art:. Stuart Freedman, The Palaces of Memory, India

amor for adda

Perhaps, Indian Coffee Houses are a Proustian cue to a childhood once lived, repeating with symbols in an adulthood bordered by two countries, England and India for journalist, Stuart Freedman. Freedman, a journalist, has spent the past twenty years frequenting the Addas of India seeking and finding refuge in free spaces.

“When I first went to Delhi in 1994 I was struck that you could find similar people talking about all sorts of things in the Coffee House and it honestly made me feel more at home in a strange city. In fact it was probably that single discovery that made a kind of sense of Delhi – always the most difficult of cities.”

With a new book coming, The Palace of Memory, Freedman’s ‘love letter’ to Indian Coffee Houses, is a past with a new life in the now.


c.: Lets begin with your own coffee ritual? How do you like your coffee and at what time of day do you have usually have it?

Stuart Freedman.: I travel a good deal and so where I drink coffee depends where I am. If I’m at home in England however, then I’ll use my rather battered Bialletti Moka pot to brew some coffee to go with breakfast.

c.: As a photographer, so many things speak to us when capturing an image, a moment. What is speaking to you when you’re in a coffee house that eventually moves you to click?

s.f.: The work in the Coffee Houses was mostly shot on assignment for magazines and so I had a very set idea of what I was looking for. Before the original assignment for a German magazine in 2011, I had never photographed in the Delhi Coffee House though I’d been going there on and off since 1994. I never felt the need to despite the fact that I sometimes went there with cameras after a job. It was more somewhere to escape to.

c.: In your Kickstarter video you mention how the coffee house was a refuge – somewhere you could be anonymous. I feel the need to be invisible at times is one reason why people like going to a café, for the anonymity, to get a little lost. How does this story trope manifest itself in Indian Coffee Houses?

s.f.: I think all cafes and coffee houses are in a sense refuges – somewhere to watch the world go by and think. Culturally, I think that the Indian Coffee Houses have performed various roles for their patrons at different times. They have been – and to some extent remain – salons for intellectuals and were places of pre- and post- Independence politics. The Coffee House in New Delhi was certainly a haunt for politicians and journalists and artists like the film director Satyajit Ray were regulars in the Kolkata Coffee House.

The coffee houses however are also what Bengalis call an ‘adda’ – a place to meet and debate. In that sense they are analogous to, for example the Ahwas of Cairo or the tea shops of the Far East. That said, they are also cheap places to eat and were for a long time the only affordable Western style cafes outside of the big hotels that were out of the reach of most ordinary Indians.

c.: India is a culturally rich country, visually rich as well. How did you decide to lens your photographs so that its true hue would speak?

s.f.: Well, I think that India is visually rich and that can be a blessing and a curse. I’ve worked there consistently for twenty years covering all manner of stories and for the longest time I’ve been disillusioned with imaging the place in terms of what might simply be called ‘exotica’.

Photography (or for that matter writing) about India tends to fall into either looking at extreme poverty or extreme wealth and I wanted the coffee houses to represent the experience of ordinary Indians that we rarely get to see. For me as a journalist, these coffee houses are an echo of the cafes of my London childhood so it was an important lesson for me to understand as a young journalist that the people in these places were actually the same.

c.: You mention in the video that India’s coffee culture was an echo of English coffee culture for you. What similarities did you find between the two that helped you to begin to weave themes to create your ‘love letter’?

s.f.: I grew up in Hackney in East London in the 1970s when it was a byword for poverty and inner city decay (far away from the moniker of the most fashionable part of Europe at the moment) and although it isn’t right to talk of an English coffee culture then, there were distinct similarities with India’s Coffee Houses.

The cafes of my youth were themselves echo of the post-war generation of rock ’n’ roll and rebellion. They were places that tended to be run by Italian and Maltese immigrants and were cheap and quite run down. It was common to find derelicts and the homeless nursing a single cup of tea all afternoon but it was also common to find politics and poetry if you looked harder. When I first went to Delhi in 1994 I was struck that you could find similar people talking about all sorts of things in the Coffee House and it honestly made me feel more at home in a strange city. In fact it was probably that single discovery that made a kind of sense of Delhi – always the most difficult of cities.

c.: It took you three years to document the coffee houses that appear in The Palaces of Memory. What were some of the identifying characteristics for a coffee shop to be selected? Was it a cultural memory of India, or one of your own by having visited within the past two decades?

s.f.: I look for in a coffee shop what I looked for in a classic London ‘caff’. The architecture had to be right – I remember a childhood of formica and stainless steel and the best London cafes – now almost completely disappeared – had to have that.

In India it would be the original and slightly faded decor, the picture of notables on the walls, the hand written signs and I think most importantly, the atmosphere. I like places that welcome you and almost every Indian Coffee House did welcome me.

I’d visited many of the Indian Coffee Houses when I travelled around India on assignment over the years but there were certain favourites: branches in Shimla, Allahabad and Jaipur were just lovely. The Coffee House in Thiruvananthapuram (that used to be known as Trivandrum) is architecturally significant and looks a little like a pink wedding cake. The Coffee House in Kolkata (Calcutta as was) was originally a British Theatre and so is cavernous and full of history. One of my favourites in Kollom in Kerala sadly closed last year and with its pastel blue walls was a magnificent one.

c.: A pink wedding cake? I can see that! You mention how Western Style franchises are part of the change occurring to the Indian Coffee House as a landscape. Can you share a bit about some of the major impacts causing change – is it design, is it smaller spaces, is it a more industrialized service. In essence, what is in cultural jeopardy?

s.f.: Western style franchises have changed the landscape of cafes everywhere – not just India. Fundamentally it is about monetising space. The old men in Delhi complain that coffee in the new places is expensive (it is) and they can’t linger. In my opinion they are pastiches of what organic, free spaces in the city are supposed to be like. To quote Jane Jacobs in her Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960) communities are “created by myriad small daily encounters… the sum of such casual, public contact at local level is a feeling for the public identity… a web of public respect and trust”.

As corporate companies – coffee shops included – come to dominate, we get towns of ‘clones’ that are essentially only interested in making enough money to pay expensive inner city rents. The Indian Coffee Houses are bastions of an idea – a co-operative ideal that speaks of a different, more human time where people weren’t served identikit food in sterile surroundings and people could while away days actually talking and thinking not entirely subservient to a profit motive.

c.: You talk about ‘ordinary Indians’. What can those of us taking a look into their lives, learn about their ritual, their culture, our similarities?

s.f.: As a journalist I’m very wary of saying that I understand anything about different cultures and so for me I can only say that I found similarities in India with my past – but that talks of a universality not a specific Indian culture (whatever that is).

c.: Lastly, how does memory make its way to an impression on your mind? For example, is it through sound, the tactile experience of drinking, through conversation?

s.f.: I think that you’re alluding to a Proustian moment that substitutes madeleines for coffee and while I think that there is an element of that in my book, the experiences that the Indian Coffee Houses dilute for me aren’t really about coffee per se. It’s more complicated. It’s about my past and why I’ve spent my adult life reporting from different, often difficult regions perhaps to escape my own past.

The Coffee House in Delhi in particular at some level has made me come to terms with that and taught me to see the world and its people not as ‘foreign’ or ‘different’ but similar. That’s why my book is a love-letter and why I am grateful to these simple palaces that have been so hospitable.

For more of Mr. Freedman’s work see here. To support The Palaces of Memory visit his Kickstarter.

09/24/2015 Update The Palaces of Memory is now available here.

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