Busy markets, mazes of bookstores and numerous universities and colleges can be found on Kolkata’s College Street. It is, of course, recognized all over the world for housing the country’s largest book market. However, it is not just the books or the historical significance of these institutions that people seem to be enamoured with. Lost under the pile of literature and colonial architecture lies a haven for anyone with an appetite for coffee and discourse.
Indian Coffee House is a cultural landmark of our country. However, its history has not been able to find its way into the minds of newer generations. Very much a product of British colonialism, the first coffee house was started in Calcutta in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey in 1780. Subsequently, coffee houses sprung up all over the country. The British used these places as a rendezvous for gossip and news. Needless to say, the employees were Indians. Ironically – albeit keeping in vein with the Brits’ signature policy of racial segregation – Indians were denied entry to these coffee houses.
In the 1890s, the idea of an “Indian Coffee House” chain began to take shape. Under British rule, the Coffee Cess Committee established the first coffee house in Bombay in 1936. By the 1940s, there were almost 50 branches in India. In 1942, the committee was replaced by the Coffee Board. This newly formed body decided to shut down the chain in 1957 due to a policy change. At this juncture, the coffee house chain that would grow to be the largest in India was given a second life by a man from the Kannur district of Kerala.
Birth of the Coffee Heritage
AK Gopalan became the unlikely saviour of the workers of the coffee houses. A former teacher, the freedom struggle had brought out the fearless leader in him. Initially a Congressman, he soon became a prominent leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He was one of the 16 CPI leaders to be elected to the first-ever Lok Sabha in 1952. Later, he played a crucial role in the formation of the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). Gopalan urged the workers to start a movement to protest the Coffee Board’s decision to shut down the chain. He met the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss ways of helping the workers retain their jobs. Following Nehru's instruction, the Coffee Board handed over the outlets to the workers, who went on to form the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperatives.
Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place, Delhi (Source: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/06/indian-coffee-house-new-delhi/)
The first Indian Coffee House was started in Connaught Place, Delhi, on December 27, 1957. Other co-operatives sprung up in Bangalore, Lucknow, Bombay, Calcutta and other cities in the years that followed. Today, 13 separate co-operatives run the coffee houses. They are affiliated with the All India Coffee Workers' Cooperative Societies Federation, which was formed on December 17, 1960. Over 60 years after its inception, there are now more than 400 Indian Coffee House branches in all parts of the country.
The Coffee House on College Street
The Indian Coffee House on College Street has become an essential part of Bengali culture. It has a rich history dating back to April 1876, when Albert Hall was established. In 1942, the Coffee Board started a coffee house that operated out of this hall and five years later the place was renamed Coffee House. It was officially reopened as the Indian Coffee House on July 3, 1958.
Sandwiched between two squalid bookstalls, the entrance does not make much of an impression. The interior, however, tells an entirely different story. An intrepid explorer’s paradise, it provides an unmatched experience that has garnered renown for every little detail – the architecture, the food, the shrouded-in-cigarette-smoke air and an irresistible charm.
The Indian Coffee House on College Street (Source: Flickr)
Immortalised through the evergreen song ‘Coffee House-er shei Adda’ by legendary Bengali musician Manna Dey, the College Street branch has become synonymous with Kolkata. Through decades of social, cultural and political influence, it has served as a nerve centre for ideas and reform. The ideals of revolution and critical thinking are so deeply entrenched in this place that none of its patrons can claim to be detached from the politics of Kolkata.
A Tryst with Coffee and Cigarettes
Aishwarya Majumder, a third-year BA Commerce student at Presidency University, is a regular at the place. Talking about her first visit, she says, “It was very hot, very stuffy. I didn’t want to be there, honestly. The place made me uncomfortable… people were smoking and I just didn’t like it at that point. But, obviously, my views have changed completely… Now I have a very funny reason for going there. The thing is, in Coffee House, you can drink coffee, eat and also smoke… It’s like your home – you can do anything. It’s easy there.”
This word encapsulates the charm of the coffee house – easy. This feeling, however, is not limited to college students who look for respite from daily classes. The coffee house has provided a space for remarkable individuals to engage with each other. The likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose graced the hall. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and many other notable artists of the past 50 years have been regular customers. Undeniably, it is a melting pot for the intelligentsia of the city.
Talking about Coffee House a few years ago, Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor said, “I have been a frequenter of the coffee houses in three places: Kolkata in my high school days, Delhi in my college days, and Kerala as an MP. The waiters at the coffee house in Kolkata were famous for their views on everything from the Vietnam war to Jean-Luc Godard’s films.”
An unobservant eye would dismiss the crowd as comprised of ruffians. But the magic of the coffee house has always laid in the practice of adda. The same adda that Manna Dey sang about; conversations with no end. It comprises all forms of discourse that pervades various sections of society. It is said that adda is a Bengali’s birthright. At Coffee House, it comes with one prerequisite – a cup of coffee.
‘Infusion’, as the black coffee is called at the College Street Coffee House (Source: Zomato)
“We generally ordered ‘Infusion’, which is black coffee without milk and sugar, and you could sit there for hours,” says Snehasis Sur, a senior journalist at the Presidents Press Club in Kolkata who has been a patron for over three decades. “The most interesting thing was you could find people of various ages. From the very young ones – the new college-goers – to the seniors like the poets, writers, thinkers. And then there were elderly people also…. But it was the youngsters that longed to go to Coffee House.
“It was a place for alternative discourse for people with alternative thought processes,” he goes on. This gave a platform to various kinds of people – primarily those who wanted to associate themselves with a commonplace. The intellectual pursuits were on there; it was not just a place to go for a cup of coffee. It was a place where you feel you are a thinker; you are one of the commoners and you are part of the intellectual pursuits of Kolkata. So, this was a hub for vibrant cultural thinking.”
The Presidential Suite
Somehow, an old, colonial-era coffee house still attracts young people. It is not the food, neither is it the eponymous coffee. The students of Presidency University share a special bond with the place and are sure to continue to feel that way, for better or worse.
Presidency University, Kolkata (Source: Presidency University website)
Shinjinee Majumder, a third-year BA Economics student at Presidency University, shares her feelings about the place – “I cannot speak for all the students of Presidency, but I am extremely possessive about this place. There is a sense of familiarity, almost like home. It’s like an extension of my college and it always will be. The Indian Coffee House has an extremely budget-friendly menu that attracts people from every stratum of society. That is also another feature that sets it apart.”
The interior, much like Presidency University itself, has remained unchanged for the most part. “Architecturally,” says Shinjinee, “it still has that old Kolkata charm – very high ceilings, simple tables and chairs. No showy furniture, a few paintings and a huge portrait of Rabindranath Tagore at the end of the room. It has two floors, and the upper floor is a balcony.”
Perhaps the most distinct feature of Coffee House is the political history attached to it. It has always been a hotbed of political thinkers. To put it bluntly, the very foundation of the Coffee House was steeped in Communism. This attracted people who identified with the political left, leading to movements being started from these coffee houses.
One Coffee House in Delhi became a symbol of this political spirit. It had served as a meeting place for activists. This led to growing dissent which reached its peak after 1973. In 1975, after the declaration of Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi gave the order to shut down the coffee house, which he called a hub for anti-government activities. A year later, he ordered the demolition of the building.
Ayesha Kuwari, an independent writer, has a blog named ‘Kafe Kuwari’, which tells stories based on coffee’s role in human rights, colonialism and discrimination. She says, “Since Indians were originally excluded from coffeehouses in their own country during the colonial rule, when they had their own coffeehouses, the educated class and politicians wanted to utilise that atmosphere to generate discussion/debates. While politics in the coffeehouse before independence was centred around independence movements, during and after the emergency, the discussions were around how India's new atmosphere had restricted free speech and political dissent.”
CPI-M propaganda posters in the College Street Coffee House (Source: Flickr)
In Kolkata, the environment of the Coffee House was encouraged to thrive under the rule of the CPI-M and the Left Front, which lasted till 2011. Recently, there have been conflicts between patrons and political workers. In March 2021, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers entered the Coffee House and raised slogans after they were stopped from putting up posters ahead of the West Bengal Assembly Elections. In response, people belonging to the other end of the political spectrum referred to them as “outsiders” and accused them of destroying the integrity of the coffee house.
Culture vs Capitalism
Ironically, sticking to the ideals imbibed through this very heritage has proved to be detrimental to the existence of the Coffee House. This has resulted in massive debts. In 2006, the branch in Dharamsala was shut down after incurring losses of more than 35 lakh rupees.
“Now some coffeehouses of the independence period have been demolished and with the rise of corporate coffee chains like Starbucks and other brands, India's coffeehouse atmosphere is no longer the same, it's more of a memory”, says Ayesha Kuwari.
In 2006, the College Street Coffee House – which was facing a financial crisis – was approached by Asian Paints, who offered to carry out renovations. However, due to a conflict of principles, the offer was rejected. Snehasis Sur muses, “Survival has to be the first and foremost concern. If you operate in such an economy or scale where you don’t survive, then you don’t carry forward the cultural heritage, the milieu, the sentiment… They need to come up with various kinds of joints. Some kind of alumni could be formed, funds could be generated, some innovations need to be done. If the city is attached to the coffee house, then the citizens should do something to maintain its heritage”
A waiter serves customers at the College Street Coffee House (Source: Stuart Freedman)
Stuart Freedman, a renowned travel photographer, documented the romance of Indian Coffee Houses all across the country in a work titled ‘The Palaces of Memory’. In one of his meetings with notable Indians, he spoke with the famous litterateur Ram Nath Shastri, who is known as the “Father of Dogri” for his immense contribution to the Dogri script of Jammu. These words spoken by him encapsulate the essence of the Indian Coffee House –
“All revolutions start in coffee houses, you know.”
This article was among the Best Capstone Projects done in September 2021 by the batch of UG '22