This article was published in the Hindu
Usually design defines a space, at times a persona or personality shapes the space, in a rare combination the design, persona and space come together to create a beautiful confluence. Triveni Kala Sangam can be called one such space. The brainchild of Sundari K Shridharani, her struggle as an artist made her dream of a space where artists could display their work, perform for an audience and teach their craft. The feisty lady embarked on her journey to fulfil this dream. So charmed was Joseph Allen Stein with her panache and perseverance that he designed the place free. He gave the brick and mortar shape to her idea. The place still runs on the same ethos. The Auditorium and Gallery is rented out to artists at very modest prices, the classrooms where 12 disciplines of performing arts are taught is given free to the Gurus. This translates into moderate prices for the students. The open space, the calm environment is soothing. All of this was planned consciously and executed intentionally. What was unplanned but happened naturally and became a very popular hub was the Triveni Terrace Café. So popular did it become that Mrs. Shridharani, much to her consternation, would discover that after giving a tour of the place to visiting journalists explaining her objectives, they would feature the Café prominently. This would infuriate her more than anything else. Despite this popularity, it is to Triveni’s credit that they have not milked it or promoted it to their advantage. It was and still is a place where people can eat good food at very reasonable prices, simply soak in the environment and enjoy themselves. True to its culture, no customer is nudged to leave or disturbed if he wishes to stay. This still holds. The Café with its competitive pricing also made art more accessible. Anyone walking into the Café would also wander and see the artist’s work on display. Art, music and dance was not elitist but plebeian for everyone.
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The Café started because the Institution when it began in 1963, needed some form of refreshment. A little cart vendor offered tea / coffee initially. Then Mrs. Puran Acharya, who was also close to the art fraternity offered to run the canteen. She started the famous snack concept of pakoras, cutlet, chai and coffee. A couple of years down the line, by mid 60s she started offering lunch as well. Lunch was the traditional Punjabi fare of hearty paranthas, kababs, palak paneer, kadhi chawal… The alu paranthas and kababs soon developed cult status and today are a part of the “heritage menu”. The Terrace Café simply grew in popularity, it was the place to hang out like a adda for all artists. It was frequented by Hussain, Kishen Khanna, Vivan Sundaram, Pandit Ravi Shankar, ambassadors and Stein himself. With no other option to hang out excepting The Indian coffee house, all of who’s who descended there. A symbol of discretion, the Terrace Café has never displayed any photo of any celebrity eating there. For them everyone was and is equal. This system continued and then in the 80s it was taken over by Mrs Kamala Ranjit Rai. Of which in the later years Mrs. Minna worked on the menu introducing her carrot cakes which were very popular. The menu was the same with some twists. The afternoon lunch and a range of snacks in the afternoon and in true canteen style closed in the evening with no dinner. In 2012, Mrs Shridharani passed away, later Mrs. Rai’s family also wanted to move on with their business and not concentrate on the canteen. The hunt began to give out the space to some similar thinking group to run the Canteen. Finally The Melting Pot Food Company who run the Lota Café at the Crafts Museum and Roots Café in Gurgaon were approached. “The Lota People” as they are referred to started operating the same. The Terrace Café is housed at the far end of the Institution. It is an unpretentious, non-air conditioned, with few seating indoors and an open patio providing for more seating in a Terrace like environment overlooking the open air theatre..
The new team not only energised and invigorated the place but made it more contemporary, attracting the younger generation as well. Udit Maheshwari, Chef- Manager at Terrace Café says, “we modernised the kitchen, which was more of a home kitchen. The Café is open for breakfast and lunch. We introduced dinner – from 6 to 9 and now are open on Sundays.” The food is delicious, portions substantial and affordable that patrons eat 4 – 5 times a week. Udit elaborates, “we have kept the heritage menu and have added some new ones. We fine tuned the original menu of paranthas and kababs.There is mint flavoured nimbu paani, parval kababs, pumpkin kababs, thate idli topped with ghee roasted chicken which is a huge hit. The Kashmiri Tarami - mini Wazwan vegetarian served only for dinner as thali includes dum aloo, yellow paneer, khatte meethe baigan, mooli and akhrot chutney, lotus stem crisps with rice . Ragi bread sandwich is a new addition and very popular.” All my cajoling for the recipe for the vegetarian kabab only elicits the princely gem from Udit that, “the pumpkin kababs are made with ripe pumpkins and chilka moong while it is mattar and parval in parval kababs”. The dessert section includes a cake topped with aam papad and served with raw mango chutney, the beetroot halwa and gur kheer are popular. Traditional Indian ingredients and recipes have been recreated with a modern twist. It has managed to hold its quintessential aura which still spreads by word of mouth publicity. One that sees the old and the young enjoy in comfortable silence.