The Indian Coffee House: a Social History of Public Consumption in Postcolonial India (Moderne Indische Geschichte, Projektförderung: Thyssen-Stiftung)

  • Forschungsgruppe: Moderne Indische Geschichte
  • Antragsteller: Prof. Dr. Ravi Ahuja
  • Projektbearbeiterin: Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
  • Förderung: Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung
  • Laufzeit: November 2010 bis Oktober 2013


Material and cultural consumption form an important part of research in history and the social sciences. However, in historical literature on consumption, a discourse on consumption patterns in the South is conspicuous by its absence. The same bias predominates in the narratives of commodities that went global during the colonial period. When studied in the context of the North, these commodities are considered inseparable from the rise of “modernity”. Consumption of commodities like coffee and tea was part of the multifaceted process that encompassed the notions of nation/empire, transformed the nature of labour and exchange, introduced industrial time and modern education, transforming at the same time work discipline, practices of gender, class, personal relations and leisure. In societies experiencing the “industrious revolution”, coffee and tea formed part of a regular diet following an increase in the family income. Consumption of coffee in public spaces led, we are told, to the development of a new social space between the private and the governmental. By providing space for discussions on new socio-political issues of “common concern” outside the realm of the government authority, coffee houses led to the emergence of the “bourgeois public sphere” in the North. In sum, hot beverages like coffee in the North are associated with modern identity and modern society.

The historiography of commodities like coffee and tea has a different connotation in the context of the South. While the history of coffee in India has escaped serious scholarly attention almost altogether, research on tea has been focused on the large scale production of this export commodity involving the appropriation of land, resources, ecological disorder, displacement of indigenous communities, large scale migration of social groups and the emergence of coolie-labour. The modernity of the North is thus usually linked only with the processes of colonial exploitation of land, resources and labour in the South.

By focusing on the public consumption of coffee in India in the twentieth century, the project questions the validity of the notion of a spatial North-South division in the consumption of global commodities. As in many other countries growing agricultural commodities for markets in the North, a considerable part of the coffee grown in India is consumed locally. Literature suggests that the consumption of coffee emerged as a marker of a distinct life style by the beginning of the twentieth century in parts of south India – not altogether dissimilar from developments in eighteenth-century Europe. The outlets of the Indian Coffee House in different cities countrywide in the 1960s and 1970s formed a distinct part of urban space where individuals gathered, relaxed or debated over a cup of coffee outside home and away from work. Currently, various MNCs from the North compete with indigenous operators for a share of the coffee retail sector, and all prognoses predict a growth of this market. When did coffee houses emerge in India? How did they affect the culture of coffee consumption? Who were, and are, the people who visit coffee houses and cafes? What were the social functions of coffee-drinking in these public spaces? How is this public site of consumption organized? The project seeks to answer these questions by collecting quantitative and qualitative data on the public consumption of coffee through archival research and oral history. The findings of this research will be analyzed with reference to the sociological theory of consumption, particularly as exemplified in the work of Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu.