When the Indian Coffee House of New Delhi threatened to close back in 2009, something quite extraordinary happened. Reporters and politicians descended on the modest establishment, founded in 1957, in a bid to save it. Perched on the third floor of the rundown Mohan Singh Place shopping center overlooking Delhi’s central Connaught Place, the unassuming coffee house had largely become a haunt for retired old men. But campaigners remembered a more glorious time, when lawyers, journalists, city officials and artists congregated there to argue the country’s ills and devise solutions to fix them. “Suddenly, the city remembered itself,” explains photographer and writer Stuart Freedman, who had first visited the place 15 years prior. With the campaign’s success, Freedman realized the historical importance of coffee houses in India, places that he had himself adopted as echoes of the working class cafés of his East London childhood. Six years later, the British photographer is raising funds to publish his first book, “The Palaces of Memory.” He joined R&K from London.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did you first come across the Indian Coffee House in New Delhi?
Stuart Freedman: The first time I went to Delhi would have been 1994. I had already worked quite a lot internationally, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, before that. When I got to Delhi, I just thought: “Oh my god, this place is mad.” And the Indian Coffee House, which is this odd café atop a brutalist shopping center, just seemed to me a bit of a refuge away from the strangeness of the streets of Delhi. I’ve been going to it on and off for about 20 years, which is just an extraordinary thing.
Photo: Stuart Freedman
R&K: What did you like about it?
Freedman: I suppose it was somewhere quiet and it just felt a bit like home. I was not living permanently in Delhi at the time, and it felt like somewhere I could always go back to, somewhere that was mine. I think it took me a long time to realize that what I was experiencing was this echo of the working class cafés of my youth in east London. The greasy spoons that echoed post-war London and its austerity. They were the places where Rock ‘n Roll culture came about in the 50s and the 60s, places that transmitted this idea of rebellion and youth. I didn’t know this at the time because I was just a kid, but they held within them something about London and culture and politics and poetry. And I felt that echo in the Indian Coffee House.