On Thursday afternoon, business was as usual at Cafe Samovar in Jehangir Art Gallery. Hungry after a long day at work, lawyers from the High Court and college students from across the street walked in for a cup of mint tea and boti roti rolls.
However, unlike other days when Devieka Bhojwani, theatre personality and daughter of Usha Khanna- founder of the cafe- is seen mingling with patrons, she was sharing her lunch with a bunch of journalists.
Ever since the news of Cafe Samovar’s closure spread, old-timers and regulars have been thronging the eatery for their last fill of favourites.
“I am heartbroken. Samovar is like my home,” says 75-year-old Rita Khushru Contractor, a regular at the cafe since its inception. “I am here for my favourite club sandwich and guava juice,” she adds, reminiscing about the many parties and get-together she has had with her friends.
For over three decades, the family-run cafe was fighting a legal battle with the founding trustees of the art gallery. In an out of court settlement in 2010, the cafe was granted an extension of five years, which ends on March 31.
“My mother is 87 years old and is fighting her own battles with illness. This was her child for 50 years and it is very painful for her to see this,” says 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.
Cafe Samovar was born alongside the Progressive Art Movement of 1960’s Bombay, a period that saw artistes such as KH Ara, K Hebbar and MF Husain as well as filmmakers like Satyajit Ray influencing young minds. Started in 1964, Samovar became an important part of the city’s cultural fabric owing to its location at the Jehangir Art Gallery.
Countless artists — established, young and struggling — have shared a modest cutting chai (sold for 50 paisa then) in the 700 sq feet cafe. “It was the era of the new-wave, art house films and Samovar was the incubator,” writes Khanna in a book titled ‘The Making of Samovar’.
Styled like a Parisian cafe with gypsy art on its walls and eclectic decor, Samovar or ‘Sams’ as some liked to call it, has seen many film and theatre luminaries such as Balraj Sahni (Khanna’s maternal uncle), Shyam Benegal, Satyadev Dubey, Dolly Thakore walk its long and narrow verandah. “Sams has a really relaxed sense of time.
In the span of an afternoon, conversations happened like the flow of a river,” reminisces art critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote, who used to conduct impromptu poetry readings at the cafe. Similarly, the cafe holds fond memories for many in the city.
Husain would sit on the cafe’s cane chairs and paint endlessly, a young Jaya Bachchan walked in with Amitabh for a cuppa and Mario Miranda sketched on its yellow tissue papers. Over the past few years, Kala Ghoda has seen many modern cafes, however, Samovar remains to be an institution in itself.
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