It’s where Amitabh Bachchan took Jaya Bhaduri on one of their first dates, where Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekeni had proposed to his wife, where artists like MF Hussain and Tyeb Mehta would sit doodling for hours, where poet Nissim Ezekiel would hold fort with young students from Elphinstone college and where cartoonists like Mario Miranda, writers like Behram Busybee, contractor and filmmakers like Shyam Benegal would measure out their lives in tea spoons dreaming of their next creative venture. And now after 50 glorious years, Cafe Samovar is bidding adieu. In an age of fast food, ephemeral relationships and franchise coffee it will be the end of an era.
It was an era of grace, hospitality and good wholesome food. A young Usha Khanna, back from a stint in France where her husband the documentary filmmaker Rajbans Khanna had been awarded the prestigious Palm D’Or at Cannes, and where she’d fallen in love with Left Bank Parisian cafe culture had vowed to start a little artsy cafe of her own in Mumbai. Her maternal uncle, the legendary actor, Balraj Sahni had bequeathed it a name reminiscent of the family’s years in Kashmir, where the samovar had been the central focus of their daily warmth. With two tables and a few chairs, Samovar very soon had charmed its way in to the hearts of the intellectuals, artists, students and office goers of Mumbai.
“The Cafe Samovar holds fond memories for all us struggling artists and creative people, not only from Mumbai, but other parts of the country also, who came to Mumbai to achieve and become successful and who frequented this cafe. This place served as a refuge and comfort to us all, a get-away from the harsh reality and stress of our day-to-day struggle.” says noted actress, Jaya Bachchan.
“This little cafe/restaurant has served on occasion as a theater for dramatic performances, a meeting place for busy executives and equally for young lovers and students. It has been an oasis for several generations of youth sometimes dreaming, but always struggling to make their mark in the city. I cannot think of Kala Ghoda without Samovar. It has as permanent a place in Kala Ghoda as the Gateway of India in Mumbai.” says renowned filmmaker, Shyam Benegal.
“I never expected Samovar to become such an institution,” says the feisty octogenarian Usha Khanna. “When I started, it was to fill a 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 ‘home food’? Where would young students go on a date they could afford? I am happy to see that it has gone from strength to strength and been recognized across the world. It’s been fifty glorious years and it’s time to say good-bye now.“
“When the history of artsy-bohemian Mumbai is recorded, a chapter will surely be dedicated to a long narrow sliver of a cafe named Samovar.” says Malavika Sangghvi, writer and Khanna’s daughter. “Because in many ways that’s where the cultural life and artsy life was nurtured lovingly by my mother.”
“We tried hard to stay on, and even went to the Supreme Court for this” says social worker, and leading city personality Devieka Bhojwani, Khanna’s elder daughter. “But we finally decided that 50 years was a great time to go with grace and dignity.”
And so, Samovar will close its shutters on March 31, 2015. Khanna and her daughters are planning a farewell befitting of this great city institution.