla's marriage at this moment, and the next moment you're swinging over to the latest cricket series between India and Pakistan, and then swing back to the recent controversy over Tagore".
According to her, The āddā has gradually changed over the years. As technology evolved, it changed the way people viewed their lives, and bridged the gap between places and cultures. Such reflections got filtered and shaped into āddā, which became a new space to accommodate more than what the intellectuals would have liked to. The Western print media too played a huge role in their evolution. Discussions became more world-centric and bhadroloki opinions on most things in life were now informed by India’s edition of foreign magazines.
At the outset, the āddā culture was confined to the rich upper-class Bengali bhodrōlōk. It travelled through space and time over decades, from Kolkata to Dhaka, and even to small towns in Bangladesh. Gradually, it was taken over by a large section of the Bengali middle class, where it reached its zenith, with the wittiest of conversations and most delectable of food. Non-elites embraced this casual conversation earlier meant solely for the elite classes. Pandits, forgetful writers, the local politician, the neighbourhood cha-waala, construction site workers - āddās were now open to males from all socio-economic strata. They gathered in office canteens, rowaks (narrow platforms outside houses), bus stops, tea stalls, and the most popular of all āddā venues, the Coffee Houses. There was no limit to the nature or number of topics—from politics, film, and popular culture to sports, academia, and rabindra sangeet—that could be discussed in an āddā. It was a space to express independent opinions, views, and judgements.
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The āddā was traditionally seen as a refuge "from the home, a neutral rendezvous away from both the perceived drudgery of the workplace and domesticity". Men, not women, were usually the ones to receive an education or opportunities for intellectual stimulus. Women were excluded perhaps because the āddā was seen ‘as a hobby for males’.
Therefore, there was the presence of a largely patriarchal notion of the āddā - traditional Bengali men excluded women who wanted to speak their minds and opinions. Devayush Chaudhary’s Bengali film āddā (2019) has an intriguing scene where a group of women form an āddā in a coffee shop. They talk about their lives and relationships, until the director says “Cut!”, and one understands that it’s just fiction, a part of a film being shot. Scholars note that after the 1850s, there were instances, although rare, of women participating in āddās. It slowly evolved to include women, and exclusively female āddās with groups of middle-class Bengali women gradually became a common sight.
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The āddā was much more than just a conversation. The performative aspect of it had a wider socio-cultural connotation. Ceremonial āddās during Durga Pujo, Kali Pujo, Bengali New Year, and even birthday parties signified a sort of ritual act and marked the generational tradition of participating in it. This social experience made the āddā a cultural construct. The performative aspect ensured that they outlived other Bengali forms of communication and speech like the tarka (debate) and the majlish (gathering). The gradual opening of the āddā to all castes, classes, and genders ensured its widespread acceptance and popularity. This universality and the quality of being open to all, made the āddā a part of the signature Bengali way of life, and Kolkata, the intellectual capital of India.
The insanely popular and once-lively Bengali oral culture is now slowly fading away. In Satyajit Ray’s last film ‘Agantuk’ (1991), he critiques the pedestrianisation of the āddā. According to the New York Times, “...even in this contemptuous dismissal, the maestro was making an important point…” The decline of the cerebral nature of āddā was, for him, an indicator of the decline of Bengal’s mainstream intellectual life. In effect, Ray was actually acknowledging the potential of āddās to be the barometer of Bengali culture’s vibrancy”.
The dwindling of this means of socializing is perhaps caused by today’s fast-paced life, 9–5 corporate jobs, and a new generation that possesses an utter disregard for anything not economically productive. The rise of this global culture of anti-intellectualism has impacted Bengali society. Bengalis are gradually becoming more populist. And globalisation has played a huge part by bringing in new cultures, ideas, and values. As popular global trends pull us into new lives altogether, cultural decline becomes hard to resist. What an irony, since āddās was earlier a means of coping with globalisation. In a world dictated by time and measured by productivity, work is valued over leisure.
My grandfather reminisces about the days of the āddā, long conversations over office lunches and with friend groups throughout the weekends. There was also the occasional talk with an old friend who bumped into him at the vegetable market. “Those were the days,” he says, “now the bhadraloki āddā era is gone, perhaps forever”. His eyes reflect the old memories of a culture long-forgotten, and profound nostalgia over what once was. The āddā culture—with those never-ending conversations that saw the sun rise and the streetlights light up, that friendly banter which would erupt into a good-natured squabble, and the intellectual conversations that symbolised the Bengali renaissance—has faded away.
Now, there is a slowly emerging concept of a digital āddā, which is conversation over the virtual space: in Facebook groups and on Instagram pages. The seemingly endless possibilities at the click of a button have taken over the slow-paced, happy-go-lucky āddās. It’s not unimaginable to think of when there will be a virtual āddā taking place in my family WhatsApp group. Internet āddās, though seemingly trying their best to preserve the original spirit, cannot retain the taste of authentic oral culturalism. They restrict verbal repartee and facial expressions. Perhaps this redefining was inevitable. But the old āddā, the one symbolic of the Bengali middle class and its generational love for food and chatter, is long gone, and its apparition hangs over Kolkata akin to a lore.
The Coffee House on College Street in Kolkata, which is internationally known for being the most popular location for āddās, is hoping to revive this old practice. Special arrangements for social distancing have been made, the old culture of āddā is now marketed with a renewed sense of purpose and it hopes that its patrons will return, and help bring back to life the beloved āddā. As I type these last few lines, I remember my mother singing Manna Dey’s evergreen Bengali song, Coffee House-er shei āddāta aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei (The gossip at the Coffee House is no more, is no more), and wonder about those old-world days and the charm of community life.
By Shiuli Sural
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Shiuli Sural is currently pursuing BA Honours in History from Hansraj College, Delhi University. Her hobbies include reading, writing short stories and articles and researching, accompanied by cold coffee. She is also the Founder of A Sanitary Gift, an initiative to increase awareness about menstrual health, especially among domestic workers in India.