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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Speaker event on history of chai tea

By Nolan Kirby

Students and professors enjoyed authentic Indian chai tea while waiting to learn about the history of Chai.

Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, came to Western on Thursday, April 19 to lecture on the history of chai in India and how it became symbolic to Indian culture.

He talked about the changes in eating habits, social networks and gave special emphasis to the role advertising played in transmitting the “tea habit” to Indians.

Lutgendorf’s research on the cultural history of chai was conducted through oral history interviews, chai advertisements stored in academic archives.

Philip Lutgendorf after his lecture on chai on April 19. // Photo by Nolan Kirby

Senior Rita-Marie Tarraf found the talk impactful.

“It is important for young people to get an education about other cultures from an academic source and not just the internet,” Tarraf said.

Lutgendorf brought to everyone’s attention how the power of advertising can change how a whole country sees a drink.

Chai has became a huge staple in Indian culture. It started with imperialism. The British pushed chai onto the Indians due to its decline in the American market after the Great Depression, Lutgendorf said.

Britain advertised their excess chai as a high-class modern drink in India in the mid-1900s. After gaining independence in 1947, chai became a traditional, community-building drink.

Western Assistant Professor of South Asian Studies Michael Slouber arranged Lutgendorf’s visit for the liberal studies speaker series.

Lutgendorf said he had given this presentation in several places in India.

“Indians didn’t even know the history behind chai,” Lutgendorf said. Younger Indians had thought that chai had always been a traditional drink.

Senior Cody Robinson said, “I wouldn’t normally come to events like this one, but I’m super happy I’m here.”

Robinson said he enjoyed the authentic chai tea that was served outside the lecture hall. He said he wasn’t a big tea person, but loves chai tea.

“Chai tea is smooth and doesn’t have the bitterness coffee does,” Robinson said. “It’s much more calming.”

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