Coffee House – The Leitmotif of Kolkata by Prabal Kumar Basu

The Coffee House holds a crucial space in the evolution of the educated Bengali middle class, excluding which the frame of their lives remains incomplete. I myself have been a part of that middle-class milieu. While I might not have had a direct association with the house, I have been in close contact with all those frequenters who were integral to the Coffee House culture, and helped elevate its status.

The Coffee House, which played a large part in nourishing the intellect of the educated Bengalis, was once known as the Albert Hall. The building was erected in 1876 and was named after Prince Concert Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The contemporary principal of Hindu College, Ramkamal Sen, grandfather of Keshab Chandra Sen, was the owner of the place.  Albert Hall then became the haven of anti-British activities during the ongoing freedom movement. Under the able leadership of Surendranath Bandopadhyay, Shibanth Sashtri and Anandamohan Basu, “Bharat Sabha” was established at this Albert Hall drawing the young from educated middle-class families. Before the establishment of the Indian National Congress, the “Bharat Sabha” occupied the most important place in Indian nationalist politics. It managed to capture the attention of people. Subsequently, more people started visiting after Bharat Sabha’s National Council was held inside the Albert Hall in 1883. Abhiram Mullick, the landlord of Chorabagan, purchased the building in 1912. Nevertheless it sustained its position as the favoured place of most political enthusiasts. During the Second World War, it was used for a brief period as a military barrack too. The Indian communist and socialist movements were also envisioned here.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, around 1846, Henry Paddington, a British national, started the trend of Coffee in Calcutta, primarily to give a touch of London to the British emigrants living and working in the city. But the plan had a hidden agenda; they wanted to get the British officials addicted to coffee, and thereby keep their attention away from other intoxicants.

With the motive of reducing the usage of other intoxicants in favour of coffee, the British Government established the Coffee Cess Committee. Under the aegis of the Indian Coffee Board, the first ever Indian Coffee House was established in 1936 at Church gate, Mumbai. The following years witnessed the opening of fifty coffee houses across the country. In 1942, the Coffee Board decided to open a Coffee House at Albert Hall. The reason behind this decision was to get closer to the students of the University of Calcutta and Presidency College. The lure of good business played a role in making this decision.  After the British left this land, the Coffee House survived thanks to the subsidies from the Indian Government. But the subsidies proved to be insufficient for its maintenance. As the losses continued, a decision seemed likely about the need to close both the Coffee Board and the Coffee House around 1957. A bunch of intellectuals and professors from Calcutta petitioned the government to maintain the legendary institution. The communist leader A.K Gopalan started a movement with coffee laborers and met the Prime Minister to bring about a solution. A co-operative was created with the labourers, and the name was changed from Coffee House to Indian Coffee House. As during the Bharat Sabha days at the Albert Hall, several freedom fighters like Subhas Bose made important decisions while sipping coffee here. The practice continued with other intellectuals frequenting the house on a regular basis.

The location of this house was such that it was surrounded by great educational institutes like the University of Calcutta, Presidency College and Sanskrit College, thus attracting crowds of students and professors. Eventually, the place emerged as a center of literary and intellectual discussion. A cup of coffee placed on the table in front, a pile of burnt-out cigarettes in the ashtray, and smoke oozing from between two fingers while sharpening the intellect became the character of Coffee House conversations and meet ups. Most random youngsters with limited connection to a cultural society could identify their intellectual side with the frequent associations made with the regulars at the Indian Coffee House, without which their cultural practice might go in vain. In this way, just to get the validation of intellectual society, several painters, writers, poets, theatre and cinema personalities started thinking that a visit to the Coffee House was necessary as an integral part of progressive culture.

Despite the presence of three other coffee houses in addition to the one on College Street, the Indian Coffee House became the major cultural motif in Kolkata. Before the inauguration of the Coffee House inside Albert Hall, the Coffee Board had started its first venture in Kolkata at Central Avenue. But the absence of colleges and universities around the House was a deterrent to its growth, as youngsters hardly visited the place. From the very beginning, the coffee house at Central Avenue was divided subtly into two parts. Common people used to come to spend time in the room just beside the road, which was called the “House of Commons.” The inner sanctorum was named “House of Lords,” as its menu price was higher than the outer room. The Central Avenue Coffee House was frequented mostly by businessmen. Intellectuals like Harisadhan Dasgupta, Satyajit Ray, and Dilip Gupta used to visit the place.  The proximity to The Statesman House, often drew the patronage of journalists. I met the renowned drama critic Dharani Ghosh here too.

The reasons propelling the Bengal renaissance during the mid-nineteenth century, were again being felt in the fifth decade of the last century just after independence. The new-found independence helped Bengalis develop a modern outlook and philosophy which didn’t stop at the threshold of culture but spread across other domains of society and politics. The Coffee House of College Street witnessed this rejuvenation with the active participation of the people who made it their den.

If we take a closer look at the decade that was the fifties, we see the rejection of obsolete prejudices and social customs and the emergence of a liberal outlook. Old theatre was being replaced by modern group theatre, the change in the flow of acting, and the realm of cinema started welcoming realistic scenes. On the one side, we see the making of Pather Panchali(1955) and Ajantrik(1958), and on the other hand, petty religious films were slowly giving way to a romantic narrative and films based on literature. Literature was the wheel of change, and so was the language of poetry. Confessional writings were being applauded and enjoyed. The roots of communism were slowly spreading in Indian politics, and in the midst of all these, the Coffee House stylishly survived the turbulence. The reason for the revival points toward the pioneers of this changing canvas who used to weave their ideas sitting inside the coffee house. The Naxalite movement that sprang from the campuses around the academic institutions of Kolkata stayed alive through the frequent gathering of its leaders in the Coffee House. Hence it is now proven that no light can suitably reflect the psyche of Bengalis save through the lenses of the illustrious Coffee House.

Just after this period was over, I visited Coffee House for the first time. When many important events had been emanating from the Coffee House in the mid-sixties. I used to visit the place with my father, holding his hand, and in his luminous shadow. I can divide my rendezvous with the house into three parts – first, visiting the place with my father from 1964/1965 to 1975/76. This particular period is a little sketchy in my memory. The second one started with my transformation into a budding poet, in the company of other friends, who themselves were struggling poets. And the last one came after some more years when I had already started thinking of myself as a representative of the young generation of poets (and what a fool I was then!), confident with the idea of linking poetry with liquor – the notorious blunder which compelled a poet to create frenzied gimmicks with alcohol. (again – extreme foolishness!). Poet Shakti Chattopadhay was my idol back then. This period lasted from 1980/81 to 1995/96. In the third period, I started getting closer to the visitors who used to frequent the Coffee House in the fifties.  Our generation was slowly gaining prominence at the Coffee House, but the character of the house was changing. This particular period started from the tail end of the last century and is continuing unhindered till date. The society around us has changed irretrievably, more so after globalization, so it is hardly surprising that the Coffee House should be able to retain its original character.

The building adjacent to University Institute, 6, Bankim Chatterjee Street, was the publication office of Grontho Jogot. Sishir Kumar Bhaduri, after leaving the stage, used to visit this place regularly, often more than once a week. He used to take part in discussions on theatre and plays. Apart from the popular ones, several young poets gathered frequently in this office. It was the time when the works of the poet Shakti was getting published for the first time, along with some other books of Binoy Majumdar, starting with Phire Eso Chaka. Sometimes, Debkumar Basu used to come out of his office and sit at the Coffee House. He had a table specially reserved for him at the house. That table was known as Debuda’s table. There were two Debudas’ though, the artist Debobroto Mukhopahdhyay or the older Debuda, and the younger Debuda, Debkumar Basu. Whenever either of them arrived, the table was automatically vacated. I was in school during this time. My father would take me with him during my holidays.

In the later years, I understood that he wanted to get me acquainted with the intellectuals we met there, thinking that it might help me in the future. As I grew older, I began enjoying the ambiance, especially the delicious cutlets and Moglai Parathas the served at the Coffee House. Although my memories of these times are quite cloudy, the later years starting from 1972/73 are still etched in my mind.

The stories revolving around Coffee House seem unending. Once such story was about a young man, who once appeared before my father. The young man bowed down and said, “Debuda, I am Shakti. I have put together a manuscript of my poetry. Please give a look and publish it if you like it.”   This manuscript of famous poet Shakti Chattopadhay, went on to be eventually published as Hey Prem, Hey Noishobdo- a work that made him one of the most coveted poets in Bengali literature. Binoy Majumdar, another poetic prodigy’s address on College Street, went on to become the publishing house Grontho Jagat’s office. It was in the Coffee House itself, that Bonoy met Gayatri Chakrabarty(now Spivak) for the first time.  He would meet her here again subsequently a couple of times more- an association that led to a lifetime of one-sided love and romantic poetry.

As a young man, I noted that the girls gathered only at one table, sometimes Shakti Chattopadhyay would join them. Later, I came to know that they were members of the group “Sakhi Sangbad.” Ruchira Shyam and Minakhshi Biswas (her surname had not changed to Chattopadhyay) were the editors of that magazine.

Tall ceiling fans hang from the ceiling of a massive hall at the top of the ascending stairs in the Coffee House.  On one side of this room is the kitchen, and on the other side the washroom. Once upon a time, perhaps during the seventies, a large bromide enlargement of Rabindranath hung on the wall. I heard that a fanatic revolutionist, charged by the frenzy of the seventies, parceled that piece of art to the abyss of history. I have a vague recollection of the group of Ashim Chattopadhyay and Sudarshan Roychowdhury sitting around a table. During the period between the closing of the publishing house Grontho Jagat in 1965 and the beginning of Viswa Gyan, approximately three years later, my father spent a considerable amount of time within the Coffee House with some of the best writers and intellectuals of the time.

One day, while I was in the Coffee House, I sensed a mild tension inside the House. A group of young men hastily went out of the door; while going, out one of them came towards my father and handed him a paper-wrapped packet, whispered something in his ears, and then disappeared. As an adult, I discovered that packet in a wardrobe in our house several years later. There were few spearheaded needles usually used by tribal people on their arrows packed inside. I went straight to my father, who narrated the long-forgotten episode from yesteryears.  He told me how the police had raided the Coffee House all of a sudden, looking for young Naxals. This led to the young men fleeing from the site. The young man in particular, who had handed the packet to my father was none other than Ashim Chattopadhyay, the leader of the CPI’s student wing and a well-known Naxal leader. During those years-the peak of the Naxalite movement- battles between the police and college students were frequent. Most of these rebels took refuge inside the Coffee House.

The sixties decade was receding, and the seventies were looming large. At this time, I witnessed a sudden change in the demeanor of the visitors to the Coffee House. People with strange-looking beards and no moustaches (as was the norm of the day), I tried to identify these strangers from the discussion of the elders. Apparently, they had come from East Pakistan while the liberation war of Bangladesh was still on. These people were the brave soldiers of the Freedom War. Meanwhile, my father’s newest venture, Viswa Gyan had already kicked off from a small room in Tamer Lane. I would see many of those Naxals during the afternoon gatherings of Viswa Gyan and again inside the Coffee House in the evening. Later, I found their names to be Sikandar Abu Zafar, Ahmed Chafa, Al Mahmud, Belal Choudhuri. The Coffee House had become a prominent safe haven for the veterans of the liberation war. Jahir Rayhan planned his documentary on Bangladesh sitting inside this house. And from this very house, Shakti Chattopadhya started his adventure of editing a poetry anthology that focused on the liberation war.

The spirit of the Coffee House was such that even the western intellectuals who visited the city used to think that their understanding of Kolkata would be incomplete without a tour of the Coffee House.  The arrival of Allen Ginsberg and his subsequent friendship with the Krittibas group of writers happened inside this Coffee House. Georges Sadoul, the great film critic from Paris, visited the Coffee House too when he visited Kolkata. Sadoul was the cinema guru of Barin Saha and he met with Satyajit Ray too, while spreading the world about European cinema to people here. Barin Saha and Ritwik Ghatak were regular visitors of the Coffee House. Even Satyajit Ray used to come in to the Coffee House once in a while, leaving the Central Avenue one behind. The eminent French urban planner and architect Le Corbusier was also once seen here.

But one must not assume that it was only western intellectuals who showed interest in the Coffee House. Great personalities visiting from other states of India would invariably end up in the Coffee House, while staying in Kolkata. I would often see the Hindi poet Baba Nagarjun sitting at one of the tables in silence. He chose to talk less with the people around him. One must remember that the neo-theatre movement had influenced several Hindi theatre groups to flourish in Kolkata too. The members of these theatre groups were regular visitors to the Coffee House too. Pratibha Agarwal, the lady who created the Natyo Sodh organization, was also a frequent visitor.

The role of the Coffee House is intricately intertwined with that of the Little Magazine movement, especially in Kolkata. In fact during the Sixties, the Coffee House was the chosen destination from where editors of several small to big Little Magazines gathered to work. In the eighties period, I often saw Niramlya Acharya sitting silently in a corner on Sundays and checking the writings for Ekkhon magazine. There were other times, when I would see Soumitra Chattopadhyay coming and spending hours in the Coffee House too. Another trend that was started from here was a sudden frenzied wave of publishing creative writings every hour in various magazines. This was done to coincide with the centenary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday.  

I started writing regularly from the beginning of the eighties. Although, between 1978 and 1979, a couple of my creative works were published here and there. From 1980 onwards, I decided to write poetry with serious determination. From 1979 to 1983, I spent my college life in Jalpaiguri. During my occasional visits to Kolkata, I would land at the inner hall of the Coffee House. Around this time, I struck up friendships among other contemporary poets. Finishing college and entering a corporate life, helped me visit the Coffee House with unwavering regularity. I religiously scheduled my visits every Saturday. Towards the latter half of the eighties, the poets of that era had started establishing a distinct individuality in their writing, and I, as one of the contributors to this inevitable evolution, started mingling more and more with the torchbearers of the time. By now, the nature of the addas and gossip of the Coffee House had started taking off in a different direction. The person-centric gatherings gave way to magazine groupings. Various magazines started occupying tables. During this time, I could not but notice that the poets of the fifties had stopped visiting barring a few. Utpal Kumar Basu however, was one among the few poets who still visited the Coffee House. His loose trousers, pulled up sleeves’ kurta, and a bag hanging from the shoulders, became a trademark. Sometimes, I saw Shibshambhu Pal also. The Coffee House was dominated by the sixties people. They gathered around a magazine named Mohadigonto; Saibal Mitra and Ajijul Hak were occasionally seen.

The various decades alter the characteristics of the Coffee House gatherings. This venue turned into a temple of numerous intellectual gatherings – the gatherings that had brought about different ideas, different movements. During the pre-mobile phone days; the Coffee House served as the cord between intellectuals. There were many who lived outside the state, others who stayed outside Kolkata for their jobs. For them, meeting every Saturday inside the Coffee house became a necessary intellectual ritual. These gatherings actually were a disguise for a hidden agenda – to make their presence felt and also to meet friends at least once a week. Those who came from considerable distances, like North Bengal or Jamshedpur, with lots of plans for going everywhere, dropped in at the Coffee House hoping to meet close friends. From serving as a workshop for intellect to becoming the center for communication, the shift was apparent towards the latter half of the eighties.

In 1983, the famous song “Coffee Houser Sei Adda ta…” was sung by Manna Dey. The characters of the assemblages of the Coffee House were painted on the canvas through the lyrics. I had witnessed all the characters that had been described in the song.

There were many romantic relationships which were birthed in this House, and others which dried up too. And then there was the gossip. I would often see the sixties poet Shankar Dey sitting alone in a corner. He claimed that there were no poets of his caliber born after Jibnananda in the Bengali literary scene. As a result, he detested Shakti Chattopadhay’s popularity and also made the bizarre claim that he was the first love of Shakti’s wife. We used to enjoy his gibberish a lot, even though he seemed to be pouring out those words from the core of his own unshaken belief.

The tale of the Coffee House cannot be completed without the mention of Bhetki, the name of a popular figure here – a name by which everyone knew him. Bhetki’s elder brother ran a spectacle shop on College Street. He would often be seen drunk since the afternoon, and the fragrance of pan masala wafted in the air, as soon as he arrived. He used to hop from one table to another. I had never heard Bhetki composing a poem, but he held a special sympathy for poets in his heart. He would try to sit near the poets, moving from one table to another wherever he found poets sitting. And sometimes, all of a sudden, he would surprise an unknown poet by reciting the latter’s poem. These days, these characters seem to be lost from the Coffee House – forever.

The Coffee House survived the last century by gradually changing; the new century only accelerated that speed. The new generation became more materialistic, power-hungry, acquiescent, and unabashedly greedy. Those intellectual outings were sidelined, a large group of people stopped visiting The Coffee House. Everyone seems to be running after an unknown, and an unheard-of goal. No one has the time to take a break and talk for a while. But that doesn’t mean that the Coffee House remains empty, most evenings enjoy a fully packed house. These days unknown faces, groups of young poets still kept the sanctity of this old tradition intact. Besides the many unknown faces, sometimes I meet writers like Swapnamaoy, Amar Mitra, Kamal Chakrabarty, and Sadhan Chattopadhyay and we gather and talk over a cup of ‘infusion.’  I realize then, that this tradition will go on till eternity, in whatever form society and its people deem fit to keep it going.

Translator’s Bio:

Armaan Singh is a post-graduate in English literature. He already has a book to his credit where he has jointly translated Prabal Kumar Basu’s poetry along with Barnali Roy. He is currently working on the translation of a Bengali novel. He is also into book editing and cover designing.

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

Prabal Kumar Basu

Prabal Kumar Basu is a celebrated Indian ( Bengali language ) poet , with at least twenty collections of poetry. He also dabbles in essays, verse drama and short stories. Basu has been awarded the West Bengal Bangla Akademy Puraskar, he is also mentor to Yapanchitra- a prominent little magazine from Bengal.