Life measured in coffee spoons: Stuart Freedman on café culture

Conversations from 1960s London find a home in Indian Coffee Houses. 

Jaideep Sen Published :  04th December 2017 12:25 PM   |   Published :   |  04th December 2017 12:25 PM
Stuart Freedman

Stuart Freedman

Stuart Freedman, an award-winning photographer from London, tells a story long overdue — on the fading heritage of Indian Coffee Houses. At the show, The Palaces of Memory — Tales from the Indian Coffee House, co-hosted by Dauble, he presents 40 pictures, also released in a book (with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri), which narrate his journey across India, as seen through ICH outlets.

For Stuart, the ICH he found in Delhi back in 1994, when he first arrived in the city, took him right back to the hangouts of his growing years. “The ICHs are a kind of aide-memoire to a whole generation of Indians,” says Stuart in an email exchange. “They speak of a post-Independence optimism and a ‘pause’ in the city. At times both artistic salons and family-friendly spaces, for me, they evoke the greasy-spoon cafés of my youth in East London,” he notes.

From Stuart Freedman's The Palaces of Memory

“The streets there were navigated by rough pubs and tired cafés whose windows would always be streaked by rain and cigarette smoke. These cafés, the remnants of a vibrant 1950s and ’60s culture, were full of faded Formica, and populated by the same old men whiling away the afternoon with a single cup of tea.”

The scenes he describes resonate in IHC establishments across India — from Delhi, Chandigarh and Jaipur to Kolkata and Shimla, down to Chennai, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram, among other cities. Stuart passed on Bengaluru, as the original ICH had shifted. “It simply isn’t the same place,” he says. The ICH in Pondicherry too had moved, to “a rather shabby basement”.

From Stuart Freedman's The Palaces of Memory

“The point for me was that these were the same kind of people,” reflects Stuart. “And the conversations I had — of politics, poetry and cricket — were the same that I had in London,” he says. “In that sense, the ICH became for me a translational device — Delhi became not a frenetic, unknowable city, but a familiar place, and ICH, a refuge.”

The Palaces... showcases iconic Indian Coffee Houses, which for the most part, remain in a derelict, flea-bitten state. For Stuart, an ICH will always seem “a cross between a cheap café and a Parisian Left Bank café — where ideas are debated and discussed — an ‘adda’, as Bengalis call it.” Moreover, the coffee houses represent a certain idea, offers Stuart. “They represent a political idea far removed from the rapacious market-driven ideas in India today — and that’s not a bad thing.”

From Stuart Freedman's The Palaces of Memory

In terms of their future, Stuart is optimistic. “On most afternoons, the Delhi ICH is busy with groups of students discussing and arguing politics. Exactly what coffee houses should be about. The point is, they allow people to linger and think. Space in cities is increasingly monetised. Indian Coffee Houses are a valuable antidote to that.” 

Stuart recently also released another book, The Englishman and the Eel, as “a companion piece to The Palaces...” on the working class culture of his youth, in London. The contrast, and similarities, he brings out are worth talking about over many more rounds of coffee.

On show until December 18. At Tasveer, Bengaluru. Details: 080-4053-5212.