Ever wondered what would it be like to somehow travel in time and experience what Mumbai of the 70’s would be like? Well, you don’t need any time travel devices or creative dreams. All you need is to visit the Café Samovar in the Jehangir Art Gallery, Kala Ghoda, Fort.
Located in the creative hub of Mumbai, this Cafe is a small, intimate and a cozy affair. The entire café is a long narrow corridor with two lines of chairs and tables arranged on either side, the wall of the gallery on one side and the views of the sprawling green lawns of the Prince of Wales Museum (through a steel mesh) on the other side. Cozy cane lamps dangle on the ceilings and seasonal decorations (kites around the kite festival, rubber boots for monsoons etc) complete the ensemble. One thing that really strikes you is that time has stood still and nothing has changed here. The mode of payment here is still cash, there are no air conditioners, they still have those old style fans and the seating is like the restaurants in the olden days.
In terms of its history – in 1964, Mrs. Usha Khanna wanted to set up a place where creative minds could meet and chat over cup of tea. Her inspiration was the Left Bank Cafes of Paris, and she, along with Soli Baltivala, the then Secretary of Jehangir Art Gallery started the place with just enough money for a stove and a few cups & saucers. Today it has come a long way and boasts of an elite clientele to include R. K. Laxman, Anjoli Ela Menon, M. F. Husain, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan and Shobhaa De to just name a few. Mrs Khanna and her daughters Devieka Bhojwani and Malvika Sangghvi have also compiled its history in a coffee table book titled, Samovar: How A Mumbai Cafe Became A Metaphor for A Generation. At the book release, Jaya Bachchan reportedly said it was the venue for her first date with the Amitabh Bachchan.
This café is also a survivor. In 2010, Samovar started receiving eviction notices from the Trust which runs the Jehangir Art Gallery over the legality of its existence. The trustees wanted to evict the cafe and use the 600 sq ft space to store files and canvasses. However the Café fought back with many petitions filed by the loyal lawyers, writers, artists etc and a battle through multiple Indian courts. It finally received respite from the apex court in India, the Supreme Court.
Even today this café is the favorite haunt of many artists, writers, intellectuals, executives, young lovers and students. Even for me, a visit to Kala Ghoda or any neighboring galleries is never complete without a stopover here. This is one of my favorite places and every time I visit, I still feel the nostalgia / timelessness and can imagine myself in an Amol Palekar movie. Though it’s not cheap, it’s not expensive either and I love their cutting chai (half glass tea) and a club sandwich. They also have a quite few other options for a light meal or tea time snacks.
So the next time you are in this area and in a mood of some nostalgia or a cozy chat, do visit the Café Samovar and travel back in time.