It was the impulse to escape the chaotic streets of Delhi that led British photographer and journalist, Stuart Freedman, to the Indian Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place. For Freedman, who was in the Capital on an assignment in the mid-’90s, the Coffee House was “an echo of the rough English cafes of my youth. The conversations I had with the guys at the cafes in London were the same I would have with people here. For a young journalist, it was like a translation device and a cue to a kind of universality. It showed me that this could have been London.”
Though his romance with the Indian Coffee House started then, the now-decrepit establishment only turned muse when, in 2009-10, rumours of its demise were rife. Set up in the 18th century, these coffee houses, despite the threats posed by multi-national franchises, and decay, have thrived as loci for political and cultural debate. “Especially the one in Delhi, holds memories — both political and cultural — of an entire generation. It’s a place where professionals, lovers and students rub shoulders and are able to say anything they want. I think that is very important for the body politic. It’s not about the coffee,” he says, seated at Bikaner House, where select photographs from his photo-book, The Palaces of Memory, supported by Tasveer and Dauble, are on display.
The photographer describes the book and its offshoot, the exhibition, by the same name, “as a love letter” to the co-operative coffee houses of India. But the letter doesn’t wax poetic about the past glory of the beloved, instead, it appreciates her even as her beauty wanes. Besides, chronicling aspects of India, a country he has returned to frequently in the last 20 years, was never to capture the “romance and elephants, poverty and prostitution” associated with the land, rather its less exotic, more quotidian facets.
Freedman’s lens, through the three years of his documentation of the coffee houses, pulled focus particularly on those acknowledged only when needed. He captures them on the move, steering from one table to other; sweeping floors; pouring coffee into tumblers, making dosa or darting stares into his camera. Other peripherals are admonishments hung precariously on the almost-always pastel-shaded walls of the coffee houses — “No Smoking Area/Smoking Here Is An Offence”; “Meals Closed”; “Outside Eatables Not Allowed”.
The display that moves swiftly from portraits to architecture to greasy utensils to food, encompasses life at the coffee houses, whose bare-bones structure and unostentatious, even ragged, furniture demand a patronage that is free of pretentions. With framing that includes enlarged photographs of Nehru and Gandhi, Freedman points to a bygone era, which, within the confines of these coffee houses, seems frozen in time.
A familiar scene for Freedman, in this adventitious country, was of a family of four sharing a meal. As he points to the picture, he said, “This is my father” — not an answer one bargained for. Growing up in Hackney, economic volatility placed much beyond his reach, he reveals. “In the ’60s and ’70s, Hackney was the worst place and we didn’t have a lot of money. When I saw this guy, there was something about this sh*t suit he was wearing that reminded me of my father. What do you do when you don’t have the money? But that they are on their weekly or fortnightly outing, eating together as a family is important,” he says.
These stories make him want to a call the coffee house a “palimpsest”. An image of coffee stains that refuse to be wiped away furthers this analogy. “It’s like a million stories are piled on top of each other. I am not obsessed with history or the past but sometimes you can see the layers. These are little signals that this is not a swanky restaurant but a place where people have been and written their own stories,” he says.