Portraits of people at Koshy’s Restaurant, Bangalore

(Click on the images to enlarge)
To order a copy of the book online , click here.

Table by the Window
An essay by Raghav Shreyas

“Where are you from?” asked one of my teachers in Baroda. “Bangalore”, I said. Suddenly his face lit up like a thousand candles. “I’ve heard Bangalore is a very beautiful city”, he said. I was flattered and thanked him profusely.

He asked me that question in 1994, when Bangalore was still a pleasant town. I’d lived in Bangalore all my life, and it only seemed fair that my teacher complimented my town. Somebody was praising my home. It was my city. I was also thrilled because, until then in my experience of northern Indians, southern Indians were not regarded as useful.

To most northern Indians I had met, people from the South were academics and Tamil-speaking Brahmins who held jobs in the public-sector, various colleges, and universities. Essentially, they were seen as studious people (now-a-days you call them geeks).

My father had a variety of friends from engine drivers to chairpersons of big enterprises, from rich businessmen to scooter mechanics. We visited them regularly and they visited us regularly. All of them had something in common: they were slow Bangaloreans who enjoyed their conversation and cup of coffee. Their average day was never a mad rush.

The businessman had time for a two-hour nap in the afternoon before he opened his shop again at 5pm. Very few people were on the roads after 8 in the evening, and the city snored on Sundays. Each Bangalorean shared something with other Bangaloreans –a warm, indelible feeling that he was a lazy, easy-going, Bangalorean.

In 1998, after I finished my studies in Baroda, I returned to Bangalore. It was still a town, presently to get crushed under an artificial city imposed on it by international economic forces. The process had already begun, unfortunately. The software industry was big, though not yet very big. People from all over the country were talking about Bangalore, the beautiful city, to live and work in.

When I returned to Bangalore, I didn’t know that I didn’t know my city, and discovering the city was still a long way off. There were areas that were considered far away from where I lived, and somehow that had kept me from exploring the city. My school and college were very close to where I lived, and a bicycle was all that was needed to get to them. Once in a while I traveled to the commercial areas of Bangalore – specifically to Saint Mark’s Road to go to the British Library. K. C. Das (by which I mean the emporium of sweets, not the person) was across the road, and after having read for a while and borrowed books, I’d go there to have a Bengali sweet.

Below the library was Koshy’s, which looked like a shady bar from the outside. Being closed-minded, shy and scared, I had never entered it. That year, my cousin was in town for a few months, conducting some kind of research or other, on a grant. He introduced me to the world of Bangalore, from artists to social workers, from designers to academics. He also introduced me to Koshy’s, which, I eventually discovered, was a potted Bangalore.

When I first entered Koshy’s, it didn’t look like the chamber of horrors that I had imagined it to be; rather it looked like a cozy and homey restaurant stuck somewhere in the 1940s (it still does). The restaurant was a very huge hall with furniture and pillars dating back to the 1940s. The nondescript waiters moved about slowly, without refine or polish –on the contrary, they were just crude and matter-of-fact.

As I visited the place more regularly, I could, on any given day, hear a variety of languages spoken –Kannada, Malayalam,Tamil, English. I could overhear conversations that ranged from local to the international. People seemed to have concerns of different kinds of concerns from the local to the global. They seemed to include those who probably had never stepped out of Bangalore and all the way to jet-setting globe-trotters. There were lawyers, who came in at 11 am, journalists who turned up in the afternoon, and theater people who came in the evening. There were critics, artists, politicians and minor businessmen who turned up frequently, regularly, or occasionally. And, I should not forget, indeed CANNOT forget the various, how shall I put this gently…eccentrics!

Over the months I visited Koshy’s, it became clear to me that the place was for everyone. I met many interesting individuals, eminent and not-so-eminent, who reflected on life, art and politics. But I could never come to grips with the fact that an old place that looked stuck in the 1940s attracted so many people. Nor did I know that there existed a café culture all over the world at one time. Even now there are cafés in parts of India where intellectuals and artists meet; but I was ignorant of such a place in my own city.

Koshy’s is a place for characters rather than professionals, i.e. the type of people who come there regularly can be sorted by characteristics rather than by their professions.

They are not regular people. They don’t wear suits and ties and look frustrated. They are not busy going from one place to another to see if they can achieve something or the other. People who are hung up on saving money never go there – the coffee, drinks, breakfast, lunch and dinner are rather expensive. But people who’ve been there for several years continue to go there more out of habit and a lack of alternatives. They have their friends and meet with them regularly. The place is for people who have an academic bent of mind –a mind that searches for answers, asks penetrating questions for no reason except to solve problems or to create more problems.

There is a special aura about the place, and all sorts of people from all walks of life come there – lawyers, journalists, theater people, dancers, writers, critics, artists and musicians. Celebrities have come to the restaurant too, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Queen Elizabeth. More recently (in 2002), we had Graham Broad, the drummer of Pink Floyd, who casually walked in and sat on a sofa (only one or two recognized him). Someone recently saw Greg Chappell – the current controversial coach of the Indian Cricket Team. The previous chief minister of Karnataka S. M. Krishna (now the governor of Maharastra), and Shiv Mani, a well-known drummer, love Koshy’

s so much that, inspite of their busy schedule, they make some time to come to the restaurant every now and again. The cricket commentator Charu Sharma and his wife love the place. Apart from these the well-known playwright Girish Karnad, and the social historian Ramachandra Guha sit there often.

So, then, Koshy’s is somewhat like a club. The people who go there usually gossip about everything and everybody – about friends, the public in general, historical figures, possibly even YOU! Or they disguise their gossip philosophically, and provide arguments for various phenomena in the world. Sometimes, with only a cup of coffee, they sit for two or three hours without the waiters disturbing them. Sometimes, they order a cup of coffee and share it among three, five, or even eleven of them. Occasionally, if in the middle of their heated conversations they want to eat, they order a vegetable patty (puff), or smileys (a deep fried potato smiley face) or peanut masala. Some theater people have a record of going to Koshy’s in the morning and sitting there until evening, ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, and several cups of coffee in-between, planning their next production.

Koshy’s has been my space for the last seven years. I’ve made many friends there who have been with me since, and have expanded my horizons. Occasionally I photographed somebody there, a friend, and I placed her or him next to a window for good light.

One day, while Sonja, a friend of mine, was visiting me from Germany, I took her around to photograph two or three old locations in Bangalore. One was Dewar’s (locally pronounced Devar’s). The other was the old Coffee House on M. G. Road. The third was Phoenix Watchworks where the sixty-nine year old Mr. Sharma repairs and services, among other things, old Swiss watches. Every morning I met Sonja at Koshy’s (where else?) for breakfast. Sometimes Prem, the owner of Koshy’s, generously give us a free dish of something or the other.

One morning, I suddenly decided to photograph Prem next to the window (where I’d photographed others before). As I shot several pictures of him, I had an idea for a project. Why shouldn’t I photograph many of them who came to Koshy’s often? I spoke to Prem about it, and he willingly gave me permission to do it. In fact, he added, he had been looking for someone to do it, but hadn’t found anybody from his inner-circle who could. There were many photographers, he said, who had approached him for a project such as this, but he hadn’t felt comfortable giving it to them. He asked me to go ahead.

I have photographed Bangaloreans and not business people who are part of chains that are part of other cities. I’m focusing on musicians, theater professionals, artists, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, dancers, writers, historians, scientists, architects, journalists, and lawyers who have made Bangalore their home. Other sundry old jobholders who’ve been coming to Koshy’s for decades are part of the project as well. It’s better to leave very young people alone, at least for now.

The project has now progressed for over three years. I photographed everybody I knew from there at the Table by the Window. The variety of people is wide. But they seem to have at least this one thing in common – a fondness for Koshy’s.

Next, I plan to develop textual narrative(s) for a coffee table book to be called, you guessed it, “Table by the Window”. This book will elicit the myriad ways in which these Koshyzens engage with the discursive richness of the place. This will bring out the contours of the relationships among the individual, Koshy’s, and Bangalore –making it three scales in all.

Placeness

I watched the project for over a year, and suddenly had an idea. Nobody bothers about old Bangalore except old Bangalorians. The newcomers have no idea or feeling for the growth of the city, and are ruining the city in the name of accommodating a more diverse population from other parts of the country. That’s not to say it’s only important to talk about the nostalgia for the old city, but a contrast could come through. For example, the person who first walked into Koshy’s in 1965, will have studied and felt the sharp contrast since then. Bangalore changed over night with the introduction of the software industry, and it’s still going on. It’s important to see how they now feel about their own city.

Now Bangalore is like any other city, with a rapidly evolving industrialized commerce. It matters less that something is made in Bangalore for Bangalore, and matters more whether a Pepsi, a Coke or a Barista will make their presence felt.

In this milieu, Koshy’s becomes more than Koshy’s, a coffee house. Koshy’s holds Bangalore within its old walls, while serving the old and the new, the old and the young. Koshy’s reflects Bangalore and its tradition of welcoming everybody, allowing them to be without many conditions placed, and possessing them to such an extent that they will not leave in a hurry. And the more people come into Bangalore and Koshy’s, the more they make it their home and their second home. Guests are usually brought in to Koshy’s for a proud display of what Bangalore is capable of. Guests in turn love it so much that they bring in other guests. If people leave Bangalore, they fondly remember Koshy’s, the conversations they had there, and how they miss it. They crave to come back, and when they do come back, they visit Koshy’s to meet their friends and to have a cup of their favorite coffee.

Bangalore, the welcoming Bangalore, which gladly receives everybody with open arms, is, in this sense, most definitely Koshy’s. And Koshy’s, the welcoming Koshy’s, which gladly receives everybody with open arms, is, in the same sense, the old and the new, the old and the young, Bangalore.

(Raghav’s book Table by the Window is on sale at Koshy’s. Rs.950. To order a copy of the book online , click here.)