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Indian Coffee House: Heady brew in chipped china

Bird’s eye view of crowded tables in Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: Stuart Freedman courtesy Tasveer

Coffee House’er shei adda’ta aaj aar nei (there’s no Coffee House adda any more) sang Manna Dey in a sentimental ditty that became a sort of anthem for Calcutta’s famous College Street hangout. It was the kind of place that one did write songs for. In the 50s, poets had their own table at the café and novelists theirs. Bikash Bhattacharjee and Ray and Ghatak sat around, and scripts, paintings and politics would be pored over in a haze of cigarette smoke.

In the late 80s, its cultural pretensions were already dead but not its popularity. Barista was unknown and burgers and coleslaw had just about arrived, so college kids and the middle-aged still sat about in the Coffee House solving the world’s problems. It was almost in homage that a classmate and I went there to smoke our first public cigarette. Nobody gave a damn but we felt glowingly radical as we sipped indifferent coffee from chipped china.

Thick white cups and cheap water glasses, liveried waiters, long-stemmed ceiling fans and shabby tables — these are not just the physical attributes of Indian Coffee Houses across cities but signifiers of their very essence, the idea of the coffee house, the culture of conversation, a kind of languid and genteel urban rhythm of a certain era.

Toast, that Indian Coffee House favourite, Kannur.

Toast, that Indian Coffee House favourite, Kannur.   | Photo Credit: Stuart Freedman courtesy Tasveer

They belong to a time when time did not matter that much. The closest you can get to that particular feel is in the rambling, umbrous refreshment rooms of railway stations, where the mood is never hurried, and the breeze from the fan takes as many minutes to reach you as the unhurried waiter does.

Essence in image

Journalist Stuart Freedman has managed to distil at least a little of this essence into his photographs, which are compiled in a book called The Palaces of Memory - Tales from the Indian Coffee House, some of which are part of Tasveer’s travelling exhibition of the same name that came to Chennai’s Amethyst recently. Water glasses balanced in readiness on the corner of a banister; stern admonitions on walls: ‘Outside Eatables Not Allowed’, ‘Meals Closed’; menus of sincere precision: Vada (each); Bread Toast (2 pieces); a turban resting respectfully on a plate; a plastic number tag on a uniform pocket — images so resplendently of a place, your instant response is ‘I know that!’

A man translating poetry, Kolkata.

A man translating poetry, Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: Stuart Freedman courtesy Tasveer

Their sameness touches you the way the strains of an old Hindi song waft comfortingly across in Kanyakumari or Kapurthala. There are some places, like malls or fast-food franchises, where uniformity decays into homogeneity — “There is no there there” — as Gertrude Stein said. That can never be said of the Indian Coffee House, as full of quirks as its menu card.

Arriving in India in 1994 for an assignment, when Freedman found himself unable to absorb the country’s many-tiered complexity, he found solace in the shabby interiors and friendly waiters of the Coffee House in Delhi’s busy Connaught Place. He found a little bit of his London past there, he tells me, which isn’t surprising because the place is so much a remnant of the Raj. Like English. And like the language, firmly recast in our image. But, for Freedman, more than anything it was a translational device: “I have no Raj hangover. What I found in the Coffee House was familiarity, conversations from my youth,” he says, “two men discussing, of all things, Conrad and Faulkner.”

Mr. Kumar, a regular customer, New Delhi.

Mr. Kumar, a regular customer, New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Stuart Freedman courtesy Tasveer

Coffee House addas have always offered this: a hope that you can unpack your head a bit. And it’s an accessible hope; it doesn’t require you to be well-dressed and well-heeled. The beautiful people have long migrated to hipster cafeterias, where Wi-Fi connections outweigh conversations and nobody will be seen dead ordering Toast Omelette.

For today’s patrons, the Coffee House of Kottayam or Delhi or Nagpur is a refuge, an escape from the bewildering, glittery pace outside. In its bottles of tomato sauce and white china cups, its forks and liveried waiters, they seek the trappings of an aspired gentility, an upward mobility that eludes them entirely otherwise.

For Freedman, it started as a personal relationship with a familiar space. But when in 2009 there were rumours that Delhi’s Coffee House might shut down, Freedman decided to take photographs before it was all lost. That’s when he realised there was more here — the story of a rich heritage that nobody was talking about.

Archival aim

A table still warm, New Delhi.

A table still warm, New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Stuart Freedman courtesy Tasveer

In the next five years or so, he travelled across 10 or more cities, taking pictures of some 35 Coffee Houses, talking to regulars and waiters and owners. The result is this delectable book, which recalls and preserves an important cultural marker of a certain time and of a certain philosophy.

The photographs are not so much art as archival project, and come to life more inside the book than on the gallery walls. If for Freedman the book marks a sort of goodbye to his India days, for those of us of a certain generation it’s a reunion and for others a history lesson.

Set up in 1942 by the British to popularise the brew, the series of stalls selling coffee and ‘English’ eats were set to shut down in the 50s. That’s when Communist leader A.K. Gopalan organised the workers into a cooperative society to take over the business. The first Indian Coffee House opened in Delhi in December 1957, and there are some 400 now, with the maximum, 50-plus, in Kerala. Its continuing popularity in Kerala is unsurprising, especially if we see the institution itself as one of the remnants of a socialistic ideal where everyone ate at the same table and everyone participated in the debate.

If the place itself is not so much about coffee as about memory and desire, the book, as Freedman says, is a visual madeleine. And it performs this Proustian role not with sickly-sweet nostalgia but with brisk empathy. The straight photography documents another life, another way of being, a brief moment when being middle-class did not have to mean only a sightless seeking of the next bigger mall and the next item number but could also mean sharing a table with poets and playwrights.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 1:49:35 PM |

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