©Stuart Freedman, Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh, India, 2013, C-type print Courtesy Tasveer
Stuart Freedman first visited Delhi in 1994 and chanced upon the Connaught Place Indian Coffee House, which provided him a refuge from the city’s chaos and reminded him of the long-disappeared greasy-spoon cafes of his childhood in Hackney, London. Soon he began to seek out other coffee shops in the network on his repeated trips to India as a young journalist, and began documenting these institutions that he saw as depicting an ‘ordinary India’.
Established in the 1930s by the British to promote local coffee, the Indian Coffee Houses ironically thrived as places of pre and post-Independence politics, as well as salons for journalists, artists, poets, law yers and politicians. They have since grown into a national network of worker-owned cafes with hundreds of branches throughout India. Freedman’s photographs highlight the faded grandeur of these establishments, defined by the plastic chairs, formica tables and shabby interiors that are a familiar but distant echo of our colonial heritage and past.
©Stuart Freedman, A waiter serves schoolgirls beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, 2013, C-type print Courtesy Tasveer
The Palaces of Memory presents Freedman’s photographs taken between 2010–2013 of some of the most iconic Indian Coffee Houses across the country. Documenting the architecture and interiors of 30 coffee shops—which are found in different places, from the tops of shopping malls to art deco buildings—the series also highlights that these once-thriving cafes are increasingly threatened in a commercialised world of western franchises.
Apart from capturing the spaces themselves, Freedman’s photographs also provide a window into the coffee shop culture inherent in these establishments across different cities: “It made me realise that the world was not strange and different, but very much the same all over. People have the same dreams and aspirations all over the world and the coffee house was a place where they’d come and sit and watch the world go by.”
A somewhat personal tribute to to the institution of the Indian Coffee House, these photographs encapsulate the unique atmosphere of these “palaces of memory” that seem as if frozen in time with their largely unchanged decor. Freedman writes: “People in India really cherish the coffee houses— they are a kind of aide memoire to a fondly remembered post-independence past, but we all forget what’s around us and its importance. I hope that these images will make people remember and revisit the coffee houses. I want people to connect to them, and for people in other countries to take a peek into these fascinating places, too.”
©Stuart Freedman, Waiter Brij Nandan Yadav. The Indian Coffee House, New Delhi, 2011, C-type print Courtesy Tasveer
Stuart Freedman ( b.1967) is a British photographer and writer, best known for his socio-political documentation. He has covered stories from Albania to Afghanistan and from former Yugoslavia to Haiti, and his work has been published in prominent publications such as Life, Time, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, Newsweek and Paris Match.
Freedman has also been widely exhibited, and has been recognised for his work by Amnesty International (twice), The Royal Photographic Society and UNICEF. In 1998, he was selected for the World Press Masterclass and the following year for the Agfa Young Photojournalist of the Year. His book, The Palaces of Memory (first published in the UK by Dewi Lewis) was a finalist at POYi for Best Photography Book of the Year and was chosen for The American Photography Annual (AI-AP) in 2016.
8th -15th March
Bikaner House, Delhi
©Stuart Freedman, Sangaran, a waiter who has worked at the coffee shop for 17 years. The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013, C-type print Courtesy Tasveer