As outlets of Starbucks and trendy artisanal cafes mushroom across urban India, a relic of the past still hosts loyalists and gives visitors a different experience.
Introduced in the colonial era by the Indian Coffee Board to popularise the beverage, coffee houses are scattered all over the country. But by the 1950s, when many of these outposts were running losses, the board shut them down. The late communist leader AK Gopalan, along with then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, encouraged its workers to form a cooperative society and take over the business. So, in 1957, the first worker-owned Indian Coffee House was established in Bangalore (now Bengaluru); soon other outlets were opened across the country, going on to become iconic institutions.
Today these coffee houses are suffused with a sense of time standing still, with waiters, who have been around for decades, still serving dosas and cutlets to families and college students. Many an artist, intellectual, and the odd politician or retired revolutionary, has lingered here over affordable cups of coffee, seated on standard plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables.
It’s this unique no-frills environment that British photographer Stuart Freedman wanted to capture. As a journalist visiting and sometimes living in India in the 1990s, Freedman often found himself at Delhi’s Indian Coffee House, enamoured by its resemblance to cafes back home.
“The coffee house became for me an echo of the cosy fug of the English cafe, those greasy Formica pavilions of post-war austerity. Rain, cigarette smoke, and steamy windows,” Freedman said in an email. “A place in a city where you could simply watch the world.”
And watch the world he did, observing the evolution of India and its society over the years. As the national capital attracted more money and brands, the Indian Coffee House looked increasingly out of place, out of step with the country’s booming economy. When, in 2011, the institution once patronised by Indian freedom fighers came close to shutting down, Freedman felt it was time to create a record of the establishment across the country.
Over the next three years, he visited 30 different coffee houses across India, interviewing long-time waiters and regular visitors, including former election commisioner GVG Krishnamurthy, and prominent theatre artiste MK Raina. His book of photographs, The Palaces of Memory, was published in the UK in 2015 by Dewi Lewis. An Indian edition will be published this August by Tasveer, accompanied by an exhibition of the photographs that show a world far removed from the slick cafe chains that urban Indians are now used to.
“These are spaces that contain within them much of the artistic, political, and cultural heritage of the post-1947 settlement,” Freedman explained, noting that visiting an Indian Coffee House has very little to do with the coffee itself.
“I’m all for good coffee but modern coffee shops inevitably monetise their space and (the) time spent within them—ICHs (Indian Coffee Houses), especially in the north, are disruptions to the model of a city’s homogenisation,” he added.
Here’s a selection of Freedman’s photographs: