Bhar    |    Kolkata    |    Design

Work in Progress


A research project about the Indian Chai tea cup made out low-fired clay.





Designing is a global activity that affects nearly all human life on our planet!


Ashley Hall, 2018 Designing Globalisation Design [1]




The future of Design needs to focus on its global impact and cultural responsibility.


My goal in Design is to assume the responsibility to understand the global objectives of consumerism and to centralise the sustainable and social impact of Design.


What is important for the future industry and what do we learn by investigating traditional approaches?




The value of a product forms by its »quality« impact on cultural heritage, social agility, and moral belonging; but as well recognisable by its »quantity« impact on economic facts, ecological effects, and measurable quality.


The product Bhar has many values and a distinctive impact related to culture, economy, ecology etc. and its core values are very inspiring for future design decisions.


The Clay Cup



Bhar is the Bengali name of the earthen, disposable cup used to serve Chai tea on the streets or trains in India. It is handmade out of local clay, low-fired, and manufactured handle-less by local pottery clans. The cup is crafted to be used once and discarded in nature, where it decays within one till three days, formed back into mud.


Size (approx.): height 40 mm, diameter 30‒60 mm

Capacity (approx.): 55 ml



Bhar is a traditional Indian pottery and proposes general topics like Ritual Behaviour Patterns, Plastic Waste, Manual Mass Production, Minimum Wage, Hygiene, slums, or Loss of Cultural Identity.



The history of pottery in Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal goes back to ancient times and is defined by different kinds of pottery producing for specific purposes or specialised in specific products, like mass produced clay cup Bhar. [2]


Heritage, but not on Instagram


India is the second leading country based on instagram users 2019 with 75 million monthly users (leading country is US, third most using country Brazil). [3]


The amount of posts with Chai tea and Bhar related hashtags show that either the Hindi and Bengal words for tea cup and tea time are not used by instagram users, or the main target group of Bhar are not using instagram. With exception of the word »Chai« which has an approximate rate of 4000 posts per week. [4]











In India, chai is more than just a cup of tea to start the day ‒ the thick sweet drink is an integral part of the rhythm of life. [5]


Adda /ˈadˌdɑː/

Adda defines a place where people gather for conversation and partly as an illicit drinking place.

»The young men spent their time at the street-corner addas and tea stalls«[6]



Drinking Chai tea »take away« is part of the daily routine for many people in Kolkata.









01 Biodegradable Material Low-fired Clay

(clay fired under 900°C which decays in Indian nature into earth in 2–3 days)


02 Planned Obsolescence

(sufficient functionality and quality)


03 Efficiency in Shape

(sufficient use and quick manufacturing in 6–10 seconds per cup)


04 Traditional, Local Manufacturing

(potter families, making Bhar for many generations)


05 Ritual / Cultural Impact

(Adda/tea-time, drinking Chai out of the clay cup and smashing it after use in nature)


06 Aesthetics in Flavour, Colours and Crafted Details

(characteristic earthen flavour, hand-prints by the potter, rough texture by burned

organic or mineral substances, and colour changes by metallic inlays)


Kolkata is the capital and largest city of the Indian state West Bengal and 7th biggest city of India.


Population 2011 Kolkata 4.496.694

Ratio of Population in Kolkata Female 956, Male: 1000

Population 2011 West Bengal 91.347.736

Area in kilometer 1480 km² (London 1580 km²)

Languages Bengali 55%, Hindi 20%, English 10%, others 15%


West Bengal commercially produces tea since the 19th century and is known for the great quality of Darjeeling tea. Next to jute, tea is West Bengals the most exported natural resource and major part of the state’s economic activity. [7]





Kolkata stated in numbers


1 GBP = 94.2398 INR (exchange rate 28 February 2019)


Average Monthly Net Salary (After Tax)  26,316.65 Rs

Costs of a 2BHK on rent (all included) per month 15.000 Rs

Costs of a maid for cleaning and cooking per month 5.000 Rs

Grocery expenses per month 6000 Rs

Costs of 1 meal in inexpensive restaurant (per person) 250 Rs

Cost of Living Index  24.18 – Very Low

Consumer Prices in Kolkata are 71.23% lower than in London

Costs of 1 kg rice 48.21 Rs (2012: 31.00 RS)

Costs of 1 Chai tea at a tea stall in Kolkata 6-10 Rs

Costs of 1 kg loose tea leaves 151 Rs

Costs of 1 kg sugar 37 Rs

Costs of 1 liter milk 38 Rs



Material Economy

Biodegradable Material Low-fired Clay

(clay fired under 900°C which decays in Indian nature into earth in 2–3 days)

Eco made in India


The clay cup (Kulhar) has been mainly replaced by plastic or paper cups due to costs, weight and other economic reasons.


Indian Politicians approach the waste and in detail the plastic problem in India. In 2004, the former railway Minister Lalu Prasad started a campaign at the station Varanasi (North-East-India) to prevent plastic waste on the trains and proclaimed to sell Chai only in earthen Kulhars instead of disposable cups made out of plastic or paper. He also intended with his political campaign to enhance the local craftsmanship and employment. His effort failed due to practicality of the clay cups and the sudden higher quantity of manufactured cups, ordered from the local potters, affected a lower quality of the material. The results were a loss of functionality and consequently passengers rejected drinking out of clay cups causing caterers to stop commissioning more cups. [8] The tragic end was that potters could not pay their workers anymore and had to deal with negative investment. One big factor of the missing quality were heavy rains in that region, which is why the cups were not

baked well in the outside kilns. [9]

In 2019, 15 years after the first anti plastic campaign, the railway Minister Piyush Goyal (since 2017) introduced caterers at the stations Varanasi and Rae Bareli to use terracotta-made Kulhars or glasses and plates. The chairman of the Khadi and Village Industries Commision (KVIC) V K Saxena suggested the second attempt to generate employment in the area. He said: »We have been giving potters electric wheels which have increased their productivity from making 100 cups to around 600 cups a day. It was important to give them a market to sell their wares and generate income. With the railways agreeing to our proposal, lakhs of potters have now got a readymade market.« Electric wheels have been distributed to another 400 potters and 1700 more are in the pipeline to ensure the qualitative requested amount of clay cups and the government batting for the green and eco-friendly ›Made in India‹. [10]


These environmental campaigns, supported by political authorities, imply that the clay cup wins back cultural importance and awareness. Differently in Kolkata, where Bhar never lost its role in society and daily routines.




Life Cycle of Low-fired Clay

Eco campaign but with critics


The Ministers were politically intervening in an economic and an environmental issue and drew attention to the major plastic problem in India and the local redundancy in the traditional pottery industry.*

Their success would be a political victory but in my sense no solution for a well-balanced future. I see the consumer’s behaviour, throwing the plastic and paper cups into the nature, much more of interest for an intervention to work on environmental issues. Why do they toss the cup on the ground? The social behaviour might also raise the questions, how much the nature has changed by the ecological impact of the clay cups and if a change would affect negatively or positively. From that point of view a new introduced recycling system would be interesting to analyse, too.


*Further critical points about the Minister’s campaigns [11]:

‒ Air pollution by the heavy fuel consumption in the kilns

‒ Critical temperature of kiln can change the biodegrading process upto decades instead of 3 days

‒ Topsoil depletion

‒ Up to 5 times higher prices for clay cups instead of coated-paper cups




How to re-evaluate the used cup?


By Reusing

Is the cup reusable?

What about hygienic and functional issues?

How might reusing influence the craftsmanship?


By Recycling

How to change from an obsolete resource into a used and valuable material?

Is it possible to circulate the resource?

How does the decomposition or recycle proceed?

Who might be interested in the recycled clay?

How does Chai change the properties of clay?

Duration: 15 minutes


/ Funding

If you are interested in collaborating or investing, please contact me

Field Research



I am convinced, that I understand the cup best if I look underneath the surface. Therefore I am going to Kolkata for a deeper research to analyse the authentic values of the clay cup Bhar and their rootes from nature to nature.


The documentary will be done in collaboration with the photographer team of MARAN R.


© All rights reserved, 2019

Design Research

Student Project 2019

Global Innovation Design, Royal College of Art (MA), Imperial College London (MSc)