The bond of the artists, writers and intellectuals with Coffee Houses in general is a long one all over the world. Come to our own city, the most loyal clients of the coffee houses for the past half a century have belonged to these categories. The visual artists in particular have not just spent hours at the Indian Coffee House not just discussing art and society over cups of steaming hot coffee, but also capturing the scenes the place has to offer in their sketchbooks. This so because both the workers and the clients here have no artifice to them as the mood of the place is such that everyone can afford to be themselves, even the mad.
Well, to madness, what has been coming to my mind are sketches made by different artists and most lost to time. Interestingly, my debut in the world of print was not as a writer but as an illustrator with an assignment to spend time in the coffee joints, including the ‘Madras Hotel’ and ‘Cafe de Kerala’ that were a part of the 1970s’ scene. I had just passed out from Panjab University’s mass communication department and my teacher Tara Chand Gupta was writing an article for Punjab government journal ‘Advance’ and so he carried me along with the promise that I would even be paid for the sketches. I earned a handsome some of Rs 75 for the pen sketches!
All this and more came to my mind the other day at the opening of the Sector 36 branch of the Indian Coffee House. The reason was the bare walls of the place decorated with balloons and the festoons. There was no other visual there, not even the yesteryear star Ragini’s picture sipping a cuppa or the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi that has been meeting the eyes with comforting familiarity in the Sector 17 coffee house. So, I went on a search for paintings celebrating the Coffee House, hoping the artists would offer at least digital prints of their works to adorn the bare walls.
As expected I found a rich haul with a senior painter of the city, Balvinder Singh, who was a daily visitor to the Coffee House through the ‘60s till his retirement as principal of Government College for Boys, Sector 11, in 2004. It is a 1993 painting by him of the scene over the hot brew that is produced with the column. Interestingly, the Mahatma Gandhi portrait is replaced with one of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who had been named in some scam. He has several quick sketches of the waiters and more vignettes in pen and ink in the Chandigarh Museum collection. Another painting by my favourite painter S Raj Kumar, who has done a series of Sector 17 paintings, ‘The Drummer and the Dancer’, on a folk performance in the Plaza has a board of the Indian Coffee House signboard in the backdrop. Sometime ago when this painting figured on the social media, a debate of sorts ensued that there was a coffee house at that location. That was the Sector 22 Coffee House that moved to Sector 17 C. There must be other sketches and photographs with several others, I am sure.
There are artists abroad who make it a point to display their works in coffee houses to reach out to more viewers. Appreciable indeed for people’s art must go out to the people. City painters, are you listening? How about a Coffee House art show?