Samovar and the art of tea appreciation

An inanimate object, the Samovar, interestingly originated in Russia in the eighteenth century as tea drinking became a regular practice among cultural elite in the country
Samovar and the art of tea appreciation
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This metal urn is the pride of the place at my side table in our drawing room in Delhi where my parents have traditionally entertained guests. This metal urn traditionally known as the Samovar has stood still and witnessed many events in the history of our household, be it my mother’s graduation or my uncle’s first job as a resident doctor in Delhi. She is not a mere artifact, but an inanimate object that is blessed with the elixir of life. She came with my grandmother’s wedding trousseau when she married my grandfather, an acclaimed orthopaedician in Delhi in the mid 1950s.

My grandmother, a stoic lady with a heart of gold, was born in Jammu & Kashmir in an era where culture and tradition were given resounding primacy over everything else. In fact, she internalised these qualities and quietly appropriated the Kashmiri way of life as her own — learning the Kashmiri language and the cuisine among other things. The Samovar standing firmly on the side table in our old-fashioned drawing room has stood testimony to this fact — time and again. The Samovar made of copper metal and engraved with beautiful Quranic verses has slowly and steadily come to portray humane qualities as well as it has become a part of our lives.

Origin & Relevance of the Samovar

An inanimate object, the Samovar, interestingly originated in Russia in the eighteenth century as tea drinking became a regular practice among cultural elites in the country — duly popularized by the celebrated Russian writers of the time like Alexandr Pushkin (1799-1837) who associated the art of tea drinking with Russian identity. The Samovar was used to boil the water to prepare tea. Other Persian and Turkish variants of the Samovars existed as well and it is with the passage of time that this savoir faire reached the mountainous terrain of Kashmir during the time of Hazrat Shahi Hamadan, five centuries ago.

Over a period of time, the samovar acquired a unique Kashmiri identity of its own and became a part of the quotidien existence of the people in the valley. Much like her counterparts, the Samovar acquired many distinctive features — for example, the Qandhari samovars are intricately carved and this creative ingenuity is literally the result of the labour of both the Thanthur – the artisan who crafts the samovar as well as the nakkash who creates decorative carvings on its outer surface, giving it its unique identity as an embodiment of art that represents the Kashmir valley.

This copper vessel much like its predecessors engraved with beautiful Qoranic verses was a piece of art with the nickel quoting or qalai giving it a lustre finish — and it soon became an everyday necessity within Kashmiri households. In fact, Noon Chai or the morning tea came to be prepared in these exquisitely carved vessels along with the Kahwa in the evenings as friends and families came together to relish their quintessential cup of tea. These people became raconteurs over a cup of tea as life-like large sized samovars played host to these beautiful soirées within the households as families sat together on the carpets and appreciated their tea. Such tea drinking sessions also became a part of life on the street as discussions and deliberations about politics, art, life and culture gave ordinary people an opportunity to reconnect with their community and vent their emotions. Both the bourgeoisie and the common man on the street came to enjoy their interactions in a wider social sphere due to these sessions that enabled them to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life as they experienced unfiltered sukoon while drinking tea prepared in these prized metal urns.

The Samovar - an inanimate object imbued with life, in the process, came to witness many familial events and social gatherings and transformed herself from being an objet d’art into a coveted cultural heirloom as her enduring quality gave her the prized opportunity of witnessing the highs and lows of a society’s moribund existence. She became a quiet companion of the intellectuals and the romantics alike who engaged in philosophical discussions in her presence. Therefore, the samovar as a cultural entity played a functional role in keeping the family intact as the young and old members of the clan came together every morning and evening around the samovar and drank tea together. In a similar vein, the samovar reinvented herself as a catalyst that made the initiations of social interactions a reality within Kashmir’s burgeoning intelligentsia.This beautiful and distinct bond that the samovar created with her connoisseurs enabled her to connect closely with them as they engaged in nuanced societal engagements in her soothing presence.

Samovar & Present Era

During this epoch, when technology has changed the way we think, act and react and replaced our cultural markers — for example, the traditional art of tea making is fast disappearing as quick alternatives are flooding the markets. “Instant ready made Kehwa” packets are swamping the markets as the paucity of time is pushing the young and old to mould their taste buds according to the existing exigencies of time. This trend has adversely affected the tea making industry as well as the notion of instant gratification has somewhat made the idea of tea drinking along with members of the clan and family an obsolete activity especially in the cities — where youngsters are trying to attune their lives according to the needs of the market forces. This constant tussle with time has left them with limited opportunities to appreciate everyday life as it were. In fact, the art of tea appreciation is now becoming a thing of the past and this anomaly is absolving the Samovar of its traditional role of being a unifier within familial and societal circles in these trying times. She now faces a moral predicament regarding her role in Kashmiri society — as society follows the path of linear growth and continuously modernises itself.

While it continues to be treasured as a family heirloom and Kashmiri women carry it as part of their wedding trousseau, its notable role in unifying the family as a unit must be reinforced in the years to come. The Samovar has ontological significance and is a living symbol of Kashmir’s culture and identity. The art of tea appreciation is a subset of this larger functional role that the Samovar performs everyday in Kashmir. Preserving the samovar’s role in our lives and existence will enable the samovar to enhance her longevity as a cultural edifice while providing tenacious artisans engaging in this craft an opportunity to creatively express themselves time and again. The art of samovar making and the associated charm of tea appreciation within Kashmir’s intellectual and familial circles should be preserved as it is this cultural practice that will strengthen the foundations of society in the years to come.

In this context, it is wise to remember my maternal grandmother’s samovar that remains firmly ensconced on our side table and the role she has played in shaping our existence as a family — the smallest unit of society. Preserving and attending to her needs for years to come will be great starting point in this eternal quest.

Anuttama Banerji, Freelance Features Writer & Political Commentator

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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