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Thindi Cafe has already been covered by TasteToronto for its incredible selection of delectable Indian street food offerings. They launched in a new space on College Street last year with cavernous white walls, one of which is now adorned with a brand-spanking-new mural by local artist and educator Hemangi Shroff. If you’ve been lucky enough to squeeze in any kind of indoor dining in Toronto, you’ll know that more and more restaurants are collaborating with artists to brighten up their spaces.
What’s the story behind restaurants like Thindi Cafe looking to Toronto’s art community to help invigorate their spaces and how has that been a source of mutual support for two industries hit especially hard last year? Like most people these days, Shroff got put on to Thindi Cafe through social media.
“I saw Thindi Cafe on Instagram, followed and liked one of their stories,” recalled Shroff, working from her studio and workspace where she also acts as an Education Coordinator for in-school visual arts programme Blank Canvases. “They must have checked me out and began following and liking my posts too.”
Artist Hemangi Shroff sits in front of her mural at Thindi Cafe.
They eventually began sliding into each other’s DM’s, which several months later led to the wall commission and collaboration between Thindi cafe owners Anuja Mehta and Abhilash Achar, and Shroff.
“Anuja reached out to me and we just tossed the idea around of working together on a mural for the restaurant interior,” Shroff said. “Mehta initially wanted a very modern, minimalistic design.”
According to Shroff, what passes for Indian design or art in Western countries often comes from a stereotypical idea of Indian imagery.
“In India, there is a new age aesthetic in our cities that incorporates traditional Indian designs with a more modern sensibility than a Westerner might expect. In Bombay, where I’m originally from, the decor is on another level so I always compare the smaller mom-and-pop restaurants in Toronto to the restaurants back there,” Shroff said. “You eat with your eyes first and that should also include the ambience of a place.”
After exchanging photos of what each other liked in terms of restaurant design, the two parties finally met at Thindi. When Shroff went in for the first meeting, she chose to sit next to a wall adorned with photography. Opposite that wall was a bare wall that Mehta noted customers rarely chose to sit by. Staring at the bare wall, Shroff immediately knew she had found her canvas. Shroff suggested a mural on that wall would brighten up the space, and Mehta agreed. The process began with Hemangi giving the owners digital sketches, with and without flowers, and they fleshed out the idea from there.
“In South India, banana leaves are considered symbols of prosperity,” said Shroff. “In terms of food, people eat off of banana leaves at special occasions like weddings. Anuja, a businesswoman expanding her venture in a new place, was obviously very interested in that symbolism as a concept.”
As they sat together in front of the wall the mural was slated to go up on, Shroff knew that the width and height she had to work with would be perfect.
“Before the mural was there, there were a lot of straight lines, black colour and wood. I felt like they needed more organic curves, colours and gold accents,” added Shroff. “After taking Anuja on a hunt for materials and showing her my pre-designed concept for the restaurant, I convinced her to push some of her creative boundaries.”
As both an educator and an artist, Shroff thought it was important for the owners to be involved in the project. The owners were actually happy to be included and Shroff was happy to teach.
“I said I’d teach them everything and the next mural, you can do.”
“It was such an amazing experience working with Hemangi,” said Mehta of the experience. “Not only did we get to partner with a local Toronto artist but one who truly understood us and the brand. The mural has connected us to the space even more now, it’s brought warmth to an otherwise bare wall, and overall enhanced the dine-in experience for our guests. We can’t stop staring at the mural, it’s so soothing, and an amazing way to bring the outdoors in.”
For Shroff, the feeling is mutual.
“For me, there’s a sense of supporting my South Asian community and acknowledging an understanding between artists and restaurateurs that your success relies on relationships and partnerships,” said Shroff. “Both artists and restaurants want to build a brand that provides an experience for people and I would love to continue doing this kind of creative work with restaurants.”
You can check out the mural on your next Paneer Makhni Maggi run, and get a preview of the whole creative collab on Thindi Cafe’s Instagram stories.