( Comment: I invited Dr. Utsa Ray to write about Gahana bori- a speciality of Midnapore District in West Bengal.
Dr Utsa Ray is a historian of modern South Asia with a focus on the histories of class-formation, consumption, and taste. Her broad areas of study include Modern South Asia, Modern World, Globalization, Nationalism, Culinary Cultures, and Gender. Her essays have been published in Modern Asian Studies, Indian Economic and Social History Review (forthcoming), and her book Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle Class is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
In this piece she traces the history of Gahana Bori, its makers and how it was received. Happy Reading!)
Gahana boris are a decorative and ornamented sundried cones of lentil paste. The chief ingredient for gahana bori is moth bean. Moth bean is primarily used because of its viscosity. Moth bean is soaked in water the night before making bori so that its skin comes off easily next morning. This soaked bean when ground gives out a sticky texture required for making gahana bori. The batter for bori usually has a creamy consistency. It needs to be constantly stirred so that the batter is fluffy and the resultant bori is light and white in texture. At first poppy seeds are spread out on a large plate. Then the batter is tied up in a cloth with holes in the bottom. A cone is then tied to this cloth and moved clockwise on the poppy seeds to create motifs. Gahana bori is then sun dried thoroughly. These are made in winter because moist weather is not conducive to making gahana bori. Mostly gahana bori is designed in the form of paisley or different ornaments like necklace, tiara, earrings or bracelets or lotus. However, animal motifs like elephant, butterfly, deer, peacock, fish or parrot are also not uncommon.
Gahana bori was and still is specifically made in eastern Medinipur. Women of mahishya caste in Tamluk, Mahishadal, Sutahata, Nandigram and Mayna are adept in making gahana bori. Gahana bori, which was first specific to three families, soon acquired a wider spread. Of course, its popularity had much to do with its eye-catching designs as well as crisp taste. However, the way gahana bori was praised by Rabindranath Tagore, his nephew Abanindranath Tagore and Abanindranath’s disciple Nandalal Bose, one of the finest artists of Bengal school speaks much about its becoming a fine art. This fine art originated in Medinipur but it became a pride of Bengal.
Once gahana bori earned this title of being a fine art, it could no longer remain confined to the platter of ordinary men and women of eastern Medinipur. The bori was no longer a simple delectable to be devoured. It was a product which yielded ultimate aesthetic pleasure and needed to be preserved. Abanindranath Tagore thus wrote in an undated letter: “These ‘nakashi’ boris from the Lakhsa village of Medinipur are not only a visual delight but also whet one’s appetite. However, grinding this bori with one’s teeth or cooking it in the form of curry is equivalent to fry and eat a fine piece of art.” Rabindranath Tagore too exclaimed that “these were to be seen and not for consumption”.1
On the one hand we do see this appreciation of gahana bori as part of a larger history of Bengal although the presence of gahana bori before late 19th century is not warranted by any historical evidence. On the other hand gahana bori is still celebrated as the part and parcel of everyday life of a very specific region of Bengal. At that level the making of gahana bori is as much about the nitty-gritty of domesticity as it is about a sense of pride in this local art of Medinipur. To describe this phenomenon of ornamented bori as a form of sub-regional consciousness would be an overstatement. However, there is no doubt that alongside the claim of a universal aesthetic, local appreciations and regional pride never ceased to be associated with gahana bori.
1 Salilkumar Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath o Loksanskriti (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 1994), p.237, first published in 1983;
Photo @ Shyamal Bera