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Cutting Chai

Humble objects often reveal interesting journeys.

An Introduction

As I overhear the kettle pouring the hot chai the into the काँच का गलास that raises my anticipation at the same speed at which chai reaches just above the ribbed conical structure on the exterior of the glass, I cant help but think how this small invisible object find its way in the Indian ecosystem.

Journey of the Chai

The chai in India is more than a commodity. It is an emotion and a conversation starter. This country of a multicultural layers considers Chai as an unpretentious agent of innumerable interactions in the everyday life. As the tagline of the famous chai outlet, Chai point goes, ‘India runs on Chai’. The culture of tea was brought to India by our British overlords. Even before the entry of the colonial powers into the Indian context, Camellia sinensis was a plant native to this terrain. Its use was scanty and mostly medicinal. It was consumed as a काढ़ा, a medicinal soup.

The foundations of the tea industry were laid down in 1840 in the hilly elevations of Assam and later in Darjeeling and Kangra.This new drink didn’t gain popularity immediately. In a conversation with my grandmother, she recalled how there was a free tea distribution that happened initially in her childhood. It took a while for the tea to become Chai in the Indian bubble. It was only after her marriage, that सुबह की चाय became a legit concept. The rise of the Chai and its Indianised variants like "Mumbai’s cutting chai, the rich Irani chai of Hyderabad, the fragrant Darjeeling chai, the mellow Assam chai, the strong masala chai of Gujarat and the delicate pink Kashmiri chai”, as noted by Sanchari Pal in her article for The Better India, have become so seemingly effortlessly intertwined in the life of the Indian of today, that it has become a staple. It wasn’t only the common man who adapted to the chai. It was a two way deal. Found in every household, nook and corner, in roadside Tapris, the Chai is no more just a caffeinated drink. It is indeed an emotion.

The Bazaar Context

With globalisation and the emergence of an increasing members of the working class and corporate employees especially in cities like Mumbai, the unpretentious Tapris became a hotbed of design opportunities, the most immediate one being how this emotion was to be catered to the masses. The design explorations were happening at these Tapris more than anything else. A major reason being that, the chai brewing up at these humble roadside outlets was the most refreshing in its unique context and climatic conditions. Also, it was a site of instant customer interaction, and immediate response to the newer materials that could be used to cater a Chai experience.

Figure 1 The explorations

The traditional clay kulhad was used by people initially. Chinaware tea cups were also floating in the market at that time. The cups and saucers posed a plethora of issues. These costly, difficult to s ceramics not only stained easily with the chai and believe it r not, they were being stolen!

Steel tumblers were also experimented with. These tumblers had a flat projection at the brim to hold them. They were easy to clean and store, but metal as a material didn’t prove to be conducive in this scenario because it is a very good conductor of heat. The heat traders very fast and burns your hands. We can also find steel glasses at homes, but as reasoned by my mother as well, it gets too hot too soon and the refreshing Chai ends up being a messy uncomfortable affair. So steel was strikes out for a Tapri setup because the bazaar area is usually messy and a busy sight, and customers didn’t want to burn themselves by holding a hot container of Chai.

The Clay kulhad, was and still in use but when enquired about this, my mother said the flavour that it rendered wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea! The very fact that clay induces an immediate cooling effect, the Chai gets colder at a faster rate. Also the clay used was becoming a source of litter and posed storage issues. An important point to be noticed now is the fact that Chai become an Addiction, a fuel on which the new India was running. The clay kulhads in places like Vrindavan went upto ten pounds. These super sized proportions weren’t appreciated by the general market as they were drinking Chai several times a day. Also issues with hygiene were concerned. Both China cups and saucers and the Kulhads broke in shards when they fall so they were slightly hazardous. So the industry needed a material that didn’t break hazardously, was sturdy and easily cleaned and posed lesser storage issues.

The journey of the Indian Glass industry in India

The hundred year old industry’s first home ground was in Firozabad which is still called ‘the glass city of India’. Balgangadhar Tilak was the pioneer who set up the first glass plant in 1908. An interesting Design that originated at Saint Gobain in France in 1927, was the Picardie Duralex technique. It is the use of Tempered Glass in Glassware Design. This was a major breakthrough as the tempered glass broke in tiny fragments unlike the shards of the glass before it.

In the 90s, as we know, Indian context was highly altered due to globalisation. Saint Gobain Glass India started its own glass manufacturing unit near Chennai. No-one knows exactly how but once the Chai culture kicked in, and tempered glass as a material was in use, there was no looking back.

The काँच का गलास

Once the काँच का िगलास came into the Indian Chai context, many of its existing struggles were solved. This happened due to it’s structure, size and material.

The structure was divided into two major parts. The scallops that formed the lower half and the smooth upper cylindrical ring. The scallops helped in getting a better grip while holding the glass, thus making it sturdy. The smooth upper part made it easier to hold the glass. The size was also has appropriate proportions. The size of the glass can be anywhere between 100-250 ml, so lesser milk and sugar used so the prices for the consumers also go low. So it is a kind of a win win for all. The conical shape of the glass enabled easy storage, because they could be stacked, when not in use. The tempered glass in itself was very Chai friendly material. It acted as an insulator and stays was an issue out of question.

The Cutting Chai Context

The emergence of a divided structure of a vessel might have been the stem to the idea of cutting the chai’s quantity in half, because tinier glasses could be filled only uptill the scalloped part so as to enable one to hold the piping hot chai. This gave a rise to an entire string of culture and emotions. Soon the काँच का गलास was flooding the market. This reduced the cost at both ends but still gave the customer the same Chai experience. An individuals could get a quick sip of Chai that will be enough for him until the next Chai break. Now since the quantity was reduced, the Chai was infused with rich flavour and aroma. So cutting Chai made people fall in love with it in just one sip. less is more isn’t it!

Well, for the Chai glass industry it surely was. The glass tumbler was accepted in all spheres and not only that, it provided opportunity for further design experiment. The Chaidaan came into picture to make the glass tumbler more portable. This saved both time and effort, thus increasing efficiency on the supplier’s part and satisfaction on the consumer’s part.

I can still remember walking on the streets of Bangalore with a friend, last December, where at 4:00 in the morning Chai in the काँच का िगलास was a way more enthralling experience than capitalist cafe’s. Guess they had too less stars for too many bucks!

Figure 4


In the modern Context, these glasses are used in the entire country in our homes, our bazaars, in new startups like Happily Unmarried, Chaayos, Chai Point, Chai pe Charcha locally and also set ups abroad like the Chai Walli, a Melbourne based Chai business. The piping hot Chai is now sold as an Experience, consumed sip by sip taken in with a chuski from the काँच का िगलास , and an interesting conversation that brews up along the way.

With the Chai, came the other condiments that came along with the experience. Chai-Samosa, Chai- Sutta, Chai-Rusk and Chai-Gossip are just a few! The design has managed to stay relevant essentially because of its technical properties but mostly because of the emotions it triggered whilst the consumption. So much so, that काँच का गलास has been called ‘The oldest and most iconic items that represents chai in India.’ as mentioned by Chai Walli. It also enabled breathing space to be adapted according to the context, wherever it travelled, the scallops were also experimented on, but the essence of its built and material hasn’t changed much. The काँच का िगलास is a story of a seemingly uncomplicated object that found a way into the Indian context bubble and assimilated so well that it became India’s very own representation of its culture!

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