July 04, 2020
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That ’60s Vintage

Cafe Samovar oozed old-Bombay charm, which is why it thrived

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That ’60s Vintage
Pradeep Chandra
That ’60s Vintage

Before we go any further, a few declarations of interest. I have an ancient connection with Samovar. Usha Khanna, who owns it, was a very old friend of my parents (as was her husband, the film-maker Rajbans Khanna) and the restaurant opened at the Jeh­angir Art Gallery when my mother was holding an exh­ibition of her pottery in the hall next door. So I was never a disinterested party. And then, to compound the connection, I was married to Mrs Khanna’s daughter till the mid-1990s. So she was, for a while at least, my mother-in-law.

These declarations of interest must be followed by a rather shameful confession. I was never a Samovar regular, not even when I was married into the family. Oh yes, I might drop in for the odd dahi vada or a roti kabab roll. But I wasn’t like all the people who came in from Elphinstone College, the law cou­rts or The Times of India nearby and treated Samovar’s home-style food as their plateful of comfort. Nor did I ever buy into the college-boy Samovar-speak in which the restaurant was always referred to as “Sams” and the manager, a very nice lady, was nicknamed Big Ethel after the character in Archie com­ics. And yes, I might have gawked a little at M.F. Husain or all the big-name artists who would frequent the restaurant. But frankly, I wasn’t there often enough to do much gaping or gawking.

For me, Samovar was always more a symbol than a restaurant. The Khannas were former Communists (from Lahore and Kashmir) who had no previous restaurant experience. They started Samovar on a shoe-string budget because Soli Batlivala, a fellow ‘progressive’ (as they were called in those days) was involved in the running of the Jehangir Art Gallery and believed that, like every other gallery or museum anywh­ere in the world, it needed a cafe. There was no real restaurant scene in Bombay in the early Sixties and the few restaurateurs who were around had no interest in running an art gallery cafe. So Batlivala fell back on the progressive network and drafted in the Khannas. When the restaurant first opened, it served tea, coffee, cold drinks and a few snacks. It should have remained that way but Mrs Khanna, who had never previously shown any aptitude for business or for cuisine, gave in to the dem­ands of her regulars and slowly began expanding the menu.

Samovar broke through to a larger clientele only at the end of the ’60s...the first to discover it were the journos, who were only a bit better off than the artists.

It is hard now to explain to people what Bombay was like in those days. The middle class was small and largely concentrated in south Bombay. The film industry remained a suburban affair and the worlds of films and middle-class Bombay rarely collided. Because Rajbans Khanna was a filmmaker, the Khannas lived in Juhu and their children went to school in Bandra. So south Bombay was a long way away from them. But Mrs Khanna made the daily trek by local train and in the early days of Samovar, she was at the restaurant every single day. Partly this was because she loved the restaurant. But partly, it was also because they needed the money. The Khannas had dedicated their youth to the Communist Party, to Sheikh Abdullah and to various progressive causes and had never bothered to make any money. But as their children began to grow up, Samovar paid the bills.

In that era, the Jehangir Art Gallery was the cultural focus of south Bombay. Each exhibition would last a week and when a new artist began showing, the news would be carried in the papers. Such critics as Nissim Ezekiel would write art reviews for the dailies and artists would not sleep all night waiting to see if their work had been trashed or praised by the all-powerful reviewers. And art really mattered. The Tatas were the biggest patrons, buying for their companies and especially for the Taj Mahal Hotel (there was no chain; just the one hotel in those days) which regarded art as so special that it ran an art gallery (where the lobby of the Palace wing now is), allowing artists to exhibit for a pittance. The Taj could have made much more money from turning the space into a restaurant or a shop. But in that innocent and charming era, nearly everyone felt that public organisations and companies had an obligation to promote art and culture.

Samovar grew out of that ethos. The Khannas had an arty-lefty background and this made artists feel at ease with them. When the menu expanded, the emphasis was on home-style food sold at very low prices so that even penurious painters could afford to eat there. (Art may have been big in those days but it paid badly. Paintings went for a song and most artists lived from hand to mouth.) When artists could not pay, Mrs Khanna waived the bills. Samovar broke through to a larger clientele only at the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies. The first people to discover it were journalists, who were only slightly better paid than artists in those days. The Times of India building was not far and soon journos began to drop in for lunch or for long, heated discussions in the evening. Then came the students, lured by the promise of cheap, wholesome food. And eventually, the lawyers (who had much more money but liked the ambience) began hanging out there.

By the end of the Seventies, however, the problems had begun. The Prince of Wales Museum, which appears to have some authority over Jehangir Art Gallery, decided it wanted Samovar out. The battle grew ugly: at one stage, the museum put barbed wire across one end of the Samovar verandahs and a court battle (which Samovar lost) ensued. But by then, Samovar had won a larger battle. I had always imagined that as art became a glamorous, big-money business and as the restaurant revolution took off in Bombay, Samovar would lose its relevance. Why would (now wealthy) artists go to a cafe that looked pretty much as it had in the Sixties? Why would people flock to an old-fashioned restaurant for parathas when they could eat sushi or macaroons next door?

Against the odds and despite Mrs Khanna’s advancing age, Samovar did not just survive, it flourished; proof that in the glittering Mumbai of the 21st century, it was possible to still cling to old-fashioned values and old-fashioned food if you had the passion. Now, Samovar will close. One more symbol of the Bombay that once was will disappear. Not because the people of the city wanted it to go. But because of a turf war and bureaucratic bloody-mindedness. Welcome to Mumbai!

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