Ballad of the Indian Coffee House

Ballad of the Indian Coffee House
The Indian Coffee House in Kolkata. via Wikimedia Commons

India’s coffee scene is booming. Domestic coffee consumption has grown rapidly in recent years—upwards of 30% since 2018—and that momentum shows no signs of slowing. The sector’s meteoric rise mirrors the country’s overall economic picture; currently, India has the fastest-growing major economy in the world.

“Following rapid economic development over the past 50 years, Indian society is undergoing a major shift towards premiumisation”, World Coffee Portal reports. “Young, educated, well-travelled and increasingly affluent consumers are embracing international lifestyle brands while fiercely championing a new era of home-grown entrepreneurship – and coffee is no exception”.

International giants and local startups are poised to take advantage of the country’s young and expanding middle class, their westernisation, and their corresponding demand for coffee. Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Tim Hortons, and Dunkin have all entered the market in recent years, while homegrown chains like Barista and Blue Tokai, many fueled by venture capital funding, have also expanded rapidly.

Most of these companies—the foreign brands particularly—cater primarily to Indians with disposable income: while local companies are still relatively affordable, a Starbucks latte can cost the equivalent of $4-5. At the same time, 60% of Indians live on less than $3.10 a day, the World Bank’s median poverty line.

But there is a coffee chain—India’s oldest and largest—that has kept its prices low for decades. It has long been a gathering place for intellectuals and revolutionaries, a hotbed of discussion and dissent; its modern iteration was founded by communists, and to this day it is still a worker-owned cooperative. Even within a coffee industry that is undergoing rapid changes, including the arrival of Western multinationals, it has remained a consistent presence for over 70 years.

Let’s talk about the Indian Coffee House.

A Brief History of Indian Coffee

Although known more for its tea, coffee has been cultivated in India for hundreds of years—and consumed for far longer. From the early 17th century, Arab traders visited the Subcontinent in search of spices and brought roasted coffee with them, which quickly became popular with the Mughal Empire’s elite. According to legend, coffee cultivation was first introduced to India in 1670, when Baba Budan, a Sufi saint on a pilgrimage to Mecca, smuggled seven beans back from Yemen and planted them in the Chikkamagaluru district of Karnataka. Those hills, now known as Baba Budangari in his honour, are today home to some of India’s most extensive coffee plantations.

The Dutch, who controlled much of Indian trade and resources during the 17th century, spread coffee cultivation around the country; the British Raj formalised it still further a century later. To begin with, most coffee grown in India was arabica, but after coffee leaf rust devastated much of the crop, producers switched to robusta and a liberica-arabica hybrid. Today, India is the world’s sixth-largest coffee producer.

Just like its production, coffee consumption in India is intimately connected to its history of colonialism and subjugation. Once the British Raj took control of the country, coffee-drinking became associated with the oppressors. In an article on the Islamic history of coffee, Dr. Neha Vermani writes that, “As early as the 19th century, coffee drinking in India was identified with British colonisers; colonial subjects either embraced or rejected the practice as a sign of Western modernity”.

At one point, tea—another colonial-imposed cropwas considered the drink of the working class, while coffee was consumed by the elite. Today tea is still the most popular beverage among Indians, but coffee is catching up fast—and that can be attributed, at least in part, to the growth of the Indian Coffee House.

‘Workers Are Supposed to Rule the World’

The first India Coffee House, as it was then known, opened in Mumbai in 1936, operated by the Coffee Cess Committee, a government body and the precursor to the Coffee Board of India. “[The Indian Coffee House] didn’t start as a cooperative; it was started by the coffee industry itself at the behest of the Indian colonial government”, says Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya, a research fellow at the University of Göttingen’s Centre for Modern Indian Studies and author of the book Much Ado Over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then And Now.

As Dr. Bhattacharya tells it, the original concept for the India Coffee House was to create a subsidised domestic market to help sell some of the oversupply of Indian coffee that was building up. Over the next few years, more than 50 branches of the chain opened around the country. Their locations in the centre of cities, close to colleges, government buildings, and publishing houses, meant many of their early patrons were students and writers, as well as American soldiers during World War II.

As global trade resumed following the end of the war, green exports began to increase. At the same time, the coffee houses’ popularity was waning. With less need for domestic consumption, by the mid-1950s  the Coffee Board began shutting them down. “It had served its purpose”, Dr. Bhattacharya says. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, and the board debated whether to sell the business to private entrepreneurs.

Instead, a delegation of workers joined forces with the communist leader A. K. Gopalan to pressure the government, and eventually the board passed control to the newly formed Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society. “The workers, most of them were semi-educated or they didn’t follow any official education, so to think of taking the control of an organisation on their shoulders—it was a big thing”, Dr. Bhattacharya says. A. K. Gopalan, quoted in an article in the journal of the Students’ Federation of India, told a meeting of organisers: “You are workers. Workers are supposed to rule the world”.

‘A Sense of Ownership’

Inside, most Indian Coffee Houses seem frozen in time. Many are housed within crumbling buildings, and the furniture is often original to their founding. The waiters dress smartly in starched white uniforms with sashes denoting their status; customers still smoke cigarettes indoors; portraits of Gandhi, A. K. Gopalan, and Nobel Laureate (and former regular) Rabindranath Tagore adorn the walls.

The decor, menu, and prices can differ widely among locations—cookie-cutter Starbucks outposts these are not. “The same cup of coffee that is Rs8 in Kannur is priced at Rs20 in Jabalpur. The menu is also very different; what you find in a Kolkata outlet is not the same as the one in Kerala or Karnataka”, T. Balakrishnan of the Indian Coffee Workers’ Cooperative Society, Kannur told LiveMint in 2015.

Today there are about 500 Indian Coffee Houses spread across India, governed by 13 cooperative societies and controlled by the workers. According to the website of the Indian Coffee House Kannur in Kerala, upon joining, each employee purchases 10 shares, and receives future dividends depending on their number of shares. Workers also have health insurance, a pension fund with 12% matching contributions, and receive generous holiday allowances.

The workers are involved in decision-making. “We elect representatives from among workers to spearhead the managing committee so there is a sense of ownership”, T. Balakrishnan explained. According to Dr. Bhattacharya, new workers are still recruited in the same way as they were in the beginning. “It’s from the same pool of people, from the same village, often from the same family”.

‘Radicals Deciding the Fate of Humanity’

Much like their counterparts across the world and throughout history, Indian Coffee Houses in the 1960s and ’70s were renowned as sites of public discourse, where lively conversations took place amid hazy cigarette smoke and endless cups of cheap coffee. Their locations close to cultural or academic institutions, as well as their affordability, made these colonial vestiges popular with India’s students and struggling artists.

Some of the country’s most famous intellectuals frequented their local outposts. At the College Street location in Kolkata, the poets Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay, the musicians Manna Dey and Ravi Shankar, and the filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Aparna Sen were all regulars.

The spirit of intellectual debate and conversation was not restricted to the clientele. “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”, politician Shashi Tharoor told LiveMint. “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”.

As well as discussing literature and film, patrons hosted political discussions. Because of their socialist founding, these cafes tended to attract left-leaning activists. In Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India, Dr. Kristin Plys explores the role of the Indian Coffee House in creating a space for resistance to the authoritarian government of Indira Gandhi between 1966–77.

This resistance orbited around the Connaught Place location in Delhi. According to author and historian Dilip Simeon, quoted by Plys, “That was where our politics of the whole age took place—Maoism, Naxalism, etc. That was the coffee house in Delhi and that was the centre of all these radical discussions. Innumerable cups of coffee were consumed over there by radicals deciding the fate of humanity; [discussing the] Vietnam War, Naxalism, Maoist Revolution … It was a fantastic atmosphere.”

In 1975, the Indian government, citing threats to national security, declared a state of emergency that suspended civil and political rights. Over the next two years, according to the book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by Gyan Prakash, Gandhi’s regime “unleashed a brutal campaign of coercion and intimidation, arresting and torturing people by the tens of thousands, razing slums, and imposing compulsory sterilisation on the poor”. In response, students in Delhi gathered at the Connaught Place cafe to organise against the government. In 1976, the government responded by shutting down and eventually bulldozing the building.

Like Something From the Past

Today, the Indian Coffee House has another behemoth to fight against: the globalised coffee industry. Young, middle-class Indians today would rather spend their money at the trendier chains than gather in dimly lit rooms on plastic chairs to smoke and discuss politics. For them, patronising the Indian Coffee House is a stepping stone to Starbucks. One young customer whom Dr. Bhattacharya interviewed said that he dreamt of visiting Cafe Coffee Day, but couldn’t afford it—yet. “He said, ‘No, I don’t have money. That’s why I’m coming to the Indian Coffee House. The moment I have money, I will go to something like Cafe Coffee Day’”.

For many young people today, Indian Coffee House is a relic. “It’s like something from the past. It’s haunted”, says Dr. Bhattacharya. There are some from the new generation who appreciate its somewhat shabby charm, based mostly on a kind of second-hand sentimentality. It’s “a nostalgia that you have only read about; you have heard your uncles talking about the Coffee House”, Dr. Bhattacharya explains.

For most, however, it seems as though the world has moved on. The coffee industry, like much of the rest of the culture, is becoming westernised. Of course that’s good news for some. “It’s very exciting what is happening in India. The classic coffee houses are part of an era that is ending”, Barista’s head of marketing Vishal Kapoor told the Guardian in 2010.

Home Away From Home

And yet, 14 years later, Indian Coffee Houses are still going strong, stubbornly refusing to yield to modernity or the whims of a new generation. While not necessarily thriving—rising rent and falling foot traffic have threatened to close some branches—they are surviving, often with community support. Their affordability has been a running theme since the organisation’s founding, and the prices are still kept low. As an article in Firstpost muses, “Clearly, profit is not the sole concern of its owners”.

It does seem incredible that an organisation with such strong leftist leanings, owned by its workers and overshadowed by newer, sleeker, profit-driven rivals, is still around in 2024. But maybe that’s what sets Indian Coffee House apart. It isn’t trying to price-gouge you on iced lattes or seduce you with sofas. It’s doing what it has always done: provide a place to gather and talk, to nurse a drink and while away the hours.

In Stuart Freedman’s wonderful book, The Palaces of Memory, the photojournalist documents these crumbling edifices. The images Freedman captures are at once raucous and tender, full of compassion and humanity: workers serve coffee, and sweat in the kitchens; customers converse, or quietly smoke cigarettes; a monkey walks along a windowsill; an old man reads the paper on an otherwise empty patio.

Freedman also speaks to some of his favourite coffee house’s regulars. One customer, an activist named Ram Shastri, describes the Indian Coffee House as a quintessential ‘third place’, not unlike the Starbucks that would like to replace them. “It wasn’t about coffee. It was a home away from home. We sat till the lights were switched off”.

Although Starbucks and other chains have commoditised the concept of the ‘third place’, spaces like the Indian Coffee House remain closer to the radical spheres of debate of the historic coffee shops. As Ram Shastri tells Freedman, “All revolutions start in coffee houses you know.”