‘Cafe Samovar’, the much-loved hangout of intellectuals, artists, journalists, lawyers, struggling and known Bollywood artists… including Amitabh Bachchan, M.F. Husain, K Hebbar, S.H. Raza, Anjolie Ela Menon, V.S. Naipaul, Satyajit Roy, Tayeb Mehta, Pritish Nandy, Behram Contractor, Shobha De, Dilip Chitre, Nissim Ezekiel, Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Satyadev Dubey, Kabir Bedi, Siddharth Bhatia… the students in general and the common Mumbaikars, finally downed shutters on 31 March.
After more than five decades as regulars, many assembled there, many with perceptible sadness in their mind, thronged the iconic south Mumbai Cafe for one last time!
Ever since the news of Cafe Samovar’s closure spread, old-timers and regulars had been seen thronging the Café for their last fills. On Tuesday last, many Mumbaikars went to eat, meet, chat and feel the ambience for one last time.
As orders of Dahi Vadas, Paneer Rolls, Keema rolls, Vindaloo Rolls,Stuffed Parathas, Keema Parathas, Mutton Samosas, Pepper Mutton Chops, Kulfis, Watermelon and Guava Juices, the Masala Tea along with Mixed Pakodas kept coming in, the staff kept for the last time accommodating every demand. The longest serving Café manager (33 uncut years) Mohan Nambiar closed its door at 7.30, for the last time.
On its last day, Café owner Usha Khanna couldn’t hold her tears back. At 88, she took her last bite of Samovar’s iconic Aloo Paratha that had almost become synonymous with the Café.
“Where else can you sit with the country’s topmost artists and share tables with them? It was a place to make friends and share your problems,” said the 88-year-old lady, who sat regularly for long 51 years, in the Cafe.
She had finally this to say: It’s been 50 glorious years and it’s time to say goodbye now.”
Making Of An Icon
Tucked inside the Jehangir Art Gallery, surrounded by heritage buildings like David Sassoon Library, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya(formerly Prince of Wales Museum), the Lion Gate, the Hornbill House and Kala Ghoda square, the cafe was opened in 1964, by Usha Khanna, the niece of Bollywood’s legendry actor Balraj Sahni.
“Living around Juhu, she had three children under 12, had never run a restaurant, knew no one who did, had no financial backing of any kind, had never seen a balance sheet but Samovar became a landmark because of her grit and integrity, love, fresh air and good intent,” daughter of Usha Khanna, Malavika Sanghvi, narrated her mother’s uncommon achievement.
Usha Khanna herself was nostalgic about the Café she had built and nurtured over five decades: When I started, it was to fill the lacunae in the city. Where would artists meet their patrons? Where would poets sit and write without being disturbed? Where would young homesick executives get their homely food? Where would young students go on a date they could afford”?
A haven for struggling Bollywood artists, budding painters, poets and writers… who often got meals on debit , even free lunches , the cafe was at its peak in the ’70s and launched many careers and love episodes.
Students came with their restricted pocket money and friends or lovers from Elphinstone College, the busy lawyers from the courts across the road or the journos from the nearby Times of India.
Countless artists – recognised, young or struggling – had shared a modest cutting chai (sold for 50 paisa then) in the narrow 700 sq. feet cafe.
“It was the era of the new-wave, art house films and Samovar was the incubator,” narrates the book ‘The Making of Samovar’.
Samovar was walkable from Regal Cinema, right across Sessions court. The Bombay High Court, Elphinstone College, Flora Fountain, Fort, Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, all in the vicinity. So apart from the regulars and Café aficionados, artists, journalists, lawyers, movie buffs, students, shoppers and strugglers- at some point or other would drop in Samovar for its wide range of Parathas , tangy and zesty Chutneys, and Masala Chai which were served on the tables, at all times.
The Most Happening Place
The family came to Bombay from Kashmir. They had given the meeting place a name reminiscent of the family’s years in Kashmir where the Samovar, the Big Cauldron used to heat and boil water and making tea, had been the focal point of the warmth in their daily lives.
The Samovar may not have started out, planning to be a cultural hive, it was never meant to be a full-fledged café in its earlier days. When the restaurant first opened, it served just tea, coffee, cold drinks and limited snacks. But right from the beginning, it was always the meeting point for discussions, debates, and endless conversations. And it became just that for so many years!
I was reading somewhere in Marathi, about ‘Samovar’:१९६०-७०च्यादशकातअनेकनामवंतचित्रकार-लेखक-आर्टसिनेमावाल्यांचेगप्पांचेफडयेथेरंगत. कोलकात्यात ‘कॉफीहाऊस’ तरमुंबईत ‘कॅफेसमोवर’ हाएकसांस्कृतिकअड्डाठरला”. (In the1960-70s, Café Samovar had become a cultural hub and chattering place for well-known artists, writers and filmwallahs… like Kolkata’s legendary Coffee House). As far as I Know, many Marathi poets, including Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar were ‘Samovar’ regulars.
Styled like a Parisian Cafe with experimental art on its walls and a diverse decor, Samovar or ‘Sams’ as some fondly called it, had seen many film and theatre luminaries such as Balraj Sahni (Usha Khanna’s maternal uncle who bestowed the name to it), Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, theatre personalities Satyadev Dubey, Dolly Thakore to walk its long and narrow Verandah. Usually the Café had a really relaxed sense of time. Sometimes, while in Bombay, Satayjit Roy would drop in, after visiting the Jehangir Art Gallery.
“In the span of an afternoon, conversations happened like the flow of a river,” recalls poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, who used to conduct impromptu poetry readings at the Cafe. Another poet Nissim Ezekiel had also seen penning some of his memorable poems here. Mario Miranda, coming right from the office of “Illustrated Weekly” would seat at a corner and start drawing his cartoons on the Café table, on its yellow tissue papers.
A rather younger M.F. Husain would sit on the cafe’s cane chairs and paint occasionally. Then a budding artist, Amitabh Bachchan would drop in, right from the shooting venues accompanying Jaya Bachchan, then known as Jaya Bhaduri of ‘Mili’ fame!
Over the past few years, Kala Ghoda area had seen many small, big or stylish Cafes, however, Samovar remained an institution in itself.
Jaya Bachchan came on the last day and recalled her fond memories with the Café: For ”all us struggling artists and creative people not only from Mumbai but other parts of the country, who came to Mumbai to achieve and become successful …this place served as a refuge and comfort to us all, a getaway from the harsh reality and stress of our day-to-day struggle.”
For the new wave filmmaker Shyam Benegal, the Cafe had been ”an oasis for several generations of youth, sometimes dreaming but always struggling to make their mark in the city”.
Benegal too became nostalgic: I cannot think of Kala Ghoda without Samovar. It has as permanent a place in Kala Ghoda as the Gateway of India in Mumbai.”
Usha Khanna can remember still, on occasions she used to lend money to Bollywood strugglers, which mostly never returned!
In those days Kala Ghoda was a political demonstration arena. Azad Maidan in the vicinity. Rival political parties would come, clash and became violent. But despite all that, both the party cadres would come to Samovar to have their cutting Chais!
Former city Mayor and the Sheriff Nana Chudasama’s love story began here. The 82-year old gentleman met his wife Munira at this Cafe. “I saw her at Samovar. I wrote her many letters and asked her to meet me at the Café. One year later, I proposed to her here. We got married thereafter”. He recalls.
That’s not the only role in matchmaking played by Samovar. Reportedly Usha Khanna also played matchmaker while conducting the cafe’s day-to-day activities.
“Mothers used to come to me to ask if the boys coming to the cafe were good enough. I was the person they came to for character certificates”, she remembered after all these years!
The Last Call
The Khannas had dedicated their youth to the Communist movement ( Usha’s husband Harbans was in Mumbai’s film industry) and many progressive causes and had never bothered to make much money. The Khannas had been comfortable with the environment. So initially Samovar was not a profitable concern. When the children grew up and started taking interest in it , Samovar became somehow sustainable. But then the problem started.
By the end of the Seventies, the problem began . Jehangir Art Gallery, decided to oust Samovar from its premises, the space it wanted to use for its own purpose. The battle grew ugly. At one stage, barbed wire was put across one end of the Samovar verandas and a long court battle began . Which Samovar lost ultimately.
The Cafe lost the case in 2010, in the highest court, after which it was given an extension of five years that ended on March 31, this year.
Recalls Usha Khanna’s elder daughter Devieka Bhojwani, “When the Supreme Court Judge heard that the hearing was regarding Samovar, he recounted many fond memories of his time at the cafe.” Appeals for a further extension did not yield results.
Devieka’s friend Maleeka Lala started an online campaign for Cafe Samovar. People were asked to take selfies or pictures at the cafe and post them online on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #50yearsofSamovar.
People were asked to give their names, their stories relating the cafe and share old photos if they had any. The campaign became much popular.
Some people also wanted to go further and wanted some kind of Government intervention to save the iconic Cafe.
But Usha Khanna, who is now 88, has accepted the court’s decision. The court battle took 30 years of her life and energy. She said that all things must come to an end and that they will leave the place with their heads held high , people’s immense love and fond memories.
Chef Arjun Singh had been working in Samovar’s kitchen since 1991.
He says, a kind bond had been developed with many of the regular customers over these years. Many had become almost like their friends and well-wishers. He was the oldest Chef in the Cafe and was known for his culinary arts, specially for the dishes like Paper Mutton Chops, Butter Chilly Fry, and like.
The Cafe’s staff will now go searching for new jobs. They will meet together one more time, on April 10, to collect their dues.
T. Mohanan, the billing clerk had been busy ever since the news of Cafe Samovar shutting down started doing rounds in the media. Samovar started inundating with phone calls. Mohanan said that, usually Samovar used to see around 300 customers on regular weekends. But after the news spread, there were more than a thousand customers turning up every day!
“We will think of another job once we depart from here”. Told another employee. Some have already been offered jobs by Café patrons.
Many old timers have come back after 20-30 years and so, on finding out why it was closing.
“When I moved to Bombay I wanted some company. I am not highly qualified. I started the Cafe so that I could make some friends here and feed people who live away from home,” said 88-year-old lady owner Usha Khanna.
Ray of Hope
Mumbai BJP leader and spokesperson Shaina N.C. had met Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, where Malavika and her sister Devieka were present. They asked for Government help to preserve an important place of the city’s cultural heritage.
” The Chief Minister gave us a patient hearing. We had also approached the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation for a suitable relocation place in that area,” Malavika said.
“Since, the land was leased by the Government to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and the Jehangir Art Gallery, we requested them to relocate us to either on the ground between the museum and the gallery or the terrace above the Cafe,” said Devieka.
They also met the Revenue and Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse with their request. Khadse agreed that the Cafe has done commendable service to the people of Mumbai.
Maharashtra’s Cultural Affairs Minister Vinod Tawde had said in the Legislative Council on Monday that Cafe Samovar was indeed an important landmark in Mumbai’s history and culture.
Replying to Congress MLC Sanjay Dutt’s request seeking the Maharashtra Government’s intervention in keeping Cafe Samovar alive, Tawde agreed the Cafe should be saved from having to permanently close down , due to land-related issues.
“If necessary, we will try to appoint an arbitrator in the case. We will try our best to solve this problem,” Tawde said.
It is also reported that the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had asked Chief Secretary SS Kshatriya to explore options to save the historical Café.
CM however said that the case had legal issues as it had been decided in the Supreme Court.
Sources have informed that the State Government seems quite positive on relocating Cafe Samovar around the Museum, close to its existing site.
“The department has asked the Cafe Samovar management to come up with alternatives on their own in order to discuss the modalities. We will do our best within the legal framework,” a senior State Government official said.
The sources have also said that, after preparing a proposal at Governmental level, the alternatives will be discussed with the officials of Revenue Department, as the land in and around the Museum belong to them.
So till then Samovar is part of Mumbai’s fascinating history, its socio cultural heritage.
As the Bombay born, London based writer and journalist Salil Tripathi has written: The Samovar was an essential part of growing up for many when there were no Starbucks and no malls and you had to be very rich to go to a disco at a five-star hotel, and you sat in the café with someone you loved. There were no mobile phones to distract you then, only you, your love and your conversation, and that moment alone mattered, and time passed. And now that time has gone”.
Theatre personality and writer Satyam Viswanathan wrote: The values and sensibilities that places like Samovar stand for — openness, inclusivity, simplicity, an absence of pretension, and a quirky, earthy, accommodating Indian spirit –are increasingly anachronistic in a city that is being redefined by the homogenising influences of global capitalism. We’re bringing up a generation of children who think of malls as play areas instead of seeing them as sites of cultural homicide.
If we want our kids to be more curious, more empathetic, less susceptible to consumerist status games, we need to fight for inclusive public and cultural spaces that will infuse our cities with the humanities, the sciences and most crucially, the arts”.
Samovar Café was one of the last outposts of Mumbai’s creative old guards who are as complacent and non-demanding as ever. Also to whom big names, multinational chains and tony modern day Coffee joints are foreign things and not accommodating to their sense and sensibilities. It was a slice of Mumbai served hot, with no-frills and yet full of homegrown warmth and geniality unlike any other eateries in the burgeoning metropolis.
Goodbye Samovar, for now.
May be we will see it someday In another Avatar, in the vicinity, keeping its warmth and humility intact!
Some Iconic Visuals
By: Deep Basu