Gained in Translation: Smell the coffee
South Bengaluru has a cafe culture of great significance. A large number of morning walkers unfailingly meet up at these cafes, have their daily dose, chat and disperse.
Written by Prathibha Nandakumar | Updated: March 4, 2018 6:06 am
South Bengaluru has a cafe culture of great significance. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)
Once a photographer friend visited me in Bengaluru. He wanted to capture city life, and so I took him around. We visited various cafes during the day but at the end of it, at the last restaurant, he showed me a photo at the cash counter and commented, “This man seems to own most of the cafes and restaurants in the city.” Not only me, but the cashier and bystanders burst out laughing. For, the picture he pointed to was that of Raghavendra Swamy, a saint god from the 14th century. Most of the cafes and restaurants happen to display his photo near the cash counter.
Why Raghavendra Swamy? Simple, the earliest cafes and restaurants were run by Brahmins and most of them had boards that simply said Brahmin’s Tiffin or Brahmin’s Coffee Bar. South Bengaluru has a cafe culture of great significance. A large number of morning walkers unfailingly meet up at these cafes, have their daily dose, chat and disperse. They are from all walks of life, cutting across class, creed, caste, religion and even gender. To understand this phenomenon it is necessary to know the history of the coffee cafes.
The British first started hotels and restaurants exclusively for themselves in Bengaluru. The first that came up was the Cubbon Hotel at the Cantonment area in 1863. It was typically British in architecture, food and culture. Close on its heel, began the Brownson-Westend in 1887, which continues to run to this day as The Taj West End. Inspired by the British hotels, one Avani Narasingarao started a Brahmin hotel, the Avani Narasingarayara Hotel, in Chikpet. By 1897, there were several hotels run by Brahmins at Chikpet and Balepet.
In 1898, a plague struck the city killing 3,000 people in a month. This prompted a mass exodus from Bengaluru. When it subsided, men began returning one by one. To facilitate these men, who were coming back without their families, several hotels sprung up. K T Appanna started the Hindu Coffee Club in 1898. He later shifted it to Chikpet, changed its name to Krishna Bhojana Vilas and began supplying lunch, tiffin and coffee to employees of Athara Kutcheri (court) in horse-driven coaches.
By the end of the 20th century, there were several coffee clubs in Bengaluru. While the Cantonment area boasted of several hotels catering to the British, the old Bengaluru area had Hindu Brahmin restaurants that worked in a very traditional manner. Venkanna’s hotel at Balepet circle had three sections for three different categories — traditional Brahmins, casual Brahmins and one for non-Brahmins. Venkanna would inquire if a person was a Brahmin and even comment on why he had not applied vibhuthi and would provide it himself. It was compulsory for patrons to drink coffee from a height without the lips touching the tumbler. If anyone placed their lips on the tumbler, Venkanna would throw it away.
It was Appanna who first introduced tables, chairs and spoons, at his new Krishna Bhijana Vilas at Chikpet in 1908. It attracted several eminent personalities and gradually turned into a cultural centre, becoming a meeting place for writers.
In 1913, Iyengar’s Coffee Club, Gundappa Hotel, Kuntappa Hotel, Annayyappa Hotel became very popular. The Lalbhagh Hotel was started in 1914, also by Appanna. In 1916, a notice issued by the then dewan of Mysore, Sir M Visvesvaraya, stating that subsidies could be offered to start hotels in Bengaluru and Mysuru, attracting many to the hospitality. In 1920, B T Ramayya was the first non-Brahmin to start a hotel; he named it Union Restaurant. He also established six other cafes and was the first to introduce the buffet system. There were around a hundred hotels during this time in Bengaluru and The Hindu Hotels Association also came into existence. It was only in 1951 that it was changed to Bangalore Hotels Association and hoteliers from different religions were inducted as members.
By 1977 there were over 3,500 hotels in Bengaluru. In 1980, the Darshini hotels revolutionised the hotel industry, by allowing people to stand and eat. The idea of an open kitchen came into existence.
In the last decade, the city’s hotel industry has undergone a revolutionary change. Global chains such as McDonalds, Subway, Cafe Coffee Day, Barista and Hard Rock Cafe brands have now taken over the cafe scene. However, none of this has changed the city’s early morning by-two coffee culture. The by-two service has been replaced by mini-coffee and the jargon ‘one less, one plus’ to indicate without sugar and with sugar is common place now. The early morning walkers gather around such cafes, chat, drink coffee and disperse. The heated cultural arguments of yesteryears have been replaced by debates on scams and breaking news.
Translated from Kannada by the writer, a well-known poet and translator
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