The Palaces of Memory

By Stuart Freedman 2

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.

Sangaran, a waiter who has worked at the coffee shop for 17 years. The Indian Coffee House, Kollam, India

Sangaran, a waiter who has worked at the coffee shop for 17 years. The Indian Coffee House, Kollam, India

The Indian Coffee House, Shimla, India

The Indian Coffee House, Shimla, India

The manager and a waiter at the Indian Coffee House, Thelassery, India

The manager and a waiter at the Indian Coffee House, Thalassery

A waiters and cashier talk in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India

A waiter and cashier talk in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata

Customers sit beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India

Customers sit beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India

Waiters serving food at the Indian Coffee House at Thampanpoor, Thiruvananthapuram, India

Waiters serving food at the Indian Coffee House at Thampanpoor, Thiruvananthapuram

A customer at the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India

A customer at the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata

A waiter in the Indian Coffee house at Transport Nagar, Korba, Chhattisgarh

A waiter in the Indian Coffee house at Transport Nagar, Korba, Chhattisgarh

A portrait of a kitchen hand in the the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. The Coffee House dates back almost fifty years, first in central Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a rather shabby shopping centre. Still run by the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, it was a regular haunt for politicos in Delhi and It's clientelle is still well read and intellectual.

A portrait of a kitchen hand in the the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi.
The Coffee House dates back almost fifty years, first in central Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a rather shabby shopping centre. Still run by the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, it was a regular haunt for politicos in Delhi and It’s clientelle is still well read and intellectual.

Portraits of the cashier in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi, India.The Coffee House dates back almost fifty years, first in central Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a rather shabby shopping centre. Still run by the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, it was a regular haunt for politicos in Delhi and It's clientelle is still well read and intellectual.

Portrait of the cashier in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi

Portraits of a worker in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi, India.The Coffee House dates back almost fifty years, first in central Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a rather shabby shopping centre. Still run by the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative Society, it was a regular haunt for politicos in Delhi and It's clientelle is still well read and intellectual.

Portrait of a worker in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi


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.


 

2 Comments

  1. Prabhat Singh April 11, 2017 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Loved to read The Palaces of Memory, a well treated subject close to my heart.
    Wish the captions with portraits of the coffee house workers carried their names as well.
    Thanks,

  2. Pratyusha April 13, 2017 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    We have travelled and visited the coffee houses at Simla and the South of India. It is such a quaint place and serves such fantastic coffee. And it is always a beehive of activity. The pocket friendly rates are one of the reasons of course – but for a lot of the people who visit them its a matter of habit and a place to hang out and chat with their buddies.

    It was so lovely to go through this narration.

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