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Brewed with nostalgia: Photo exhibition celebrates the appeal of the Indian Coffee House

Artistic salons, places of political discourse, or a safe spot to observe the city — British photographer Stuart Freedman’s images reflect the many functions performed by the Indian Coffee House.

art and culture Updated: Feb 16, 2018 08:49 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
The Palaces of Memory,Stuart Freedman,Photography
The interior of the Indian Coffee House, Kollam, Kerala.(Courtesy: Tasveer)

London-based photographer Stuart Freedman first came to Delhi in 1994, and one of his first pit stops was the Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place. He recalls being nervous at first — careful of the regulars, careful of the city. But it was at the coffee house that Freedman felt most at ease, a space where he could be anonymous, “away from the stares and the strangeness of India”.

Indian Coffee House is a network of worker-owned cafés found throughout the subcontinent. Over the years, especially post-Independence, it evolved to serve as a political and artistic salon.

Fascinated by these spaces, Freedman started visiting coffee houses spread across the country, while travelling on assignment. “They were familiar and reassuring. For a young journalist, it was an interesting place to hang around, talk and take the town’s temperature (sic),” says Freedman.

A waiter in the Indian Coffee House, Allahabad, India. (Courtesy: Tasveer)

In 2010, when the Indian Coffee House was threatened with closure, Freedman felt the need to document the institution. “Listening to the discussions, it became clear that the ICH was more than just a coffee house. It was a goldmine, a repository of the culture and history of post-1947 India,” he says.

He spent the next three years shooting 35 of the most prominent coffee houses. In his images, you can spot the old-world charm associated with such spaces: liveried servers wait near counters or serve food, framed images of Gandhi and Nehru adorn peeling walls, plastic chairs and Formica tables lay scattered around the eatery, you can even spot the tear in the vinyl seats.

Customers sit beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India. (Courtesy: Tasveer)

In 2015, Freedman released the coffee table book, The Palaces of Memory, which became a finalist for the Best Photography Book 2015 at POYi (Pictures of the Year International), and was selected for The American Photography Annual (AI-AP) in 2016.

Forty photographs from the book are currently on display as part of the travelling exhibition, The Palaces of Memory — Tales from the Indian Coffee House. Organised in association with photo gallery Tasveer and art platform Dauble, the exhibition will be on display in Delhi and Mumbai.

Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh, India. (Courtesy: Tasveer)

Nostalgia mode

Reminiscent of faded colonial grandeur, the coffee houses were established in the 1930s by the British to promote local coffee. Ironically, they became places associated with pre- and post-Independence politics, as well as a space for journalists, artists, poets, lawyers and politicians. Post-Independence, hundreds of branches opened across India.

For Freedman, there was another association with these coffee houses: They reminded him of the greasy-spoon cafés he frequented in his youth in Hackney, London. Engulfed in a haze of cigarette smoke, the cafes were a welcome haven to take shelter from the incessant rain and offered a safe perch to observe the world.

“These were the places where rock ’n’ roll and revolution had been plotted, but also where working class families might come for a simple treat. Decorated in bright Italian technicolours, they are now fading. I remember shabby curtains, sun-bleached menus, broken chairs,” reminisces Freedman, in a book published in conjunction with the exhibition, adding, “The Coffee House reminded me of the places from which I knew I had to escape and explore the world. In a sense I had come full circle.”

A waiter serves schoolgirls beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India. (Courtesy: Tasveer )

Then and now

Even at a time when cafes are sprouting up in every locality, Indian Coffee House still has loyal customers. “They remain addas as well as cheap places to eat — but their significance is often dependent on their location and history. The coffee houses in Delhi and Kolkata are, and remain, places of debate and discussion. The ICH in Allahabad is still the hang-out for lawyers,” says Freedman.

While some coffee houses are struggling financially, others are doing brisk business. “The Delhi coffee house is thriving in terms of customers — it’s full of young people in the evenings — mostly students from JNU that complement the lower middle class families and older men that while away their afternoons over cheap coffee,” says Freedman.

Media attention has also brought in a new generation of customers — youngsters who mingle comfortably with the older patrons. They are also adapting to the times: there are poetry readings held on Sundays at some of the venues, and corporate crowds drop by on weekdays for lunch.

Freedman says the Indian Coffee House endures because it allows people to linger in a space that isn’t corporatised and focussed solely on profit. “Indian Coffee Houses aren’t about coffee. They are about a civilised space in an increasingly contested neoliberal city. And in that way, they play an isolated but valuable role,” he says.

The Palaces of Memory — Tales from the Indian Coffee House will be on display from March 7 to 15
At Bikaner House, Pandara Road, India Gate. The Mumbai exhibition date and venue are still to be announced. To get more details about the exhibition, visit tasveerarts.com

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First Published: Feb 16, 2018 08:49 IST