Book & Photo Essay: Palaces of Memory – India’s Coffee Houses

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Palaces of Memory
by Stuart Freedman with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri

Published by Dewi Lewis (2015)

“The air of lassitude in these places, the stains on the table, are as important to the ‘historical attitude’ of the coffee drinker as the coffee itself.”

Stuart Freedman is a photographer and writer based between London and New Delhi whose work over he last 20 years has been published in major outlets around the world. 

This book, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is in Freedman’s words “a love letter” to the Indian Coffee House, a national network of cafes across India owned by their workers.  (Stuart’s Kickstart funding was to meet the costs of publishing a limited edition hardcover book rather than travel to take the photos).

Stuart’s attachment to the coffee houses began when he first started visiting India.  He describes them as a “refuge” and “a respite from the noise and movement of a difficult but fascinating city” and also a reminder of the : 

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.

Passing time in these coffee houses, speaking with strangers and observing other customers, enabled Freedman to experience an India “far away from the stereotypes of both poverty and exotica”.

An interesting essay on Freedman’s website describes how the history of the coffee houses is more than about just coffee and how they were a social meeting place, an ‘adda’ – “a specifically Bengali meeting place: full of conversation and discussion” – a home from home where politics and culture were discussed.

Freedman also describes how the history of the coffee houses reveals the political and economic history of India from the opening of the earliest coffee houses in Kolkata and Madras during the years of British rule, through to Indian independence and the 1960s and 70s when the coffee house “was like a kitchen of ideas just waiting to be cooked”. Latterly, as Indian economic fortunes have changed, India is becoming more familiar with a different type of coffee house which does not encourage is customers to gather, sit and chat for long periods although the coffee houses it seems are continuing to survive, if not thrive.  

Chaudhuri’s foreword to the book is available online at The Telegraph of India.  In it he considers the shabbiness of the coffee houses, with their plastic or folding chairs and formica or wooden tables.  He cautions against assuming they reflect underdevelopment and suggests they reflect “a strategically cultivated ethos” or “cult of austerity” borne out of “the morality of Nehruvian socialism and Gandhi austerity”.  The unselfconscious simplicity of the coffee houses thereby reflecting a modernist aesthetic or ‘historical attitude’ –  “history not as knowledge, information, and fact, but as an assignation of meaning to shabbiness” – in the same way that “a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains”.

A gallery of images from Freedman’s book can be viewed on his website while this BBC report by Howard Johnson gives an insight into the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata:

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