The City-side origins of Bengaluru’s cafe society
But dig into the city’s history a wee bit, and you will find that the genesis of the beloved slurping-coffee-while-shooting-the-breeze Bengaluru tradition predates Koshy’s by half a century, and lies not in the erstwhile British Cantonment but in the bylanes of the pete or City, in the shape of KT Appanna’s Hindu Coffee Club.
When the first outlet of (the admittedly oddly named) Café Coffee Day (CCD) opened on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road in 1996, no one could have imagined how iconic a brand CCD would grow to become. But in the eyes of the new, shiny, dial-up-internet generation that came of age in the nineties, that outlet, the country’s first so-called ‘cybercafé’, scaled never-before heights of cool. Years later, CCD would be hailed as the pioneer of Bengaluru’s booming café society.
Try that claim out on an old-timer, however, and you will be sent away with a flea in your ear. He or she will have you know that it was in fact Koshy’s, or Parade Café, founded way back in 1952, that was the city’s original Indian-owned café.
But dig into the city’s history a wee bit, and you will find that the genesis of the beloved slurping-coffee-while-shooting-the-breeze Bengaluru tradition predates Koshy’s by half a century, and lies not in the erstwhile British Cantonment but in the bylanes of the pete or City, in the shape of KT Appanna’s Hindu Coffee Club (HCC). Here is the short version of the story.
The plague that swept through the city in 1898 emptied homes of women, children and the elderly, all of whom were sent away to more salubrious locales, leaving the men who were still standing with little access to fresh and hygienically prepared food. The city municipality established free kitchens, but the upper castes did not warm to the idea of breaking bread with the hoi polloi. Among the first to spot the business opportunity was probably Avani Narsing Rao, who, before the year was out, had set up a little establishment selling Brahmin-made food. A few years later, teenage entrepreneur KT Appanna, who had lost his father to the plague, set up his own hotel, featuring meals cooked by his widowed mother (2 annas per meal, with 7 rupees covering all meals for a month).
Appanna’s hotel soon became very popular, not least because of the aroma of balekai bajjis that emanated thence around 4 pm every evening, an ‘after-office snack’ innovation the young man had introduced. Circa 1906, Appanna moved his hotel to Chikpete, added benches and tables (most other ‘hotels’ were ‘standing only’) and rebranded it the Hindu Coffee Club. Their palates now habituated to ‘hotel food’, the men came in droves. By 1908, the HCC had blossomed into a cultural hub, where a motley group of vidwans, professors, bureaucrats, journalists, and writers gathered between 6 and 7:30 each evening, arguing loud and long about the recent split in the Indian National Congress, analysing Carnatic classical music, hauling the Mysore administration over the coals, discussing the scriptures, and making dozens of rarely realised plans to ‘improve’ the common people.
In 1916, KT Appanna founded the Modern Hindu Hotel (the HCC had been closed for a while, reeling under the weight of vast unpaid debts from its exclusive clientele) near Ananda Rao Circle, with the full encouragement of the dewan of Mysore, Sir M Visvesvaraya, who believing that Bangalore needed more hotels to serve the needs of the hordes of outside talent that streamed daily into the growing city (sounds familiar?), had convinced the Maharaja to offer all manner of sops to the hospitality industry.
The Modern Hindu Hotel was the first hotel to cater to people of all communities and religions. So respected was Appanna that his mentee, Seetharama Rao, founder of the legendary Dasaprakash chain, set up a Modern Hindu Hotel in 1928 in Mysore with the former’s blessings, but chose not to go into business in Bengaluru, so that the two would never be in competition with each other.
(Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru)