Once the haunt of artists such as MF Husain, future Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and filmmaker Shyam Benegal, Café Samovar — a Mumbai institution — is now likely to be turned into a sculpture gallery.
Tucked away within the Jehangir art gallery in Kala Ghoda, it was a place where art lovers mingled and where broke artists waited for their big break over cups of steaming tea and plates of affordable, homely fare that included the famous kheema paratha.
International travel magazines and websites still describe the 50-year-old café as a must-visit. But you can only visit until March 31.
Then, with a farewell bash, the café will close its doors.
File photo: Bollywood legends Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan used to visit the cafe often. (Photo: Cafe Samovar's Facebook page)
“Jehangir caters to new and up-and-coming artists, as we give out the space at a subsidised rate. I have been told that the gallery is already accepting applications for exhibitions in 2020-21. That’s a long waiting list and I want to cut it short,” says Adi Jehangir, chairman of the gallery. “The new gallery [that will come up in place of Samovar] will help us do that.”
For Samovar founder Usha Khanna, the decision to close marks the end of a three-decade struggle over the space.
The gallery had been demanding its space back since around 1985, with a legal case to resolve the issue making its way through one court after another. In 2010, the Supreme Court granted Samovar five more years.
When HT spoke to Devika Bhojwani, daughter of Usha Khanna who started the iconic café, she says, "We had asked for another extension on humanitarian grounds. My mother is 87-year-old."
"For 50 years, the café was my mother's life. There was not a single day when people would not approach her, whether in a club or a hospital, and tell her that they love Samovar," says Bhojwani.
However, the Jehangir art gallery authority didn't agree and the decision to shut down had to be taken. "My mother is sad but has decided to leave the place with head held high. She said that maybe it's time," she adds.
Bhojwani adds that they now plan to invite all their regular patrons to the farewell bash and let them pick from among the artefacts that made up the café’s décor all these years. “We want everyone to go away with a souvenir,” she says.
File photo: Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the iconic Cafe Samovar. (Photo: Cafe Samovar's Facebook page)
The management and staff of the café - around 20 cooks, waiters and a manager- are heartbroken too. "I have worked for this café for 24 years. It would be hard to say goodbye," says TV Mohanan, 61, manager of the café. "Most staff members here have worked for a minimum of five years. We were always treated like family and I doubt we will ever get to work in such a warm atmosphere again."
When HT spoke to veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon, she expressed unhappiness over the gallery's decision. "Café Samovar is a living monument. It has nurtured the early years of many artists such as MF Hussain, KH Ara and even me," she says. "This is one real hub for intellectuals and is so historic. I don't think any country would have been so callous with it and let it be destroyed," Menon added.
File photo: Acclaimed artist MF Hussain had visited Cafe Samovar. (Photo: Cafe Samovar's Facebook page)