food as art
Pushpamala N—a longtime neighbour of the fiery journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh who was assassinated for her political views—paid tribute to her friend’s passing through her art.

Eat With Your Eyes (And Nose, and Ears, and Brain)

Eat with your eyes (and nose, and ears, and brain).

Time to fess up: How many paeans have you written about the fragrant broth of the thukpa at your local Tibetan joint or the pleasing crunch of the perfect murukkus from that hole-in-the-wall Hot Chips spot you just discovered? If you’re walking this earth taking pride in the fact that Zomato has called you a neighbourhood “expert”, time to first delete your account, and second, run the real deals turning over-exuberant reviews into proper art, the coins they truly deserve.

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Lagos-born, London-tutored, present day-Punekar Bharti Lalwani is busy turning her food memories into luxury scents at Litrahb Perfumery. “Every summer, my parents come down from Lagos and we cook together. Usually, we’ll make Mango Murbo— or murabba for non-Sindhis. I found a synthetic mango extract and started wondering what else we use to make that Murbo—saffron, cardamom, cinnamon. I wanted to make a Murbo perfume that would trap that memory of my summer kitchen. I had my mom test the final perfume and she said it was exactly right,” she shares.

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From food to memories to scents.

Lalwani started off less sweet. After detesting an expensive masala chai-inspired perfume at first whiff, she decided that if she ever had the chance to make one, she’d go for the unexpected yet familiar. Green Chutney was her first choice. A concoction of coriander, chilli, a lime-y citrus base in coconut carrier oil, this bright scent comes with a surprise twist: the sharpness of black pepper. There’s also Kheer for the sweet-toothed and Malli-Kaapi for those south of the Vindhyas. These solid gourmand perfumes arrive at your doorstep in silver pillboxes that you can’t help but repurpose for all your sentimental treasures. And if you’re made of stronger stuff, do our earth a solid, and return it to Lalwani to refill or recycle.

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Sentimental scents in silver pillboxes meant to be treasured, by Bharti Lalwani's Litrahb Perfumery.

But converting food to art isn’t limited to just wearing your favourite nosh. Aruna Ganesh Ram, a Bengaluru-based immersive theatre artist collaborated with Chef Manu Chandra [of Toast & Tonic, Olive, Fatty Bao and other favourites] for Memory Recipe, a theatre experience that had audiences physically experiencing the smells, sounds, and sights of food.

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Smells, sights and sounds of food become stories in Aruna Ganesh Ram's performance piece.

“In 2014-2015, I was exploring a piece around the personal narratives of performers. One of the stories was about one performer growing up eating tomato chaat at Safina Plaza, Bengaluru with her mom. We had audiences standing in a line with their hand out while she layered slices of tomato, chilli, salt, and mori (puffed rice) on their outstretched palms. The narrative built layer by layer, just like the chaat,” Ram explains, sharing the origin story for the performance piece.

From your favourite Ooru chaats to oleoresins (combination of oil and resin used to flavour food) curated by Chef Chandra, audiences experienced food flavours in intimate, personal ways—through the garlic scent that had been sprayed onto their hands triggering memories of everything from aglio olio to granny’s rasam. Ram shares audience reactions: “People were coming in as consumers, but leaving as chefs. They left more engaged with their food than they would as regular diners distracted by dinner table conversation. And definitely more hungry!”

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Aruna Ganesh Ram (extreme right) fills her audience's plates not with food but with personal associations with food.

But food isn’t just all about bhukkad pleasures. It’s intensely personal and political, as Bengaluru-based audio-visual and performance artist Pushpamala N discovered. A longtime neighbour of the fiery journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated for her political views in 2017, Pushpamala N paid tribute to her friend’s passing through her art. “Gauri and I were neighbours and, over the course of years, we exchanged all these foolproof recipes. Urgent Saaru (rasam) was cooked up by her mother, and I had found the name very funny in a way,” explains the artist. “We wanted to bring up what had happened to her everywhere we could. So I dressed up as Mother India—I thought this figure would be an interesting juxtaposition to how some people were calling her anti-national—and decided to make her saaru for an audience.”

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Pushpamala N recognises that food is not just about pleasures but is personal and political as well.

People gathered to watch Pushpamala cook in her impressive garb for 45 minutes. “Usually you don’t have an audience when you are cooking, unless it is for one of these food shows. If someone is with you, they are helping or doing something else. But for this performance, the audience was transfixed by the banal, the sound of the mixie grinding spices, the sound of something sputtering in the oil. It’s warm. And then they ingested the saaru after. They ingested this art, quite literally.”

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"Gauri and I were neighbours and, over the course of years, we exchanged all these foolproof recipes. Urgent Saaru (rasam) was cooked up by her mother, and I had found the name very funny in a way." - Pushpamala N.

Fellow multimedia and performance artist Smitha Cariappa agrees with the larger point being made here. Having protested gallery closings, championed women’s empowerment, and addressed a variety of social causes over the years by incorporating food in multiple performances, she tells us: “I adapted food into my art because art touches all the senses, except for olfactory and taste—like art, food can provoke emotion.”

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Smitha Cariappa's protest against the closing of Bengaluru-based Venkatappa Art Gallery saw salad and a gold foil sandwich on a plate, serving as a comment on the haves and have-nots.

Consider how easily a perfectly brewed cup of tea can move an overworked wage-slave to tears, the solemn promises made over a bread pakora, the spousal spats ignited by a careless statement about how one partner’s mother makes the best dal [spoiler alert: your wife is always the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), no question]. Food is so much more than what we put in our mouth or post on the ’gram, and these ladies are showing us how. Follow Sushmita Sundaram on Twitter.