The magazine of the art-form of the photo-essay
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May 2015 issue
by Stuart Freedman
These images are a journey across India through the Indian Coffee Houses; a network of worker-owed cafes across
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 1970s 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
I learned that the Coffee Houses are what Bengalis 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.
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.
A customer has a conversation with another in the Indian Coffee House, Kottayam, Kerala, India.
Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, New Delhi,
A couple talk at a table behind a large bowl of sugar in
the Indian Coffee House, New Delhi, India
Mr Kumar in the Indian Coffee House New Delhi. The
Coffee House dates back almost fifty years, first in central
Connaught Place, then Janpath and now at the top of a
Mr Sri Kumar, a waiter in the Indian Coffee House.
Originally from Kerala, Mr Kumar has worked at the
Coffee House for 8 years. Jaipur, India
The Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, India.
Glasses of water at the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata,
The interior of the Indian Coffee House, Kollam, India.
Customers in the Indian Coffee House, Chertala, India.
Waiters laugh and joke during a break in the staffroom of the Indian Coffee House, Kottayam, Kerala, India.
The cashier in the Indian Coffee House in Nagpur, India.