Calcutta Coffee House Phoenix will rise

Rakhi Chakrabarty Kolkata

Large wooden doors, a time-worn staircase opens into a big hall buzzing with voices in a haze of smoke - the Albert Hall, famously known as the Coffee House.

The Coffee House on College Street in Kolkata turned 50 this year. But, it's older than that. It has been around since the 1940s. In 1958, the Indian Coffee Workers' Co-operative Society took it over from the Coffee Board. The Society still runs the place, a musty shadow of its glorious years. This year, a renovated Coffee House, threw open its doors to a brew of nostalgia.
Untill then, ravages of age marked its high ceiling, mildewed walls and wooden tables. Elderly turbaned waiters in dull white uniform and green cummerbund seemed remembrances of things past.

Patrons of the Coffee House reads like a list of the who's who from the world of art, culture and intelligentsia. The patrons could choose to sit in the House of Lords, the upper floor or the House of Commons, the floor beneath. It was christened  Coffee House by the central government  in 1947.

Later, the crème of Calcutta's intellectual landscape, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Utpal Dutt, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen - all were regulars at the Coffee House as were firebrand Naxalite leaders in the 1960s and '70s. It was a hotbed of politics, its walls plastered with revolutionary posters and slogans pledging to bring in the revolution and change the world.

A young Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, when he was in Presidency College, and other budding Marxists frequented the place. As West Bengal CM, he has not visited this  old haunt.

When poet Allen Ginsberg came to Calcutta in the summer of '62, he spent hours at the Coffee House discussing poetry with author Sunil Gangopadhyay, poet Shakti Chattopadhyay. But author Gunter Grass, reportedly, missed it. The old signs were missing.

It was a common sight to see Manna Dey break into a song while trying to compose the lines of a new number. At another table, actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Nirmalya Acharya would be engrossed in discussions for launching a new magazine - Ekkhon.

While in Calcutta, film director James Ivory wanted to meet Satyajit Ray. Ivory recounted to author, Amitav Ghosh, "While I was in Calcutta I just decided to call him. Just to meet him, but also to ask if it would be possible to see Jalsaghar... He was in the phone book, so I just called him up and told him who I was. He said fine, he would try and arrange Jalsaghar for me. We agreed to meet in a coffee house and I went there. He was alone and we talked."

Manna Dey's eponymous song - Coffee Houser shei addata aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei/ Kothay hariye gelo shonali bikel gulo shei (Those addas of Coffee House are no longer there/ Those golden evenings are lost) - rings more true than ever.

Much has changed. The brew of high brow intellectualism, aesthetic thresholds crossed, fire of young revolutionaries on a mission to change the world, a rainbow of idealism, dreams of the youth, living bohemian fantasies, easy familiarity with the famous, simplicity of celebrity, have all faded away.

Yet, there is still something about the place that captivates. It offers the comfort of continuum. And, more importantly, it still doesn't burn a hole in your pocket like the new-fangled 'bourgeois' coffee joints. The menu still remains the same with a later addition of 'Chinese' (just like the coloured plastic chairs which stick out like sore thumbs) - a rare sign of changing times here.

A sip on the Coffee House's signature Infusion (strong, dark coffee) and a bite into its chicken sandwich and realisation dawns - deliciously simple things of life come quite cheap! The Afghani chicken still rages on as a favourite. You can still sit here for hours without ordering anything. Nobody will ask you to get up and leave. Rather, you have the luxury to get irritated if the waiter disturbs your train of thoughts to ask if he can get you something. And, he won't mind.

Situated right opposite Presidency College with the Calcutta University a stone's throw away, this legendary Coffee House is still the haunt of students, teachers, journalists, Left intellectuals and a rendezvous for the ultra-Left, too. Yet it's not like yesterday anymore. The sheen has worn away. The swanky, high-end coffee joints that dot the city's landscape seem more attractive. But, the new look and renovation has raised hopes. With its mix of heritage and modernity, the Coffee House is making another attempt to revive its hallowed past. Will it?

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2009