In the Bengali cultural milieu, there are few things that haven’t been influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, the revered playwright, poet, philosopher and all-round renaissance man. Even food here has his imprint. An ardent cosmopolitan, Tagore’s culinary curiosity and love for kitchen experiments, blended with his globe-trotting lifestyle, bequeathed a food tradition that is a melting pot of influences.
But influential as he may be, Rabindranath wasn’t the one who morphed the Tagore kitchen into an enduring lodestar with his progressivism. That role was played by his grandfather Babu Dwarkanath Tagore.
An illustrious industrialist and a pioneer of the Bengal renaissance, Dwarkanath’s kitchen turned out some of the most opulent repasts in 19th century Calcutta, combining the best of Eastern and Western gastronomy. When he travelled to England in 1842, he was accompanied by three Hindu servants and a “Mussalman khansama” whose curries and pillaw thrilled London’s gourmet circles. “Tagore’s khansama was a legend in his own right and was often consulted to teach the ‘Chef de Cuisine’ in several English households the art of making curries,” wrote civil servant Kissory Chand Mitter in his 1870 Memoir of Dwarkanath Tagore. Such was the popularity of his cooking that his dishes came to be called “Dwarkanath Dishes”.
Even after death, Dwarkanath’s name remained associated with curry. John Plotz, a scholar of Victorian literature, recounts in his book Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move, how 19th century memsahibs, who rejected everything Indian during their stay in the colonised land, would return home with elaborate recipes for Indian food, supplies of curry powder and Kashmiri shawls. One recipe they loved to take back was “the late Baboo Sir Dwarkanath Tagore’s highly esteemed curry powder”.
Dwarkanath’s culinary encounters are recorded in his diaries. In one entry, he compared a variety of red fish he encountered in Ceylon with the familiar kuthla of Bengal. About the fruit in England, he was generally full of praise: he liked peaches, plums, nectarines and strawberries (they taste best with cream and sugar, he suggested), but disliked gooseberries and currants (they were too sour for him). In another entry, he described in detail a multi-course dinner in Greenwich, where the menu comprised eel cutlets, fried flounder, roasted fowl and tongue, a curry that was “not good”, currant and cherry tarts, and seed pudding.
But what made Dwarkanath unique was his subversiveness. His branch of the family, the Tagores of Jorasanko, were devout Vaishnavs and disciples of the Goswamis of Kdiardah. Only Brahmin cooks were allowed in their kitchen. Their diet was strictly vegetarian, to the extent that even alliums like onions and garlic were verboten in the household. Their cousins, the Tagores of Pathuriaghata, used to scoff at this rigid conservatism, calling them the “bigots of Mechhuabazar”.
The Tagores were, of course, not alone in following this orthodoxy. This was a time when food and commensality were especially circumscribed by stringent caste-based rules and Hindu notions of purity and morality. Muslim cooks were an anomaly in orthodox, upper-caste Hindu kitchens, and sharing a meal with mlechhas (impure foreigners) could be grounds for social ostracisation.
Nudged by commerce, circumstance and conviction, Dwarkanath chipped away at these rules. Brahmin cooks in the kitchen were replaced with Muslim khansamas personally chosen by his friend, the reformist Ram Mohan Roy. Going a step further, Dwarkanath began eating meat, although it wasn’t easy at first. “The first time the brothers [Dwarkanath and Ramanath] took meat they were sick,” Ramanath’s wife is quoted as saying in Krishna Kripalani’s book Dwarkanath Tagore: A Forgotten Pioneer. “[They] became used to it after persistent trying.”
The taboo around alcohol was broken as well. “It is said that Dwarkanath used to take only a small glass of sherry at mealtime,” writes Kripalani. “He took wine not so much because he enjoyed it [but] as to join the then vogue of breaking old traditions in the name of fighting superstitions.”
There were two reasons for Dwarkanath’s transformation. The first was his sweeping business empire: spanning everything from coal mines to banking, the empire made it necessary for him to socialise with the alcohol-swigging, meat-eating English. The other was his friend Ram Mohan Roy. Dwarkanath shared Roy’s vision of a modernising project based on conciliation between the coloniser and the colonised. And since Roy ardently supported liquor-drinking and meat-eating, so too did Dwarkanath in due time.
From his kitchen, Dwarkanath pushed the boundaries, albeit never too far. The Tagores were Pirali Brahmins, a subgrouping that, as the story goes, had lost its ritual status after accidentally inhaling the smell of beef. “Dwarkanath…could not have risked further problems by eating beef,” writes Samaren Roy in Bengalees: Glimpses of History and Culture. So, Dwarkanath served beef to his guests, but never ate it himself. Kripalani also points out that meat was cooked “within the compound but at some distance from the house. Earthen vessels used for the cooking [of meat] would be thrown out of the compound.” Finally, to sidestep religious injunctions, Dwarkanath bought a house at 5, Belgachia in Calcutta in 1823 for the sole purpose of entertaining his European guests and elite Indians who enjoyed meat and alcohol.
The Belgachia villa was so grand that Mitter called it the Kensington of Calcutta. In his book, Mitter describes a grand ball and supper hosted by Dwarkanath for one Miss Eden for which the house was turned into a “fairy scene”. The rooms were bedecked with lights and mirrors, Mirzapore carpets, crimson Damask and green silks. Rare orchids and ornamental shrubs festooned tabletops and stairways, and thousands of ornamental lamps illuminated the grounds and the waterworks.
The feasts at the Belgachia villa, writes Mitter, were “unsurpassed and the company unique... The menu consisted of an infinity of French and Oriental dishes of which the Kabobs, Pillow and Hossainee Curry were not the least appreciated.” To wash it all down, there were European wines of the choicest vintage.
Through the years, whether serving pulao or kebabs, one thing that didn’t change was Dwarkanath’s hospitality. Educationist Sudripta Tagore, a scion of the Tagore family, hypothesises that the iconic Thakur Bari recipe for smoked ilish, made by first deboning the fish, was invented during Dwarkanath’s time so that his European guests could savour the delicacy without worrying about its million bones. Another feature first introduced by Dwarkanath that became constant in the Tagore kitchen was the employment of Muslim Khansamas and French cooks. Several members of the Tagore family mention them in their writings.
Dwarkanath’s extravagant lifestyle and revelries at the Belgachia villa became the subject of satires and acerbic limericks. One wit wrote: “In the garden at Belgachia/knives and forks rattle/What do we know of the joys of khana?/It is known only to Tagore and Company.” Another writer was more astringent: “The flag flies high over the red-light district. With great celebration the hemp burns, drunk in Mecchuabazaar having great fun.”
Blaire B Kling, in his 1976 book Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India, writes about the insults constantly hurled at the industrialist. If not him, the derision was directed at Carr, Tagore & Company, the first Anglo-Indian mercantile company launched by Dwarkanath with William Carr in 1834 to import alcohol. “What do we know of the quality of wine, Tagore Company knows,” went one critic. Another wrote, “Blessed Calcutta, Blessed Saturday. What beauty is there in holding the bottle.”
According to Kripalani, while it was common among 19th century Baboos of Calcutta to fraternise with East India Company officials and serve them meat and alcohol (even at religious functions like Durga Puja), no one faced a smear campaign like Dwarkanath. “If Dwarkanath was the favourite target, the presumption is that the real source of the grudge against him was his open advocacy of all liberal causes and his ill-concealed ridicule of religious bigotry,” writes Kripalani.
So vicious were the critics at times that they didn’t even spare his personal life. One attacker wrote: “Drinking cherry and Champagne, eating ham and beef. If my wife leaves me, I shall take a pretty damsel on my lap, smoke two cigars and darken the room with smoke…” One can assume this was in part a reference to Dwarkanath’s devout Hindu wife Digambari, who refused to share her husband’s bed because of his meat-eating, wine-drinking ways.
Orthodox Hindus neither approved of his soirees at home nor his European sojourns, which required him to travel across the kala pani and eat with impure foreigners. As Mitter notes, there arose a unanimous cry, among Baboos, Pandits, even the Piralee and Tagore clan, for his excommunication from the Hindu society. But Dwarkanath unflinchingly held his ground. “They who had expected he would eat the humble pie and perform praschittro (penance) perceived that they had caught a Tartar, and the movement initiated by them was nipped in the bud,” wrote Mitter.
Dwarkanath returned to England in 1845, attending numerous suppers, dinners and banquets thrown by the upper crust in his honour. At a dinner hosted by the Duchess of Inverness on June 30, 1846, he had a shivering fit and, followed by weeks of remittent fever, died. He was only 51. His grandson, Satyendranath Tagore, who was Rabindranath’s elder brother and the first Indian to become an Indian Civil Service officer, wrote to his cousin Ganendranath on August 25, 1862: “He took nothing but a little rice and curry prepared by his servant Hooly and a little orange jelly, and no wine except claret.”
Long after his death, Dwarkanath’s great granddaughter Pragyasundari Devi, the author of the iconic cookbook Amish O Niramish Ahar, honoured his memory by naming a dish after him. Called Dwarkanath Phirni Pulao, it is made by layering ghee-soaked saffron-tinged pulao and luscious phirni made with fragrant kamini atop rice, almonds and candied ash gourd. An opulent treat that doesn’t shy from excesses, it is fit for a prince – one of the sobriquets Dwarkanath Tagore was honoured with.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.