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Monday, December 18, 2006

Of Coffee, Cafés and Culture


Well, as Keats would have loved to Ode, ‘Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’! Not exactly mellow fruits! But definitely a bit of mist instead of dew on the grass on these early Marghazhi mornings would be romantic! And of course…. This is the season of music and coffee and culture. So I decided to pull this one up – I wrote this about three years ago for a local daily. I have touched it up to belong to this day and time. It’s about the inevitable coffee.

When you get to spell out the ABC’s of culture and the happening cities, C is for Chennai; definitely so without ambiguity now that Calcutta has become Kolkatta. Although considered by many aboard Planet India to be C for Conservative, C for Chennai and even C during December for Cutchery Season (Music Festival)… on the positive side C for Coffee and C for Chennai come up as well. And that is something the rest of India has to give it to Chennai, even if grudgingly. Somehow Culture, Coffee and Chennai have always been intertwined together.

I had this friend of mine from Mumbai, back a few years ago when I was in Germany, referring to my German friends who were going to travel down to Chennai with me… that I should take them to India Coffee House if they wanted to drive in, sit around like they do back in the West in the pubs and coffee houses. I was surprised. India Coffee House? We sure have our share of Murudi’s and Hari Nivases and other Udupi Bhavans famous for their coffee after Idli, Vadai and Pongals, to sign off, be it a morning breakfast or evening tiffin. We even had our share - between the late 70s to late 80s – of Irani Tea Shops ruling the roost and scoring over the famous South Indian Coffee and almost replacing the coffee drinking habit of Chennaiites. But India Coffee?

Being born and growing up as part of a generation that is always at the crossroads of cultural changes in the ever-bourgeoning social climate of India, I had heard about the practices of the 50s-60s generation of youths bringing their discussion times at coffee houses and Woodlands… May be my Mumbai friend, being a decade older than me knew it! I searched. And I came up a little to know of this so-called India Coffee House. Rather of this culture, not of this House.

I knew of all those vintage landmarks that once existed to give Chennai that unique personality: cinema theatres such as Globe, Ashok, New Elphinstone, Minerva, Paragon (and have seen the metamorphosing of some of them such as Melody) and have seen the shutting down or falling into bad times of those old favourites of ours such as the Casino, Pilot, Safire complex, Anand complex, Chitra, Rajkumari, not to mention the long list of those North Madras cinema halls that have vanished to give place to hi-rise commercial or residential complexes thanks to real-estate mania; I remember the time when Chellarams and Kuralagam used to be the watchwords in clothing merchandise; when Shanti Vihar and Rita Ice-cream factory were equally synonymous with Mylapore as much as Kapaaleeswarar Temple and Kamadhenu & Kabali (the Gemini-twins of Mylai’s cinema halls).

However, India Coffee House? Unless any ol’ timer responds to this article with the history of one such place, I am stumped. All that I know is this: there is one at the left hand corner of Burkit Road merging with Usman Road, opposite the T.Nagar Bus Terminus. But am sure that is not the one. If that is, well, it has fallen in bad times now.

That was yesterday, as the popular song goes. All you had to do a couple of years back was to just stroll by G.N. Chetty Road: you had both the Qwikys T.Nagar and the Café Coffee Day. Not too far away, at what has come to be known as IC (Ispahani Centre) another Coffee Day. Right next door at the Ebony, a Qwikys Island. Now of course neither Ebony nor those two GNC Road joints exist. But to show that the power center of Coffee Houses has shifted, we have KNK (Khader Nawaz Khan Road) housing the Barista and Mocha (that bordello-feel red building); and within a kilometer, in the road off Peters Road, the independent and unique Café Moca of the Amethyst. Driving down Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai (Cathedral Road for ol’ timers!), opposite Stella Maris College, Coffee? has another little location besides the one at Adyar; then another 200 meters or so we have Café Nescafe. Drive another kilometer and half down TTK Road (again, Mowbrays Road for Madrasis!), you have another Qwikys Island at Lifestyle! Just take a qwik - sorry, quick - turn through Eldams Road and hit G.N.Chetty Road back, you have come a full circle of about 3 kms radius and you have experienced more caffeine down your streams than ever in the history of Chennai.

Not enough… drive down to Besant Nagar. A little range war is shaping up. Café Coffee Day, in what I divine to be a-la Starbucks model, are already up with two outlets on both sides of Bessie Barista… and are apparently planning a huge outlet right next to Barista… to lynch, dry-gulch, what you may the competition. I presume it is the building coming up next to the Sri Krishna (or is it Ananda Bhavan?) overlooking the Bessie Beach, across Cozee corner. And the other Coffee Days at Indira Nagar or Cenotaph Road aren’t too far either. But none of these can take the cake come December. The beehive of activity among Chennai-ites would be Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, MFAC, R.R. Sabha and other little havens of Classical Music and Dance. I know of a bagful of rasikas who not necessarily always land up at these sabhas to listen to Cutcheries… but to let their palate loose on the canteens run by Sakthis, Arusuvais and others…

What is this phenomenon? Chennai, Culture, Coffee… and now Cafés seem inevitably woven into the lives of Chennaiites and nostalgic Madrasis! In more ways than one, tracing the coffee roots of Chennai to its Tamil culture would not be wrong. The current in-term Coffee Pub is not far off target from the term they use back in Tanjavur for hotels – Coffee Clubs! And who can forget the mother of ‘em South Indian degree coffees all – The Kumbakonam or Thanjavur Degree Coffee. Now, one place people this side of Mylapore stretching towards Adyar go to today, to get their Kumbakonam degree coffee is the Sangeetha in Raja Annamalai Puram (known to young ones as RAP). And who can forget the coffee of Rayar’s Café of Cutchery Road, Mylapore.

Rightly so, given the conservative tag that has stuck to this city, Coffee seems to be the panacea and the redeeming equivalent of outgoing Chennaiites that Beer and Pubs are to Bangaloreans. Now in a way, Chennai’s fascination for Coffee has come in the form of Cafés to help the citizens shake their conservative, homeward bound label. Talk about our belief in rebirth and reincarnation.

May be some coffee outlets do not report as enthusiastic a crowd inflow at their outlets. But each of them – from the Qwikys of Sterling Road (Q I as it is known) through the Barista of KNK Road in Nungambakkam and Coffee Day of IC to the Coffee? and CCDs of Adyar, the outlets all have their customers, regular clients, loyalists, hangabouts and time-killers!

Inhabiting a Coffee House is not only a semi-fashion statement, but also an essential get-away for some from the younger generation. There is so much more to Cafés and Coffee Pubs of Chennai than just a Qjam or sound machine or a book corner or groups of youths. A whole horde of information could be gleaned and gathered. One could, upon haunting these pubs, develop a whole new network of business cards or friendships. One could even fine one’s life-partner, as I have good observed reasons to believe. The Coffee Pubs are Chennai’s equivalent of the book bazaars of the ancient Cordoba in Spain. The Coffee Pubs are also fast becoming haunts of some of Chennai’s musicians, artists, DJs, television stars and sportspersons. They are becoming quite ubiquitous and happening places… making them a far cry today from the hangout of raucous teens and young adults of a year or so back. And quite a lot of coffee is being consumed too.

Say Cheers to Coffee!!! And let’s not forget that haven of Coffee and Culture talk of yesteryears… it still rocks and is my fav place when I need to meet someone or kill time before an engagement in the vicinity – DRIVE IN WOODLANDS. May be not the best coffee, but a place Queen Anne of the 17th century Coffee Houses of England-fame would be proud of. I am starting to feel the itch for beans in my throat. Let me vamos.

1 comment:

Srini said...

Nice trip indeed dear (sir) KK through this city we all so fondly revere and love...
But there is a wholly different - I wouldn't call it negative lest I should be regarded as this extreme right, which I am not - side (doesn't have anything to do with Chennai, though) isn't there to the modern cafes - your Quiky's, Barrista's etc? Well... I shall not elaborate... not for now, because my comment may cause a post - not something I enjoy all that much.

by the way I have commented atop your corpse in question... lol