When our favourite sweet becomes the centre of a controversy, our attention is bound to be wholly devoted to that. The battle between the states of Odisha and West Bengal over the ‘rasgulla’ may signify strong sentimental values people attach to their much loved sweet, it also seems to be a case of a battle being fought with poor armoury and shattered enthusiasm.
On 31st July, 2015 Odisha celebrated “Rasagola Dibasa” (“Rasgulla Day”) to reaffirm the state’s position as the inventor of the famous sweet. Odisha had filed an application to claim a GI status over the sweet. Now what is GI? GI stands for ‘Geographical Indication’. In simple terms, the grant of a GI status acknowledges a particular region’s attributes and qualities essential towards producing a particular good which cannot be produced anywhere else. For instance, Benares is famous for its silk saris or Assam for its tea. These products are essentially produced in these regions due to factors such as favourable climatic conditions and labour skills which are not found anywhere else in the country.
When Odisha filed an application, West Bengal decided to oppose the application and file a fresh one to claim the rasgulla as being their own invention. This triggered a battle which has not seen the light of the day since.
Here comes the part which is fret with controversy and media reporting sure does not help clear any of it. It is may still seem unclear as to whether Odisha has filed an application for a GI status over the ‘rasgulla’ or the ‘pahala rasgulla’. An answer to this question will solve most of the burning issues connected with it. If it is the pahala rasgulla, then it may be a battle for Odisha to win because this variant of the famous white rasgulla is not produced anywhere else in the country. It is brown in colour, not as soft as its white counterpart, less sugary which gives it a smaller shelf life than the white rasgulla. Had this been the clear-cut answer, I would have had less to write today. However if it is the white one, which is consumed heavily in the market then both states feel that they have a strong reason to claim their right over it. To determine, which of the states is an actual inventor of the infamous sweet a general understanding of their claims may help us attain a few answers.
Jagganath Temple in Puri uses rasgullas as prasad during the rath yatra. Laxmidhar Pujapanda, public relations officer of the temple is quoted, “Rasgulla has been part of the Rath Yatra rituals ever since the Jagganath Temple came into existence in the 12th century.” According to local legend, when Lord Jagganath goes on the 9-day yatra without the consent of his wife Laxmi, she gets very upset and locks one of the doors to the temple called the ‘Vijay Dwar’. Upon the Lord’s arrival, he tries to appease her by offering her rasgullas. This ritual which is known as ‘Bachanika’ is a part of the “Niladri Bije” or “Arrival of God” observance which marks the return of the deities to the temple. According to research scholars, the “Niladri Bije” tradition finds mention in ancient scriptures such as the ‘Niladri Mahodaya’, which dates back to the 18th century by Sarat Chandra Mahapatra.
Noted translator, Asit Mohanty, supporting Odisha’s claim over the rasgulla states that epics by Sarala Das, Balaram Das among other famous Odia scholars show evidentiary claims of the sweet being atleast 500 years old and very popular in the state which cannot be said of West Bengal. Another theory put forwarded by Bengali culinary historian, Pritha Sen states that many Odia cooks who were employed in Bengali households may have introduced the rasgulla alongside many other Odia dishes. According to another possible theory, Bengali visitors to Puri may have taken back the recipe for the sweet from its state of origin.
WEST BENGAL CLAIM
On the other hand there seems to be a considerable percentage of the crowd which believes that West Bengal is the place of invention of the rasgulla. Nobin Chandra Das, is often accredited with the invention of the sweet in the year 1868. He is said to have prepared the sweet by processing the mixture of cottage cheese and semolina in boiling sugar syrup. Though Das’s descendants claim his recipe to be an original one, another theory states that he may have modified the traditional Odiya recipe to produce this less perishable variety.
To further add to the numerous tales, are also newspaper articles written by food historians and sweetmeat Traders Association that claim the invention of the sweet by many people before N.C. Das actually popularized it. In Bangla Khabar in 1987, food historian Pranab Ray stated that a man named Braja Moitra had introduced the rasgulla in his shop two years before N.C. Das started selling it. In 1906, Panchana Bandopadhyay wrote that Haradhan Moira, a phulia-based sweetmaker invented the sweet in the 19th century whilst working for the Pal Chowdhurys of Ranaghat. Due to this reason the rasgulla was also known as ‘gopalgolla’, ‘jatingolla’, ‘bhabanigolla’ and ‘rasugolla’ before being known by its most common marketable name today.
THE ‘PORTUGUESE’ CONNECTION
Upon dwelling into this growing controversy I came across a so-called Portuguese connection that most of us would actually be unaware of. The Portuguese settled in regions scaling from Chittagong in Bengal to Bombay, with most of the coast at their disposal. Having strongly influenced Bengal trading activities, they were apparently very fond of cottage cheese which they introduced in the dishes across the state. KT Acharya, a food historian believes that this introduction lifted the taboo of splitting milk to produce chhena or cottage cheese in Indian society and gave Bengali confectioners a new ingredient to experiment with. This Portuguese connection also finds place in the memoirs of Francois Bernier, personal physician to the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh. He mentions that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skilful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade.”
However in his one twenty-seven page report submitted to the Odisha government, Asit Mohanty negates assertions that Bengal learnt the art of cheese making from the Portuguese settlers and counter- attacks claims made by Haripada Bhowmick in his book ‘Rosogulla’ which states that the sweet was invented in West Bengal.
CAN RASGULLA BE GRANTED A GI?
When we go to purchase rasgullas from the market, do we ask the seller for rasgullas either from West Bengal or Odisha? Consumers who heavily engage in the consumption of the sweet or are familiar with it, have never been heard to claim that rasgullas are actually from either of the two states. Yes, we do hear people say that rasgullas of a particular shop are famous but is that enough to grant the sweet a GI status? In fact famous Bengali sweet shops like K C Das or Banchharam actually have branches all across the country but never has anyone heard them say that their rasgullas are made in Bengal and then sold in these different cities. This observation is important for the fact that GI requires that a particular place be known to produce or make a good that can be identified with the uniqueness of that state and when that particular element is destroyed how can the fulfilment of GI under statutory conditions take place.
While one of the two states in dispute may have a rightful claim to the rasgulla it is to be observed that over the period of time the sweet has crossed geographical boundaries much like our loved gulab jamun or sandesh. This is so because most of our food courts or eateries from Haldirams to Bikaner have all started producing their own version of the rasgulla. In fact even when we go abroad there are plenty of sweet shops selling the sweet! Haven’t we experienced the same? Therefore if Odisha and Bengal are at loggerheads over the invention of the sweet, what about the other parties who now claim to produce their own variant? Won’t the result of this dispute affect them? Will either of the winning states stop all of them from producing a sweet they have been doing so for such a long period of time?
To answer this question, one last focus must be drawn to the scope of genericide made explicit in the GI act. Any good whose name has become generic in nature will lose the right to be registered as a GI which means that a good, whose name has become popular as a common name by virtue of extensive use in everyday language will cease to be given any right as a GI. This is because that good is now identified by its name rather than being associated with a particular place. For eg, maggi though a trademark will explain this situation better. Maggi is the trademark for noodles. But over time, haven’t we realised how often we use the name maggi in place of noodles? This may eventually lead to maggi becoming generic in nature. To bring the rasgulla back into the limelight is to draw a corollary with the term maggi. Hasn’t rasgulla become a victim of this genericide? Don’t we refer to a round white sugary sponge ball as the rasgulla regardless of where it is produced? And if we all agree to this, then the rasgulla may have a very weak prospect in getting a successful registration under the act.
So if either state claims to be the ‘true’ inventor of the sweet, they should have stepped in time to intervene and prevent the rasgulla from becoming a generic name and one of the ways of doing so is securing an early registration of the sweet and taking active steps to prevent any party from using the name because failure to do the same could also cause the proprietor or registered user from losing their rights.
To conclude, these are the few potent observations that hamper the recognition of the rasgulla as a GI. After all, it doesn’t seem fair to anyone that two states decide to engage in a battle with apparent poor legal defences. The rasgulla is a sweet for everyone to enjoy and let us hope that the end to this battle leaves no one with a sour taste in their mouth. If however, the end result has a new turn of excitement to offer, we can be rest assured that all sweetmeat lovers would be literally sitting on the edge of their seats.
By: Shreya Talukdar