These images are a journey across India through the Indian Coffee Houses. A network of worker-owed cafes across the country.
The Indian Coffee Houses are inextricably linked to my experiences and work in India over the last two decades. When I first came to India, the Coffee House in New Delhi – an almost secret place atop a Brutalist 1970’s shopping centre on a corner of Connaught Place – was a refuge for me.
It provided a respite from the noise and movement of a difficult but fascinating city and it made me very welcome.
The conversations that I struck up with strangers - patrons and staff - showed me a kindness and civility in the city that I hadn’t yet found on the streets. The customers - often old men whiling away their afternoons chatting and debating - were eager to talk about everything from politics to poetry.
I learned that the Coffee Houses are what Bengali’s call an ‘adda’ - a talking shop - similar to the Ahwas of Cairo or the tea shops of the East.
However, for me, the Coffee Houses became a distant echo of those long disappeared greasy-spoon cafes of the London of my childhood in the 1970s. Those smoke-filled, post-war, Formica pavilions simultaneously full of defeat and hope. These were the places where rock ‘n’ roll and revolution had been plotted but also where working class families might also come for a simple treat.
Suddenly, I felt more at home in a strange city. When I travelled through the country, I sought them out. As a young journalist, the Coffee Houses taught me to see similarity not difference: that people were the same the world over and that was a lesson to be cherished.
The Coffee Houses, like my Hackney caffs, somehow distilled that sense of faded optimism: of both post-war and post-Independence respectively. The food was never the point for me, it was about a sense of time and place and how one could watch the world go by and dream.
Today, the Coffee Houses serve as a nostalgic aide-mémoire to a whole generation of Indians that remember them as political meeting places. Artists like
Satyajit Ray and Manna Dey sat in the Coffee House in Kolkata and the political temperature of the nation could be taken in the various incarnations of the one in Delhi. Lawyers and politicos still sit in the Allahabad and Shimla branches. After a closure threat a few years ago, a new generation of students seem to have found the Coffee House in Delhi and if my small book makes more people discover these wonderful institutions all across the country then I’ll be very glad.
ABOUT MY FORTHCOMING BOOK — AND HOW YOU CAN HELP
This book for me is both a thank you and a love letter to these simple palaces that have shown me an India far away from the stereotypes of both poverty and exotica. They have allowed me to enter another ‘ordinary’ India that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to engage with and I’m very grateful for that. If you’re a traveller to India you’ve probably come to an Indian Coffee House for the cheap, tasty food and a glimpse of a past that is inevitably fading as India re-makes itself in the image of the Market.
If you’re an Indian perhaps the Coffee Houses were part of your youth. Perhaps you met your friends here. Perhaps you were brought by your parents on special occasions. Perhaps you dreamed about your future in one…
For this work I’ve photographed the buildings; the interiors but most importantly I’ve photographed the customers and the staff. I’ve tried to capture moments of intimacy and moments of laughter.
However, there is no rosy, Raj-era romance here: this work is an honest attempt to photograph an institution that I both admire and cherish and one that has given me an insight into everyday lives.
It has been a unique way into India at a time of great societal change.
I hope that this project – with your help – will be published in the UK and printed in Italy as a beautiful photo book by Dewi Lewis in late 2015.
I hope that you might join me in that journey by supporting this project and in doing so see how wonderful and valuable the Indian Coffee Houses are.
Please see my
Kickstarter campaign and help to make this book a reality. Thank you!
— Stuart Freedman