Adi Jehangir on the Closing of Café Samovar

As Mumbai bids goodbye to Cafe Samovar this week, Adi Jehangir says he is simply making room for artists.

It’s a busy Thursday afternoon at Kala Ghoda’s Jehangir Art Gallery. A queue winds out of a narrow corridor leading to its resident eatery, Cafe Samovar, spilling into the foyer.

The visitors know it’s their last chance to savour kheema samosas and mint chai at the 50-year-old cafe that folds up two days from now, bringing a spun out legal tussle between its owner, Usha Khanna and the gallery to an end.

“This cafe,” says Jehangir Art Gallery (JAG) chairperson, Adi Jehangir, “is an institution. To deny it would be childish. But legally, it had to go.”

SR2In June 2010 after repeated negotiations, concurrent with litigation, the cafe’s license was extended to a final five years by the JAG committee. “Mrs (Devieka) Bhojwani signed an undertaking in the Supreme Court to vacate on March 31, 2015. It wasn’t an overnight decision. We needed to think about the future of Samovar’s staff, too,” says the 58-year-old, about Khanna’s daughter.

Replacing the cafe-in-a-patio will be a sculpture gallery (fulfilling a demand made in 2007 by a section of artists who took a protest to the eatery’s door), and renovations will kick in after the monsoons.

For Jehangir, it’s a question of fulfilling his ancestors’ wishes. “Wouldn’t it be financially feasible to give all of the six licensee’s spaces out to a posh restaurant or private gallery, and charge them South Mumbai rentals, while keeping only three auditoriums for India’s young artists? But that’s not the objective with which my grandfather established the gallery,” he says, referring to Sir Cowasji Jehangir, who funded the public art institution for emerging artists that opened in 1952.

Unlike now, when a lengthy waiting list means it’s usually five years before an artist gets to exhibit his/her work, back in the early 1950s, says Jehangir, the galleries ran empty for weeks at a stretch. “So, in 1962, after my grandfather passed away, the management decided to lease out certain sections.”

Late gallerist Kekoo Gandhy was one of the first occupants, setting up Chemould Gallery along with wife Khorshed on the first floor. In 1964, Usha Khanna launched Samovar, “a cafe that bloomed beyond everyone’s imagination”. The two along with Natesan’s Antiqarts, Terrace Art Gallery, INTACH and Prabhakar Dhanraj Talari, made up for JAG’s six licensees, who signed a twoyear leave-and-license agreement.

Eleven years later, in 1973, the laws changed and the licensees, he explains, were regularised as sub-tenants. “All of them took protection under the Rent Act, and that’s when the problems began.”

The committee, then chaired by his father Hirji, was compelled to file a suit of eviction against the licensees in 1979 in the Small Causes Court.

It was only in early 2000s, when JAG’s lawyer and lover of art, Sohrab Chiniwala passed away, “and new lawyers KK Nariman and Suraj Shah were appointed, that a fresh suit was filed against the licensees under the Government Public Premises’ Act, and things began moving.”

The Terrace Art Gallery fought a bitter battle in mid 2000s, and even moved High Court. “But they lost the case, and the others saw the writing on the wall. Unfortunately, it led to acrimony with Kekoo Gandhy and Usha Khanna, with whom we enjoyed a long-standing working association. It wasn’t pleasant. The Samovar litigation in the Supreme Court ate up millions from our corpus, upsetting the Committee. But I, as a neutral member, could do very little,” Jehangir says.

The more-space-for-art argument, he backs with statistics. JAG receives 2,500 applications annually, of which only 450 can be accommodated at a nominal rent of Rs 3,500 per day (exhibition hall). “Recently, we handed out forms for exhibitions that will be held in 2021. But majority of entrees will have to be rejected due to lack of space. Journalists tell me, 80 per cent of our shows aren’t worthy of display. That’s an elitist statement. For young artists, it’s their only chance to show in Bombay, and we won’t deny them that.”