Sunday, 5 February 2017

Calcutta Hijacked Poona's Coffee-house culture?

Did Calcutta hijack Poona's coffee- house culture in the early 20th century? This is one of the unresolved issues with not much definite information available on it. It's worthwhile to note that during British period, there were only two cities in India known for their romantic coffee-house culture: Poona and Calcutta. Even cities like Madras, Bangalore, Bombay or Delhi never figured on the list of having famed coffee houses like those of these two cities. English historian Erwin Palmer, who extensively worked on British raj in India, mentioned in his dispatches (he was also a military historian) that Poona's coffee-houses were more famous than those of Calcutta and were comparable to the high-ceiling, smoke-tainted, nostalgic coffee-houses of London, Paris, Milan, Cairo and Vienna. Poona, a predominantly cantonment city at that time, had a number of coffee-houses in the late 19th century (1870 onwards) till early 20th century.
But after that, most of the coffee-houses shifted to Calcutta, which's rather intriguing because Calcutta started losing its glory after 1911 when the capital of India was shifted from there to Delhi. Yet, coffee-houses prospered there after the first World War and not in Delhi and Poona. Poona's coffee-houses were owned by Parsis, Anglo-Indians and some Jewish settlers. At that time, Iranians began to promote their famous Iranian tea, which became very famous in a short time. This came somewhat of a setback to coffee-culture of Poona, which was unaccustomed to any kind of threat from any other beverage.


  Moreover, the ever influential Marwaris of Calcutta began to buy in bulk the Ooty and Nilgiri brands of the best sub-continental coffee along with the Brazilian one to thwart the growing tea culture of Bengal, especially of Calcutta because in those days, most of the world's finest tea estates like Makaibari, Castletone and Ambrosia were in Darjeeling and the English planters owned them. Marwari businessmen got the foothill tea estates or on the plains of Assam, considered to be notches below to aromatic Darjeeling tea. Seething with anger, the Marwaris first set-up coffee-houses in Calcutta and sold them to Bengalis, Anglo-Indians and even English! Seeing a great business potential in a city of writers and poets, the coffee-house owners of Poona began to shift to Calcutta and by 1925, Calcutta became the greatest hub of coffee-houses in Asia. But it's a pity that even Calcutta's once eulogised coffee-house culture is in shambles. Gone are the days of creative people in Calcutta discussing over cups of piping hot coffee and cigarettes and lovers bashfully looking into each other's eyes reciting Tagore, Baudlaire and Byron's romantic poems or listening to Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles' mushy numbers.        


                                              - Sumit Paul


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