Calcutta Coffee House

Calcutta Coffee House -  5

In the beginning, before CafĂ© Coffee Day, Cafe Barista and their likes there stood Calcutta Coffee House, ''a village in the center of the metropolis, steaming with gossip, curiosity, political intrigue and slander.”

Situated in the heart of Calcutta, opposite the Presidency College, commissioned in 1942 by The Indian Coffee Workers' Co-operative Society, the coffee house quickly developed on the lines of a student Literaten Kaffeehaus. Satyajit Ray would dream up films here, while many a writer consumed coffee beneath its the vaulted arches. Noise, gossip and cup-carrying waiters seethed between the writers and their subjects.

A Monument to Calcutta's Glory

Calcutta Coffee House -  4

Here under the high whistling ceiling fans and in the environs of these fading mildew covered brown walls sat tragic young writers with puff-pastry egos; the air was thick with philosophical rantings as dense as the number on their glasses. More than any other coffeehouse, perhaps, the Calcutta Coffee House exemplified this Antelle attitude, a monument to the glory of Calcutta and its uplifting elixir, caffeine and the rich conversation it spewed.

The coffee house has been impervious to change since its inception and has slowly trotted along for more than 50 years of its existence. Albert Hall, as the place was known before the present sobriquet was bestowed by the Central Government, was already a favourite with Rabindranath Tagore and Subhash Chandra Bose and could boast of a legacy of swadeshi meetings. A place that had carved out a niche for itself as the most popular adda was thus the easiest choice for the promotion of coffee in a city till then an excellent market for tea.

Although its presence once burned like a supernova, the coffee house has been rocked by numerous upheavals that have threatened to close it down and close it did on at least one occasion only to reopen after much uproar the Calcuttans created, at the loss of their most beloved adda.

Smoke from an entire barrage of cigarettes spirals up to the ceiling as people drink their coffee with an accompanying glass of cold water, reading newspapers while eating samosas or Chicken Afghani (only twenty-three rupees). Elderly turbaned waiters in faded white uniforms drift from table to table. Everyone knows about Calcutta’s love for talk especially about exalted topics from Dosteovsky to the vagaries of Indian cricket. It usually involves some amount of talk about cricket, politics, football, food and always with a footnote about the songs of Tagore. The Coffee House permeates this talk, a bright hum insulated by its high vaulted ceilings from the noise of the street outside.

Calcutta Coffee House -  3

Calcutta Coffee House -  2

'All the literary giants came here,'' said Aparna Sengupta, who was drinking coffee and pointing to the picture of Tagore on the wall. ''It's a special Calcutta place.'' She was seated with a group of six girls probably her classmates who were attempting to learn German from a old copy of a textbook. ''I like the atmosphere,'' said 23-year-old Amal Basu, who was alternately reading a novel and the newspaper-The Statesman. “But they still need to stop this place from falling apart,”he said, pointing to the walls.

Mr. Basu, a regular, was smoking Goldflake cigarettes. ''The coffee is terrible here,'' he said, ''but atleast I can afford it.''

Calcutta Coffee House -  1

Indeed, there is a general feeling that the days of intellectual revelry have passed it by for a blander experience. Those days have definitely gone but the Calcutta Coffee House has desperately held onto the atmosphere of an era gone by: the dark-brown walls; the stark wooden chairs and tables; white porcelain and steel cutlery.

“There are too many shirts and ties in the crowd”, complains Mr Das, a wizened patron, musing on the changes, while eating his bread-butter. ''I doubt it will again become a cafe for literary people or philosophers,'' he said. ''These kind of people do not exist anymore. They are working mainly in IT.''





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23 comments:

livinghigh said...

o, yea. but these days the cofefe house is just full of insects on the seats, yucky coffee and horribly dirty walls. shucks. u shud go to the newly opened Coffee House in Dalhousie Square - went over there on my last trip to calcutta, and took some snaps there.

jammy said...

quite revealing...been in Kolkata for three years. Never had a chance to visit this place

The Illusionist said...

i found calcutta fairly intriguing myself. your pictures are beautiful but your words paint a better picture :)

Peter said...

nice article...

Pijush said...

Thanks for this nice posts. Liked very much specially for the wonderful photos

Jo said...

Good one Akshay.

Similarly it would be interesting to look at a chain of ICHs in Kerala also, founded by AKG, a communist leader in Kerala.

Jo said...

Forgot to share something. There is a story in Kerala that once a drunken man went to ICH, ordered his food. By the time he finished, the waiter asked him if he needed anything else. The drunken man looked up to the waiter and seeing his costumes stood up and bend his body in respect and said, "Nothing else needed, your majesty. I will leave after I get the bill."

The humor was aimed at the kind of costumes that the ICH waiters wear.

SloganMurugan said...

Reminded me of the old Coke commercial with Aamir Khan. Didn't realize that they were subliminally asking Kolkatans to sip Coke instead of coffee ...

Pooja Aggarwal said...

I have never been to Calcutta, but I have heard stories of it from my Mom who was brought up there - she used to talk about the coffee house, Presidency college.
With your pictures I was able to associate a face to the place and many stories my mom tells us about her days in Calcutta.
Thanks

Kheoh Yee Wei said...

wow,i stumbled upon your blog and absolutely no regret about it! Nice story teling photos ! Really enjoy my time here ;)

Fabien Penso said...

I love the frames!

Anonymous said...

love ur black n whites!!! as usual....

collen traynor said...

mr akshay
in today ht cafe i read of hyd bad well you spoke a lot of past history most important you never mentioned salar jung museum
igrew up in the twin cities and have very fond memories
thank you for covering a beautiful city it has really progressed so well welcome hyderabad
thanks mrs colleen traynor

colleentraynor said...

hyderabad was great


mrs colleen traynor

Bhaswati said...

As someone who recently returned from her first trip to Coffee House, I related to this post so much.

I envy you. Not for your flair with the camera, but with words. What a beautiful piece of writing this is. Thanks as always. :)

Shelina said...

I was looking at some photos on flikr, and came across your pictures. You are a beautiful photographer, and I just love how you capture the essence of the story, the place. Thank you for sharing. As someone who has roots in India, but has never been there, this brings me back "home."

KAUSHAL said...

beautiful pics!!!

regards,
kaushal
http://above-life.blogspot.com

Malaveeka said...

stunning.

you were my 'next' blog.

:)

Utterly wonderful.

Malaveeka said...

lovely.

You were my 'next' blog.

:)

Suma said...

Hi, thats very interesting and excellent blog with lots of attractive photographs...

cheers,
suma valluru
-------------------------------------------------
http://www.coffeebreakusa.com/

Naresh said...

Very good writing skill. It does transport one to the past. There is a book written by Nadaakkal Parmeshwaran Pillai on the ICH movement. However, it is in Malayalam, the regional language of Kerala. It would have been quite nice if this book could have been translated in Bengali as well as English.

Julia Dutta said...

Akshay/Rajaputhan,
Do visit mine as well!! For College street scene as well!
Julia

The Jester said...

I happened to visit the coffee house this very afternoon. When I got back home, I looked on the net for a link to connect my fellow tweeters to, and that's where I came across your flickr pic leading me to this. Lovely article!