A brief history of Āddā—the Bengali fine art of discussion

By | 01.12.2017

Āddā emerged not long after bhodrōlōk, as a salon-like gathering at which thoughts and persuasions of the day could be discussed in a good-natured, if sometimes vociferous, manner. Over several decades this male preserve travelled further down the pyramid of wealth and privilege to the upper middle class and greater bulge of the middle class. And over time āddā travelled from its acknowledged birthplace of Kolkata to other places, Dhaka and beyond into Greater Banglasphere, taking wing wherever there were well-to-do hosts and a ready gathering of local worthies from pundits and poets to politicians on the make.

Āddā first took wing, some maintain, in the absence of gatherings beyond weddings, during various occasions of pujō and such. “There was very little social life among the Bengalis of Calcutta,” wrote Nirad Chaudhuri, comparing it with European society. “No afternoon or evening parties, no dinners, no at-homes, and, of course, no dances, enlivened their existence. The heaviest social exertion in this sense that they could or would undergo was to pay formal calls.” And so, “what the native of the city lacked in sociability he made up in gregariousness” to such an extent that “no better connoisseur of company was to be found anywhere in the world, and no one else was more dependent on the contiguity of his fellows with the same incomprehension of his obligations towards them.” Chaudhuri was basically describing the eventual āddā adept, and addict: the āddābāj.

It has since travelled well down to the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Āddā is by now function-agnostic, taking in a gathering that can range from intense discussions at the residence of a publisher or, say, young movie director to a weekend gathering of modern-minded working friends catching up over food (and, possibly to the horror of āddā purists, including women, often women who work jobs away from home, women with minds of their own supercharged by independent incomes); even an āddā triggered by the visit of an old friend; to the determined everyday āddā. This last is a place for men and boys to gather to indulge in gnyajāno, banter and blather with a sense of camaraderie, where the āddā’s Alpha male (call him āddādhāri, if you will, pivot of the āddā) holds court, and moderates discussions from the fate of the world to talent-scouting for the next neighbourhood-league football tournament hosted by the pārā.

The location can be—rok-é bōshé āddā—seated on the rōāk, slip of balcony in front of a house, even on the steps to the house. But more often it is at a distance from the home, a neutral rendezvous away from both the perceived drudgery of the workplace and domesticity, at a modest coffee house or tea shop where any visitor to urban Banglasphere will see clusters of āddā—and then a sudden rush to get home to dinner and family, the unreal life. And if even that opportunity is hard to come by, a gathering at the pārā’s community club (usually pronounced clāb) or a chā-shop, chā-ér dōkān a convenient walk away, rapid escape for an hour or two after a quick bath and the day’s situation report about household matters, perhaps the health of a child, perhaps a firm admonition to the boy more than the girl to be first in class, or life will, as we say, deliver a horse’s egg (Clāsh-é fārsht āshté hobé, nāhōlé life-é ghōrā-r dim pābé).

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The āddābāj may claim that it is because of āddā that the Bengal Renaissance maintained its depth and longevity and birthed the cultural soul of Bengal, the amorphous entity by which they usually mean Kolkata (and, at a stretch, Dhaka) that is our cachet to this day. It typically counters the argument that “Bengal” plummeted from its economic pinnacle because there were too many āddābāj, employed, unemployed, and unemployable alike engaged in idle gossip; and too few of the industrious to worry about pursuits like productivity. At a non-empirical level—the core of much āddā—I would maintain that everyday āddā itself is on the decline in ultra-urban Banglasphere—in Kolkata, and professional clusters of Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai—moving back from the mass stereotype to the preserve of those who are able to indulge in it as a weekend pastime, much like a family outing or an evening at the movies; or it has morphed to the level of occasional banter with colleagues and friends over drinks at a business-district bar before heading home.

One student of āddā termed the discussions as “long, informal, and non-rigorous.” In a doctoral thesis, with āddā at its core, that Nabamita Das presented to the University of Birmingham she put together a fascinating insight into the activity, confirming much that Chaudhuri had acerbically yet somewhat fondly described several decades earlier. A middle-aged man told Das:

Life becomes worthless without āddā. Your Kākimā, (he customarily referred to his wife as her aunt, automatically assuming he is kāku, like a paternal uncle) complains about my everyday evening habit of going out of the home to give āddā at the local para club and not returning…in time for dinner, as I always get drowned in these āddās. But I will not compromise on āddā, which is my food for thought. Going to para club for a smoke and āddā, in fact, defines Bengali masculinity (here he “laughed with pride,” Das informs us). This club which is part of growing up is almost home-like and its members, brother-like friends. These days not many people can turn up for āddā because they are busy, but those of us who come, chat for hours almost every day recollecting our ceaseless āddās of…days (gone by), of lost times and lost friends.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from The Bengalis A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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