19 March 2018

Coffee Break: thoughts on Stuart Freedman's pictures of Indian Coffee Houses

The Palaces of Memory: Tales from the Indian Coffee House is Stuart Freedman's visual journey of urban India


The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013
The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013

When Stuart Freedman first arrived in Delhi in the mid-90s, it felt overwhelming. "I'd been to Pakistan, I'd been at the siege of Kabul, but India was something else," laughs the British photographer, now a veteran of many visits. "When I needed a break from the relentless push and pull of the city, I'd go to the Coffee House and be quiet. It was a refuge." But it wasn't till about 2010 that he picked up his camera inside one of them. Soon after, on assignments in Jaipur and Kolkata, he ended up photographing the Indian Coffee Houses there. "Then I knew it was a book," says Freedman, in Delhi for the Indian launch of his photo-exhibition and accompanying book, The Palaces of Memory: Tales from the Indian Coffee House (Tasveer/ Dauble, 2017).

If you grew up in urban India before liberalisation, the Coffee House, or at least the idea of it, is likely to have been part of your coming of age. Set up by the British government in the 1930s as a response to the Depression-era decline in coffee exports, the India(n) Coffee House chain did much more than create a local demand for the beverage. Its outposts across India became places where middle-class people met, to drink coffee, yes, but also to discuss politics and poetry and the day's gossip, to meet classmates after class or colleagues after work, or to conduct a romantic rendezvous in a place that offered anonymity but also safety. In short, to do all those things that not many places in the 20th century Indian city yet enabled, and to do so in a public place, inexpensively.

Yet, while the Coffee House experience captured something of modern western urbanity, it also represented India's unabashed, wholehearted claiming of it. Here, we produced our own version of modernity: where the coffee came in white ceramic cups (with saucers) but the kettles were aluminium; where you might cut up a mutton cutlet with a knife and fork but happily eat sambar-vada with your hands. Palaces of Memory does the much-needed job of making us look afresh at these remarkable places in our midst, their unpretentious formica tables and faded Gandhi-Nehru images offering a magical window into a vanished past. As the post-liberalisation city around it grows ever more brash and shiny, the more the Coffee House seems like a holdout: the last surviving outpost of what Amit Chaudhuri's 'Prologue' calls a "deliberately, almost jealously protected austerity".

A waiter serves schoolgirls beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, 2013

Freedman's images do not shy away from this plainness, or signs of age: the peeling walls, the fraying pockets of uniforms, the blackened switchboards, table legs balanced in empty Amul cheese tins. But his gaze is affectionate, forgiving, even celebratory. Even a fly sitting in a bowl of sugar seems innocuous, yet another visitor to the Coffee House who hasn't been turned away. "I'm not romantic about India, the nonsense about elephants and maharajas. But there is a romance about what the Coffee Houses allow people to do. You can sit all afternoon with a cup of coffee and no one's going to tell you to leave," Freedman says. "I'm from Hackney, from a working class background. The Coffee House became this kind of translation device for me because I saw the same people there as in the cafes at home."

Of course, Coffee Houses are not all the same. "South Indian ones have much more substantial food," says Freedman. And one Coffee House might cater to different constituencies: retired old men, college students, middle-aged couples or a family on a ritual outing, young lovebirds. But what all these people are likely to have in common is that they are lower middle class.

Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi, 2010

Freedman is clearly drawn to places that democratise leisure. If England's greasy spoon cafes summon up an era of post-war rationing that he didn't quite witness, his book on another dying British institution, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop, "is really about [his] past" and "that section of London's working class that feels dislocated". He has also photographed the cafes of Cairo "as a way to examine the Egyptian revolution". Does he see Indian Coffee Houses as resisting the neoliberal economy? "Modern cities privatise space," Freedman agrees. "Places where people gather and are not monetised like Starbucks are places where people discuss. And discussion is dangerous to the state. Indira Gandhi knew this; she closed the Coffee House during Emergency, saying it was seditious."

Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh, India, 2013

What also makes the Indian Coffee Houses unique is that they are worker-run. In the 1950s, after the Coffee Board decided to privatise 43 outlets and fired many employees, the workers formed cooperative societies and persuaded the management to let them run the outlets.

Freedman's many superb portraits of waiters and kitchen staff are testament to the wonderful sense of ownership that pervades the Coffee Houses as a result. In one image in Palaces, a frail old man in a dhoti sits with his back to a man in collared shirt and trousers. As they raise their identical cups of coffee to their lips, one has the sense of a world in perfect balance, something sadly missing in the world outside.

No comments: