Way back in the mid 90s when I first came to work (and sometimes live) in India, the Indian Coffee House in New Delhi became a refuge for me away from the madness of the streets. It also became a place that in some senses translated that madness into a form which as a young journalist I could just about understand. The people I met in the coffee house - mostly old men who engaged me in talk of politics and poetry (and occasionally cricket of which I still know nothing) were the same people that I’d known in the greasy-spoon cafes of my youth in Hackney in London. In 2009 when the Coffee House in Delhi was threatened with closure because of vast debts, I began to learn about the complex role the Coffee Houses (a national chain of worker-owned co-operatives) had played in Independence and the political and cultural landscape of modern India. I wrote a long 5000 word story for a German magazine about the history and culture of the movement (a kind of faded Indian Left Bank) and for the very first time, made a set of images at the Coffee House. When the opportunity arose to do a story in Jaipur for a travel magazine, I deliberately included the Coffee House there and then decided that there was enough material for the basis of a book. I took another assignment in Kolkata and wrote about the most famous Coffee House there and then set off around India to photograph thirty of the most significant and beautiful. The idea was to make a set of images that didn’t pander to the usual narrative of poverty or exotica but showed an everyday India - and one that was a closing window on the Nehruvian world being eclipsed by the market.
The image here was taken in Nagpur, the town the British used to triangulate the exact centre of India. I sat in the Coffee House here all day (perhaps six to seven hours) making very unsatisfactory pictures and then late in the afternoon the bored cashier, doodling his shift away, moved his fingers and gave me what I needed: a subtle gesture amidst a sea of monotony (and the wonderful Pesto-Flash) that said what I felt. The image was shot, like perhaps 70% of the book, quite simply on a 50mm lens.
See more work by Stuart Freedman