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The Bengali Adda: Culture Spatiality and Exclusion

Part 2 Dissertation 2007
Tan Szue Hann
National University of Singapore, Singapore
“The Bengali 'adda' – Culture, Spatiality and Exclusion” is a thesis on spatiality and the intrinsic politics of exclusion behind the 'adda', a socio-cultural practice among the people of Bengal of engaging in chit-chat over topics of common interest, usually over tea. It is a practice which has become part of the Bengali way of life.

The paper begins by exploring the 'adda' as a social practice, vis-à-vis the Habermasian public sphere, and by investigating the claim that the 'adda' is intrinsic to Bengali culture. It also observes – and addresses – the Bengali need to be elevated from the rest of the Indians, thereby creating a unique collective group identity, manifested through the practice of 'adda'.

The paper hypothesises there are, in fact, politics of exclusion within this deep-rooted fraternalism, and goes on to suggest that these politics are in fact purported by the architecture of the spaces in which addas occur.

In burrowing through Calcutta in search of various adda venues – typically tea-houses and coffee-houses – the hypothesis begins to prove itself, via observations in segregation, through the architecture of these spaces. The Indian Coffee House in Calcutta becomes central to these observations, in its architecture and in its unique placement amongst its environs, in which culture and politics are inextricably intertwined. Particular focus is, therefore, given to the Indian Coffee House in Calcutta, a quintessential site for adda.

Thus, the dissertation seeks to investigate the question, “Could the collective group identity championed by the Bengalis, through the practice of the adda, turn out to be a guise?”

Tan Szue Hann

On a number of points, this dissertation distinguishes itself. It is about a Bengali’s practice of Adda; talk amongst friends / companions set in locations that are formalized with an air of informality. It is the Bengali’s equivalent of Habermas’ public sphere. During colonial period, Adda fostered a sense of nationalism and one particular place, the Indian Coffee House at College Street, Calcutta was examined for it’s role. It illustrates the contradictory nature of its siting and practices within. For as much as it fostered difference in its location to the “White” town, the practice of Adda is itself a practice of exclusion; much based on feminine groups and class based politics. These together with the architectural layering, the Indian Coffee House are historicized to provide a clearer picture of Adda.

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