Stuart Freedman - The Palaces of Memory

TASVEER, in partnership with Dauble, is delighted to present The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, a new exhibition of 40 photographs by the award-winning British photographer, Stuart Freedman, that offer a unique perspective and intimate journey across India through the institution of the Indian Coffee House.

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, lawyers 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.

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 the 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.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, Tasveer has published a book, which features a large collection of images from the series apart from what is part of the exhibition. The publication carries a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri and an essay by Freedman. The book is now available for pre-order at the Tasveer Bookstore.

Exhibition Schedule