A short history of the India Coffee House: Conversation, revolutionary politics and a different way to do business

Karthik Venkatesh
·7-min read

A story that begins in British times, takes a decidedly leftward twist in Nehruvian times, acquires a certain notoriety or revolutionary flavour (depending on your politics) in the times of Indira, and more than holds its own even when the 'animal spirits' of liberalisation and globalisation are unleashed, cannot be an ordinary one. Throw in a generous mix of intellectuals, filmmakers, writers and other such cultural personalities into the mix, without forgetting to state that the story is pretty much a 'national' one (only a few states in the North East seem to be missing in the tale) and the narrative becomes even more intriguing.

Across many cities and towns throughout the nation, the India Coffee House is something of an omnipresent eatery. Unassuming, unostentatious, efficient, reasonably priced and other such adjectives are what spring to mind when the Coffee House is spoken of. One also remembers the crisp white uniforms (with red and green paraphernalia attached to them) of the waiters. In some cities, certain branches of this institution have acquired near-legendary status owing to the personalities who frequented them.

A map of Coffee Houses across the country. Image via Twitter
A map of Coffee Houses across the country. Image via Twitter

A map of Coffee Houses across the country. Image via Twitter

The story behind the institution is akin to a heady brew of the eponymous beverage. So when and where did this story begin, and what is behind those twists and turns mentioned at the start?

The arrival of coffee to India

Popular lore maintains that a Sufi mystic from Karnataka, Baba Budan, brought back raw coffee seeds from Arabia when he travelled to, to perform the Haj in the 16th century. This was a dangerous thing to do then since the Arabs had strictly forbidden the export of coffee seeds. But Baba Budan's flowing robes allowed him to secret away the seeds in a hidden compartment when he set sail to India from the port of Al Mokka (hence, mocha) in modern-day Yemen.

Back home, he began growing the crop. Qahwakhanas (coffee houses) were soon established, and many upper-class Indians took to the drink. In fact, across the Islamic empires of the world at that time, coffee was the beverage of popular choice.

The decline of Mughal rule and the advent of the British dimmed the popularity of coffee for some time, but it made a comeback in the 19th century when the British began cultivating it in South India for export and for local consumption. By the early 20th century, all sorts of people had begun drinking coffee.

In Tamil Nadu, which today is known to be very partial to its coffee ('degree kaapi' in the local parlance), the beverage soon replaced kanji (rice gruel) as the early morning drink. This in spite of dire mutterings from the moral police as this letter from an edition of Gandhiji's Young India in August 1921 indicates:

The greatest obstacle in the way of success to our [non-cooperation] movement in Madras are our women. Some of them are very reactionary, and a very large number of the high class Brahman ladies have become addicted to many of the Western vices. They drink coffee not less than three times a day, and consider it very fashionable to drink more.

The birth of India Coffee House

The growing popularity of coffee led to the establishment of the first India Coffee House under the auspices of the Coffee Cess Committee (a government body) in September 1936 in Churchgate, Bombay. Over the next few years, more such coffee houses were opened in different parts of the country. Though they were initially popular, by the mid-'50s, they were in trouble. The Coffee Board of India (the new avatar of the Cess Committee which had been established in 1942) then began to contemplate shutting them down.

Things now took an interesting turn: The shuttering of the coffee houses meant the loss of several hundred jobs. To find a way out of this, a delegation of workers accompanied by the Communist leader, AK Gopalan, met Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru recommended that the workers consider forming a co-operative society to run the coffee houses. This seems to have struck a chord as it soon led to the creation of the Indian Coffee Worker's Cooperative Society, which took over the business from the board.

The menu displayed at a Coffee House in Mananthawady, in Kerala's Wayanad
The menu displayed at a Coffee House in Mananthawady, in Kerala's Wayanad

The menu displayed at a Coffee House in Mananthawady, in Kerala's Wayanad. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the first coffee house under this cooperative society was opened, in the Theatre Communication Building in Connaught Place in Delhi. Soon, many such societies were formed in different parts of the country and many India Coffee House eateries opened up. With their warm ambience and reasonably priced menus, the establishments began to be frequented by all sorts of people.

In the legendary College Street Coffee House in Kolkata, it was not uncommon to see the likes of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Sunil Gangopadhyay and many others engaged in animated discussions ('adda'), with other customers eavesdropping from nearby tables. This has even been memorialised in a famous song sung by Manna Dey titled 'Coffee House'er shei adda'ta aaj aar nei' (That Coffee House adda is long gone now).

In Allahabad's Coffee House located in Civil Lines, the Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri (who ironically taught English at Allahabad University) was known to hold forth for hours on all kinds of issues. In Patna's Coffee House located on Dak Bungalow Road, the likes of Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu held court.

As the '60s wound into the '70s, the Coffee House became a popular destination everywhere. Delhi's Connaught Place Coffee House (recreated in the 2005 movie Hazaaron Khwashein Aisi) which had always been frequented by its political class besides the literati, soon became a meeting point for all kinds of activists, especially when popular discontent against Indira Gandhi began peaking post-1973.

In 1975, post the declaration of the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi took it upon himself to get rid of the Delhi Coffee House, since he believed it to be the hub of anti-government activities (shades of JNU today). And thus the legendary Delhi eatery was demolished to make way for what later became Palika Bazaar.

The current Coffee House (at Mohan Singh Place) dates back to 1969 and has now taken over as Delhi's main Coffee House, though most old-timers still swear by the earlier one.

The colour code

Among the identifying markers of the Coffee House is the attire of its waiters, which follows a more or less standard pattern across all branches. When newcomers start off, typically as cleaners, their uniform is a white shirt and white trousers, with a Gandhi cap. Cleaners are promoted to bearers and then wear a green belt and a turban with a green band. At the next level is the head assistant bearer. At this level, they wear a green patta (akin to a breastplate), which is pinned on their chest (in some places, instead of a patta, a sash is worn round the waist) and the green band on the turban gets a golden border. Next up is the position of head bearer who wears a red patta (or sash) and a turban with a red band and golden border. Supervisors, who are at the top of the hierarchy, wear crisp white cotton shirts and trousers.

More than just a business

Given that the waiters and others who work in the Coffee House also have a stake in the business and are all 'owners' in a sense, it is interesting how the establishments have kept prices at a very reasonable level. Clearly, profit is not the sole concern of its owners. The relationships they share with their regular customers and the special place that the Coffee House enjoys in the cultural life of its cities are also important.

When Bengaluru's Coffee House was forced to move out of its premises, the story goes that a young regular donated Rs 30,000 to help it move. Similarly, Kolkata's Coffee House too received government help owing to requests from the literati, when it went through a tough phase. How many establishments can boast of such well-wishers?

In an age where hyper-capitalism and the push for unbridled 'growth' has the planet perched on the edge of a precipice, could the Coffee House model be worth a closer look as a more benign way of doing business? A business that also has a place for conversation, camaraderie and culture.

Hitherto, we were led to believe that the Indian cricket team and Bollywood movies were the only 'national' institutions of popular culture. One could contest that assertion, of course, or one could add yet another item to that list €" the India Coffee House.

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