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Coffee,Culture and Allahabad



The historic city of Allahabad was officially renamed as Prayagraj in 2018. To be sure Prayag is the original name of the ancient city, widely in use since time immemorial. It was emperor Akbar who called it Illahabas and built a majestic fort at the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the subterranean Saraswati. Later the British named it as Allahabad. ‘Allahabad’ found ready acceptance and entered the local folklore giving the city multiple identities true to the spirit of what Nehru said about India comparing it to ‘an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.’ In Harsh Vardhan’s time Prayag was as much a Buddhist city as a Hindu one; it had stupas as well as ‘Deva Temples,’ according to the account given by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen -Tsang who visited India in the seventh century.

Ralph Fitch was one of the first Englishmen to set foot in India. His travelogue recounts that in his journey from Agra to Allahabad he joined a convoy of ‘one hundred and fourscore boates laden with Salt, opium, Hinge (asafoetida), Leads, Carpets and diverse other commodities going down the river Jemena’ reaching Allahabad sometime in November 1585, when work on Akbar’s great fort was nearing completion.

From the early days of the independence movement until the nineteen fifties and sixties Allahabad was the nerve centre of progressive thinking for writers, poets and intellectuals and freedom fighters. It derived its identity not only from the holy Triveni Sangam, but also from Allahabad University which was then known as the ‘Oxford of the East.’ Perhaps the most charismatic Vice-Chancellor the university had was Dr. Amarnath Jha, who at 22 had also become the youngest professor of English at the university. One may recall a memorable debate organized by the English department of the University on the topic ‘Should India remain in Commonwealth?’ Such was the reputation of the English department that a team from Oxford University came to participate in it. When the first prize went to the student of the host university there was roaring applause by the audience.

Allahabad then was a moveable feast for writers, academics and political workers. Among those who dominated the scene were luminaries such as Acharya Narendra Dev, Govind Ballabh Pant, Sumitranandan Pant, Dharamvir Bharati, Raghupati Sahai ‘Firaq’, R. D. Ranade, Dhirendra Verma, Beni Prasad, Tara Chand, Ishwari Prasad, Meghnad Saha and D. S. Kothari. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had returned from Cambridge with a Ph.D. on W. B. Yeats and joined the English department of the university. However, he was recognised more as Hindi poet than an English professor. He often felt piqued at being addressed as Mr. Bachchan and not as Dr. Bachchan. Later he quit the University to take up a position at the Hindi Section in the external affairs department of the central government. Suryakant Tripathi Nirala spent more than twenty years of his life in Allahabad. Incidentally, Nirala’s poem ‘Wah Todti Patthar’ is the first Hindi poem to call Allahabad by its Mughal name.

The Indian Coffee House in Allahabad became a hub of various cultural and intellectual activities. It attracted writers, poets, artists, and thinkers who would engage in debates, discussions, and creative collaborations. Over time, it became a focal point for the city’s literary and artistic community. Prominent literary figures, political leaders, and artists were known to frequent the Indian Coffee House in Allahabad, making it a melting pot of ideas and ideologies and shaping the cultural space.

Uttarakhand has had a fair share of students and teachers at the university. Govind Ballabh Pant, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Tara Dutt Gairola

launched their political careers from Allahabad. Jagan Nath Sharma of Mussoorie, a very successful politician and educationist, was a brilliant student of English Literature and Law at the university. Professor J. S. Negi, a legendary teacher of history at the university, was from Pauri Garhwal. Murli Manohar Joshi and Rita Bahuguna have taught at the university.

Fifties and sixties were also marked by Nehruvian idealism and Anand Bhawan, the family home of the Nehrus, was the meeting ground for political activists, social workers, intellectuals and writers. Nayantara Sahgal’s Prison & Chocolate Cake and Chandralekha Mehta’s Freedom’s Child, both autobiographical narratives, give vivid pictures by the two sisters of Allahabad and life in Anand Bhawan. Sahgal says that the ‘provincial grace of the small town she grew up in has served as her model for civilized living.’ The Indian Coffee house of Allahabad, a unique institution, held the pivotal place in the cultural life of the city.

Coffee, which must be counted as offering one of the civilised pleasures to mankind, has played an important role in dissemination of culture. Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries intellectuals and artists in various parts of the world have gathered in cafés to exchange ideas and opinions that have driven the cultural agenda for much of what happens in the world. One can drink coffee at home but a coffee house is an altogether different experience. Space and ideas are intimately connected. The café is not only a place to enjoy a cup of coffee, it is also a space – in which people can hang out and have freefloating conversations about different issues, interests and passions. The coffee house can be seen as a social institution which enacts a theatre of ideas.

The emergence of coffee houses in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, especially England, considerably transformed the structure of the public sphere. Coffee houses provided a neutral social space between the public and the private realms, where discussions on socio-political issues of common concern were taken out of the domains of the elite to create the emerging bourgeois public sphere. It was coffee, or rather its most active ingredient caffeine that stimulated the intellectual discourse during the Age of Enlightenment causing fear among the authorities that coffee houses were potential hotbeds for political agitation since the presence of a literate and informed public was a pre-condition for the formation of public opinion. In a satirical poem by Alexander Pope it is coffee ‘which makes the Politician wise, And see thro’ all things with his half shut Eyes.’

In Europe, after the War, Paris became a centre of expatriate thinkers who congregated in the Left Bank cafés and discussed life and letters and the issues of the day. The American writer Gertrude Stein, who made Paris her permanent home, coined the term the ‘Lost Generation’ to that group of men and women who came of age during World War I and felt disillusioned with the instrumental rationality of a materialistic age. The famous Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris was a well-known haunt of intellectuals. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, a frequent visitor, wrote of the Café, ‘We are completely settled there; from nine o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock. After dinner, we see people who have an appointment. That may seem strange, but we are at home.’

In India the Coffee House was seen as extension of Western modernity which recognized the potential of space as facilitator of intellectual discourse and exchange of ideas, transforming it into a scene of lively, intellectual conversations through long sessions reminiscent of the adda culture in Bengal.

The Indian Coffee House of Allahabad is long past its glory, but its affective appeal as a socially convivial, creatively stimulating, and politically vibrant public place is nostalgically testified in the abundant testimonials offered by its sometime visitors.

Sadly, the coffee house culture has virtually disappeared in India with chains of modern cafeteria houses taking over the street corner teashops, and leisure time of the educated youth monopolized by the cacophony of televisual fare. The coffee house as a cultural practice appears out of place in a world seen through Starbucks and Café Coffee Day.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)