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Shyama Prasad Dey spends a quiet moment sipping his own coffee | Civil Society pictures/Ashoke Chakraborty

Cartoonist serves coffee with art in Kolkata kiosk

Subir Roy, Kolkata

Published: Feb. 29, 2024
Updated: Apr. 26, 2024

THE coffee is cheap, the art is free. As you exit from Gate No. 1 of the Tollygunge Metro Station in Kolkata, you come face to face with a typical stall, the likes of which vend tea, coffee, biscuits and maybe some more light eats. The difference is that in tea-addicted Kolkata this stall boldly tells patrons not to ask for tea but to settle for coffee.

Kolkata Coffee, which covers no more than 3 ft by 5 ft of pavement space and does not have any kind of hawker’s licence from the municipal corporation, is the brain child and single-handed creation of slim, slightly greying Shyama Prasad Dey who has made it perhaps the most distinctive roadside little eatery in the city. It is plastered with black and white cartoons and illustrations which trumpet all manner of slogans that are always bold and most often funny.

Dey has been running a stall for three decades now. Till the Covid epidemic came along his little shop sold newspapers and magazines and was also plastered with his art work as the present one is. Then, after the Covid hiatus, he hit upon the idea of serving instant coffee — black, white and sweet, according to your choice.

Humour has to be within you and that explains the text which the illustrations carry but art or the skill of drawing is almost always picked up in an art college. Dey surprises you by saying he has not crossed the portals of any post-high school institution after clearing the Class 12 examinations. So his art is entirely self-taught and acquired through day-to-day living.

He very clearly says he comes from a lower middle class family and his father ran a small business. His business card has a misprinted word scratched out and corrected by hand. He must not have the means or inclination to get a new set of cards printed. The card, from his magazine stall days, lists some of his other achievements — nail artist, ventriloquist!

From the time when he started doodling three decades ago he and his art have progressed on their own. All the outside help he has got over the years is a few technical tips from art college students — “they are my teachers” — who chanced upon his shop and immediately decided to remember it. He first started creating greetings cards which proved very popular and helped him make up his mind to stay the artistic course. 

The humour is often in the text. The coasters for the coffee cups are hand-crafted and bear the legend, “Keep the cup here, leave behind your mark, thanks”. A cartoon depicts what looks like a person carrying a guitar and a jhola from behind and carries the line, “The travelling people’s MLA”.

Dey doesn’t know how much his shop, which runs from six in the evening till eleven, earns. He is up at four o’clock in the morning and from daybreak is out in the nearby Bagha Jatin market where he vends tea on foot till 11 am. (“The best time to talk with me is after 11 pm.”) These two businesses enable him to look after his small family of wife, 22-year-old daughter and aged mother who spends time with her children’s families by turn.

The shop cruises along merrily as customers who chance upon it take pictures of it and post them on Facebook. This spreads the good word around and new customers keep trickling in to come and see for themselves this unique creation. The art college students were impressed in particular by the illustration that adorns the small paper cups in which coffee is served.

The idea came from his daughter who is pursuing a course in media science. Customers are so impressed with these that after downing the coffee they take home the cups, show them to friends who come themselves to sip the mundane instant coffee in a unique visual atmosphere.   

Lack of academic credentials has not prevented Dey from earning formal recognition. Till around 2016 he used to put up a stall in the city’s famous annual book fair and also the one for handicrafts. There is a certificate of commendation from an edition of the latter.

The clientele Dey draws is distinctive. While I am there one of them says that he comes because of the ambience that the posters hanging all around create. Dey’s small talk with customers is also distinctive. He asks a teenage couple whether it is their pre-Valentine’s Day outing. They all laugh and admit that till a few years ago they didn’t know that there was such a day. Two other customers hug each other. A customer says he comes to the stall because it brings peace to his eyes and his mind.

One customer is a lady working for a leading insurance company who has come despite a back ailment which makes it difficult for her to walk more than a few paces at a time. Another customer simply declares he comes “because he is an artist”.

People mill around the stall curiously because of the ambience that the artwork creates

It is perhaps natural that in the hour that I spend at the stall, usurping the single plastic stool there, the customers are all invariably polite and soft-spoken. And none of them is rolling in cash. One couple asks for a small cup of black coffee and shares it. After I have had my coffee and biscuit I am told the bill comes to a paltry Rs 23. I wonder why he is taking a bit of time to return the change. Eventually, when he does, I realize he had been going through all that was there in his little cash box to extract change worth `7. He is not the sort to say, as so many stall owners do, "no change."

Kolkata is known for its public display of art which has been made famous by media stories that have reported in detail on the art work of Durga Puja pandals and the murals depicting well-known themes. Illustrations by Satyajit Ray for father Sukumar Ray’s classic Abol Tabol (Nonsense Rhymes) attracted wide attention.  If that is the public display of high art, Dey represents the grassroots from which the aesthetics springs. The two make up an organic whole, making the artistic and aesthetic sense a living tradition that is passed on from generation to generation.


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