An iconic café in Delhi seems emblematic of an idea that appears to be fading. But for photographer Stuart Freedman the coffee house as an institution remains relevant even in unsentimental new India
There is a monkey at the window. It lopes slowly along the low wall and momentarily peers inside through grimy windows at a dozen old men talking furiously at rickety tables. Above, kites soar effortlessly in the languid, polluted air. This is central New Delhi in the late afternoon and three floors below on the street there is the usual chaos. Downstairs, nearly 14 million people clamber over each other, fighting—sometimes literally—for space, for breath, for a pause in the relentless noise and movement of a city once again shedding its grubby skin, becoming its next “self”. The Indian Coffee House stands above it all: a survivor from a different time. A black and white movie in an era of 3D. A palace of mid-century modernism, broken but still standing.
For me it was somewhere to be anonymous, away from the stares and the strangeness of India. The Coffee House taught me a very valuable lesson: that the people whiling away their days over coffee in gloriously chipped cups were the same as the people of my Hackney past. The “other” was not strange and unknowable but similar. The conversations I was invited to join—of politics and poetry—were the same I’d shyly listened to in Hackney. The Indian Coffee House and its ideals are buried deep in the collective memory of Delhi. Perhaps never as flamboyant as its cousins in Calcutta where Satyajit Ray et al held court, its presence is like a reincarnating deity.
Stuck on a corner of one of the radials of the colonial city, seen from above it is like a spur and, while it stands, it prevents the wheel of Connaught Place fully turning and emerging as a Western high street. It locks down an older geometry like a portal to the past. It will not let Delhi, always a city of trauma, forget itself. Delhi is a palimpsest of cities (seven, eight?) and if you look carefully the past is barely below the surface. The Coffee House is part of a living archaeology and its memories, like the coffee-stain hieroglyphs, only partially wiped away each day by the grimy cloths of the waiters, endure.
Freedman’s photobook will be launched in conjunction with Tasveer art gallery’s related exhibition of photographs, which will tour Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Ahmedabad from August 2017.
This photo-essay was published in the April-June 2017 issue. The issue was on The Himalaya, guest edited by Stephen Alter.
Elsewhere in this issue, Bill Aitken is on the path to self-discovery, Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar explore the unsung heroes among the climbing Sherpas and Bhotias of Darjeeling, Mamang Dai gets nostalgic in her lyrical reminiscences about the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, Martin Moran is equally wistful writing about the pleasures of pioneering in the smaller peaks of the Himalaya. Janaki Lenin explores the oscillating relationship between the villagers and shepherds of Kinnaur and Sankar Sridhar depicts the life of the Bakarwals of Kashmir in his photo essay. Gautam Bhatia’s sardonic drawings of the imagined ruins of Delhi make us laugh—and cry. While Anurag Banerjee’s unobtrusive camera captures stolen moments and intimacy in public spaces in Mumbai.