To artist Gautam Benegal, who first shifted to Mumbai from Kolkata in 1989, Cafe Samovar, which shut down last month, was home. Jehangir Art Gallery was an old favourite haunt and Benegal was one of the scores of Mumbaikars who were saddened by the news of the café’s closure. And his current project — a series of paintings of Café Samovar — is his attempt to keep the memory of the iconic café alive for generations to come.
Benegal, who has exhibited his previous projects, such as a series of paintings on Irani cafés in Mumbai, says that he has already started his preliminary sketches of the café with pencil and charcoal. “I started working on the paintings last month. It will be a series of 23-24 paintings in oil, mixed media and charcoal,” he explains, adding that he hopes to exhibit the paintings before the end of the year, once he zeroes in on a venue of his choice.
Two works by artist Gautam Benegal from the Irani Cafe series
During its time, the cafe was frequented by legends in the world of art and it is this very essence that Benegal wants to capture. “Artists such as MF Hussain, Anjolie Ela Menon and Atul Dodiya among others belong to different times, but I want my paintings to be a kind of timeless space where people from different backgrounds and time zones occupy the same space at the same time. The paintings will have an ethereal feeling of timelessness.”
“There were three waves — first the artists came, then the journalists and later came the lawyers,” he says of the cafe.
“The atmosphere was very relaxed and none of the waiters would ask you to leave. It was a bit like the 19th century Parisian cafes, where artists and painters would meet and chat,” he says, wistfully.
“Heritage is not only something that is recognised by an official committee. It is a living thing in our memory — something we relate to. It can be a place where we used to go to, have sandwiches ... A sort of homogenisation is taking place in the whole of Mumbai which makes the city indistinguishable now,” says Benegal, adding that the city is now filled with “small, sanitised places”. “It is quite sad,” adds the artist.