SCENT AND SOUND
FOOD LOVERS MAGAZINE
Shivaji Military Hotel
Feast on aromatic Maratha flavours at Bangalore’s 80 year old establishment where the Rao
brothers believe that food is good when it’s simple, authentic and communal.
When Manaji Rao inaugurated his entrepreneurial venture, Shivaji Military Hotel in Bangalore in
the early 1930s, he plunged into an industry that was new to him with no experience whatsoever.
He wanted to give people a feel of the food he grew up with and celebrate Maratha cuisine. And
Manaji did just that, the self-assured entrepreneur in him opened a small hotel in a busy locale of
the city and served meat-heavy Maratha dishes.
Eight decades later, the food is still distinctly Maratha and continues to bring out daily specials each
day. Manaji’s grandsons, Rajeev and Lokesh Rao took over from their father, M. Laxman Rao after
completing their graduation. They are now the heart of the business and play multi-faceted roles,
from inventory and supply control to heading the kitchen and manning the front desk. Many a
times, both are seen walking around the dining area, interacting with the patrons and making sure
they get seats in due time.
Sometime back, the institution moved its location to a much more spacious, stone structured
premise near Banashankari Bus Stand. A small rectangular, clear-cut signage displays the name of
the hotel and its timings, walk in and a flight of stairs lead you to the dining area on the first floor,
the space is a huge hall, a kind of a mess with tables and chairs spread out. It’s packed at meal
timings and you often see people patiently waiting to get a table. The waiters are polite and efficient
and serve food on banana leaves. At Shivaji, you eat and serve yourself using your hands.
For many of the people, Shivaji Military “has stuck to its roots, where you experience home-style
Maratha food with no frills what so over” And those words are true, there is just one single menu at
the entrance placed on the billing desk. The menu has been unchanged for some time now, what
only changes is the price; new prices are stuck atop the old one in paper. Even the cashier system is
manual; the brothers use a paper ledger which keeps track of the daily billing.
The menu includes breakfast items like Dosa, Leg Soup, Mutton Biryani and Khima. Each one of
these items begin to make way into the dining area as early as 8 am and as noon strikes guests can
even ask for multiple chicken and mutton dry dishes. The most expensive dish during their
grandfather’s time was the Biryani, which sold for a grand sum of six to eight annas.
Their name, came from the concept of restaurants that started then in South India; Military hotels
were run by Hindu communities that typically served meat, poultry and sea food while their
counterpart were the Udupi joints that served pure vegetarian food.
The fixed menu that they operate under, give customers a chance to come back multiple times to
get their dose of the Shivaji’s specials. Arrive a little later at breakfast or lunch; chances are that
some of the items would be sold out. Both, Rajeev and Lokesh assure you that every item is made
fresh for the day and if any of it was to run out, then it is available only the following day. Nothing is
stocked overnight, neither the meat nor the stock. All of it is prepared as the morning sun trickles
into the sky.
Every style of preparation is fundamentally Maratha style; even the ingredients are used in a
certain efficient manner. The recipes used by the brothers are those they learnt from their father,
the same that his grandfather used in the original hotel he started in Nagarpet 80 years ago. Not
even a feather touch of change has been observed in the way the dishes are cooked and the way the
But, the donne Biryani has always been Shivaji’s most enticing meal. This rice heavy creation is
prepared in huge copper vessels over charcoal stoves and served in a leaf container (hence the
name, donne) The rice captures its flavourful essence from the simmering stock, the meat that
accompanies the rice is wonderfully molten in consistency and the rice is engulfed with smoky feel
from the charcoal dome with an intense yet subtle Rao’s secret masala blend. What goes extremely
well with the Biryani is a spicy stew. Call in for a plate each of the Mutton Roast and Chicken roast–
tender, juicy chunks of meat doused in varying heady masalas. A look around Shivaji during its busy
hours and there is one movement in loop at all tables - finger licking!
Shivaji Military Hotel has continued to hold a steady foot in the market even after 80 years. The
owners have let the hotel evolve organically and catering to the local people has been the focal
point. Location and décor have been of least concern to them and their food has spoken so much
over the years that people travel across the city to eat there. They use natural, local, freshly ground
spices and the food is cooked in the simplest way possible. Quality, consistency and taste of the food
are the reasons for which people keep coming back to Shivaji. And add to that the warmth of
familiarity that these places spread out, that once you start visiting, you can never stop going there.
This tiny eatery stands strong in the galli it set its roots in, with an enduring ability to
constantly deliver robust familiar home-like food that is nourishing, satisfying and soothing.
Mrs Soneelam Chodha discovered her love for food as a young girl and recognized early on that the
most essential ingredient for a perfect meal is an individual touch. All the years she spent at home
with her mother, observing her cook and later on in her own kitchen instilled in her a deep
understanding that flavours from a home kitchen are unique and the simplest of ingredients can
turn into a delicious melange.
What began as a hobby gradually turned into a passion and almost immediately a desire to create
for others. So, in 1974, she decided to extend her food beyond family and friends to young students,
office goers and travellers who dreamed of “simple, home-style food”.
While the logistics and economics were overwhelming, Mrs Chodha deeply wanted to prepare good
food. Her husband, Mr. Anil Kumar, immediately supported her saying “this is your venture, go
ahead, run the show, I will back you”. And her father solved two of her biggest concerns – he
brought in cooks from Calcutta to Bangalore and helped her name the place.
More so, every family member contributed to the creation of Queens. Her son, then a first year
architecture student, created a space exactly how his mother envisioned it. Queens is anything but
palatial; it is tiny and yet has an intensely ethnic theme that takes you in. The walls are rich beige
and adorned with striking tribal style engraving. “Even today, people appreciate the decor and
thoughts of re-doing the interiors don’t go too far”, she adds.
Queens is always brimming with laughter and conversation. Its tables are occupied by diners
dipping their hands into brass plates filled with various, piping hot concoctions. She credits some
portion of the simple and strictly north Indian menu to her customers. “People would recommend
dishes, I would prepare them and serve them as special for the day and eventually all dishes
became fixed on the menu”, she recalls.
At Queens, the variety of food on offer is remarkable. Starting with tangy, mouth-watering chaats or
chatpata starters, the main course dishes too are in abundance. Among meats, the Methi Chicken is
intensely fresh with flavours of fenugreek tangled into tender cubes of chicken, and the Mutton
Rogan Ghosh screams authenticity. The vegetarian dishes outnumber the meats and stand out by
themselves, each bursting with vibrant colours and crisp freshness. During season, Sarson Da Saag
and Makki Di Roti will warm your senses. The homely feel does not end here: she offers hearty,
soul-satisfying desserts like kheer, halwa, jamun and kulfi.
While running a restaurants’ kitchen seemed daunting compared to her little kitchen at home, Mrs
Chodha single-handedly trained every cook. And even though the small kitchen could not
accommodate a tandoor, she converted this hindrance into an opportunity by preparing parathas
and phulkas every single day herself until the day her cooks assured her they could mirror her skill.
The phulka is still one of Queens’s notable items.
“Because we are a singular small restaurant, my husband and I still head out to the neighbourhood
bazaar to buy fresh produce, we take time and select each ingredient especially the meats.” Since
quality is highly stressed upon, Mrs. Chodha makes sure that even today; she boils and cleans all the
pulses. And during bulk orders, she is still overseeing herself and getting things done.
Today, Church Street is a nucleus of restaurants, brimming with shiny facades of numerous
restaurants. Yet little has changed for Queens since its inception. Now into its 38th year, Queens
radiates a sense of strength that is timeless. What lies within it is an aura to make people happy and
brings back memories of mothers and grandmothers and an appreciation of those hands that work
to put together a perfect meal.
Urmila VG’s solo exhibition issues a cautionary message about mankind’s wanton ways
American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring begins with
a myth, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” in which Carson describes “a town in the heart of America where
all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Urmila VG’s solo exhibition at Gallery Five
Forty Five, Have Space. Will Grow, evokes the sense of symbiosis that informs Carson’s work, which
has become a source text for the environmental movement that took root in the US in the late ’60s.
Urmila’s art is smart, cool, dry and humorous: it becomes abundantly clear at first view that her
work is almost gregariously inclusive; it’s meant for the cognoscenti as well as the know-nothings.
In emphasizing its temporality, Have Space. Will Grow assures the viewer that the work on display is
an echo of the times we live in.
Painted with earnest care, this series of nine woodcuts – four in dimensions of 24x32 inches and
five in 32x24 inches – are composed of deep hues, hypnotic concentric circles, patterns, leaves and
flowers, and are inhabited by everyday household objects: a gas cylinder, a transistor, a steam iron,
a pair of shoes, and so on. Along with the woodcuts, 25 photographs of 6x8 inches each, made by
Urmila and carrying the same theme, are also displayed at the show.
The artist, who graduated from Chitrakala Parishath in 2003, after which she spent three years
studying printmaking at the Vishwabharati University, Shantiniketan, said she spent her youth in
Bangalore studying the city’s ecosystem, and its ability to adapt to “space and situation”. These
observations gave a Thoreauvian impulse to her art. “My preoccupation and concerns about the
environmental issues in urban living have naturally reflected in this current series of woodcut
works,” she said. “I have tried to focus on the need for coexistence and also on nature itself
becoming adaptable with humans by finding new, unusual places to grow.”
Her naturalist tendencies are evident in Urmila’s preferred technique. Woodcut is a basic
printmaking aspect of art dating back to the sixteenth century. First, a wood plank is cut with tools
so that an image is left in relief, that is, all parts of the image that are not to print are cut away. Then
the image, now in relief, is inked with pigment. Finally a sheet of paper is laid upon the inked block,
pressure is applied and a transfer of the image is obtained on the surface of the paper. “Colour
woodcuts are a little more complicated. After printing each shade, the artist needs to cut the block
further to retain the previous colour before printing the next one,” Urmila explained. “This is done
meticulously with registration points on the corners of woodblocks which match those on the
There is thus a corporeality to the work Urmila creates. “Inhabit 2”, for instance, illustrates a red
cylinder through which emerge bashful mimosa flowers – they’re set against a grey background,
furrowed with white concentric circles. “Sounding my trumpet” holds at its centre an old transistor
radio from which issue two charming hibiscus flowers floating in a field of brown. Both the
woodcuts flaunt a play between abstraction and representation, conveying the artist’s concerns
with abstract ecosystems and material objects. All of Urmila’s works suggest ’60s tones, textures
and treatment. “Illuminated Life” features a bulb growing shoots of leaves composed on a bright
yellow background, while “Inhabit 1” bears the imprint of concentric circles watermarked on an
extravagant peach background, with large patterns in front of which sits an iron box growing a
Along with her principal theme of coexistence, Urmila’s art announces fears echoed in several pop
cultural discourses – inconvenient truths, if you will – on mankind’s exploitative tendencies, and the
whirlwind this avaricious species is bound to reap. This sense of a post-apocalyptic reality, brought
to life by everyone from the Sumerians to JG Ballard to Roland Emmerich, assumes an almost poetic
quality in Urmila’s work. Humans have never lacked for stuff, her work proclaims. What people
have made and preserved can boggle the eye and there could be a day when these collected items
will be the means for nature's survival.
The artists Pors & Rao are back with a (re-worked) collection of their wonderfully
Look above. A thick, black, faux fur shaped in the form of a big teddy bear hangs over you. Various
sized fibre optic lights are spread randomly across the fur. The bright, yellow, tiny lights illuminate
your eyes, like the twinkling stars in the dark sky. The bear mirrors the night.
This is Teddy Universe, an installation by Bangalore artists Aparna Rao and Søren Pors that is a part
of their show Applied Fiction (re-worked) at GALLERYSKE. The title points to the obvious, of
course, but it also surprises – the collection presents five, electro-mechanical, interactive
installations that embody fictitious expressions: they are sensitive and responsive, full of humour
The most striking example of this is the Uncle Phone: an oversized, elongated receiver. “My uncle
used to sometimes insist that I assist him in making a phone call by dialing a number for him,” said
Rao of the origins of the exhibit. “In the Indian context, it’s a really bad thing to deny these simple
requests, and yet, if these requests become the cause of so many disruptions in your daily life, there
is a need to rationalise it somehow. Just the proposition of having to communicate something very
simple and innocuous to an uncle can become a very complex and difficult thing due to the issue of
respect – it’s all so culturally coded.”
Rao said she felt the urge to address these “feelings of complexity, which were challenging to put
into words”. “I needed to find a way to express or even think about it,” she said. “That was how it all
started. I am quite satisfied with how the phone addressed this need – in an inquiring and
affectionate way, without making a really big drama.” Rao met Pors, a Dane, in 2002, when she was
on a two-year research scholarship programme at the Interaction Design Institute in Italy. Since
2004, they have collaborated as Pors & Rao; living and working in Bangalore. Their work, according
to Rao, comes into being after going through a set, structured process which involves drawing,
research, making models with cardboard, wire mesh and, sometimes, clay. The resulting objects are
then scanned and rendered as digital 3D models and animations to which “physics is added” on a
computer to simulate how they’d behave in the real world. Then, Pors and Rao work with
technicians who specialise in the mechanics of imparting mobility to the objects. “The most
important thing for us has been finding the right mentor and collaborators. A very experienced
hands-on robotics scientist is mentoring us, and this helps us foresee technical challenges at the
outset of a project,” said Rao. “I take care of the mechanical and physical aspects like fabrication,
hardware, materials, while Søren focuses more on the behavioural aspects, the algorithms and the
Interacting with their installations can be a deeply enjoyable experience. For instance, Heavy Hat, a
mechanical caricature of an upside down man in a constrained circular space whose heavy thoughts
are poured into his hat, elicits an almost uncontrollable urge to lunge to the poor fellow’s
assistance. There is chicanery at work here, of course: the caricature never falls down completely.
“This particular work was very technically challenging, we worked very hard, like most of our work,
and it took years to get the mechanics, equilibrium and dynamics right,” Rao said. “It was very
important for us to get the moment of fall because if we didn’t, the man would fall, he would
damage himself and if he did not fall enough, we would miss creating a feeling in the viewer”
The cool sophistication and the recondite intricacies of the technology Pors and Rao use to create
their installations belie the child-like sense of wonder that animate their purpose. “We are really
curious to see how other people respond to the work – what behavioural mechanisms and thoughts
they trigger. It is quite satisfying if other people connect to something we also feel deeply connected
to,” Rao said. “Our interest lies mostly in the discovery of the thing or ‘being’ that is inside our head
and in creating it as accurately as possible. That is what we obsess about.”
Five local artists draw attention to the notion of nationhood through the dynamics of
On January 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution was formally adopted and a new, different polity took
form in the country. For the last six decades the Republic of India has, as the historian Ramachandra
Guha puts it in his recent collection of essays, Patriots and Partisans, entered into a “heroic and
flawed compact with nationhood and democracy”.
This mystifying and unruly evolution is the subject of Re: Public, a group show at Gallery Five Forty
Five. Anthony Roche, Estee Oarsed, Ravi Kumar Kashi, Shivanand B, and Pradeep Kumar DM, the
five artists who are displaying their works at the gallery, are unified, if not by method and
disposition, then by the intention to “fire up a dialogue between the five ‘Ps’ of an organized
representative democracy”: politics, power, patriotism, popular culture and the people.
The show is instructive as well as provocative: it combines the essences of various forms of media
with the concepts that buttress the notion of statehood in an attempt to urge the viewer to think of
the several interconnected layers that shape our collective present.
Organized by the curator of modern and contemporary art Lina Vincent Sunish, this exhibition
gathers the individual expressions of artists connected to the idea of “republic” through a
contemporary Indian urban experience. Sunish herself holds the term at a critical distance, offering
it more as a proposition rather than thrusting it as a polemic. “Think of ‘republic’ and one first
thinks of politics and patriotism, but what did it mean on January 26, 1950?” she wrote in an email.
“It meant that the Constitution of India created a system of governing that derived its power from
the people. So it’s to do with people’s choices. But then look at the factions in contemporary society,
how do patriotism, politics and power go along with the people, and what role do urban artists
play? These are the questions that arose.”
The works on display are as disparate as the politics of what Guha terms a salad-bowl nation – a
salmagundi of styles and media. For instance, there are five pen-and-ink works by Kumar which
explore urban situations. These represent the artist’s ruminations about the development of city
spaces. “My work has always reflected the stylized narrative forms and decorative elements related
to the visual language of the Lambanis, my native culture,” said Kumar, referring to the itinerant
tribes of northern Karnataka. “Migrating from a semi-rural region to a city like Bangalore was a
large transformation. Fantasy and reality overlap as I move between external encounters and
internal experience and attempt to tie a thread of understanding through the chaos that is
The gallery offers more than 130 Gandhi topis drawn with permanent marker displayed in the
manner of clothes hung out to dry on wires. To Kashi, the artist who has strung up these oblong
caps, a Gandhi topi, the symbolic headgear of politicians and political activists during the campaign
for Indian independence, turned into a symbol of venality after the nation was liberated and, more
recently, has found a fresh lease of life during the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare. Kashi
draws symbols on them referring to emblems of the political class (both of fully-functional parties
and those logos that are displayed on the Election Commission of India’s website). “The idea of
hanging these topis on a clothes line is to establish that no matter how much dirty linen is washed
in public, the Gandhi topi cannot revert to its ‘original’ pure and white status,” Kashi averred. “The
action of the political class leaves permanent marks on the nation and people’s lives.”
In the representation of those dangling caps, toiling immigrants, cavilling netas and railing
citizenry, there is this modus: the artists take something – an idea, a symbol – from the past and
cause it to mutate. This is evident in the curator’s definition of the show. “I am attempting to make a
conceptual link between the political world and the art world,” Sunish said. “Fine art is considered
‘high art’, everything else; including folk and popular is ‘low’. This polarity makes it a space for
interesting insights, particularly when it is positioned in a gallery. This is where the ‘play’ comes in.
Would people perhaps be given a choice, ‘vote’ for their favourite fine artist, or type of art?”
Sebastian Cortés’ new exhibition is an insightful journey into life in Pondicherry
Photographer Sebastian Cortés devoted four years to Pondicherry. The resultant series of pictures,
an examination of contemporary life in the town on the country’s eastern shores, and the vestiges of
its French past, is keenly observed and presents some surprises.
About 30 of these images constitute a new exhibition at the gallery Tasveer, named simply
“Pondicherry”. They are arrayed in the manner of a fictional tale, concealing within it the drama of
metaphorical spaces, the tranquility of quiet neighbourhoods and human faces bearing the imprint
of a long and byzantine history. The show also documents sights that form an insightful survey of
the ordinariness of people living everyday lives in one particular place; it’s a work that recalls the
approach of the contemporary pastoralist, Richard Benson.
The series is also presented as a handsome coffee book published by Roli in which Cortés
collaborated with writers such as Akash Kapur, Pascal Bruckner and Amin Jaffer, who offer diverse
analyses at understanding life in Pondicherry.“I wanted to unveil and put on paper a very specific
series of sensations, which the city of Pondicherry evoked in me,” said Cortés. “I wanted to record
these sensations, emotions and some ‘facts’, which I felt lingered in the air.” The photographer used
an approach that involved a high degree of discipline, patience, extended research and very careful
editing: “I never wanted to discard the obvious nor be too taken by the nostalgic,” he declared. “I
worked with a certain balance which bordered on the scientific.”
Cortés was born in 1959 to a Peruvian father Hector Cortés and an Italian mother Elizabeth Cortés
(also a photographer) from Venice. His mother’s family traces its origins to the “beginning of the
city and gave to its history, and Italy, one Pope, Rezzonico and the Doge Foscari, the longest
reigning elected ruler of the Republic of Venice. Cortés’ biography speaks of a man with many such
antecedents: genetic, artistic and historic, and of his intense experience in his stay in the early
eighties in the US, where he studied at New York University Film School. Here, he said he
experienced “unforgettable times of an intense immersion in the contemporary art, photography
and social scenes of the day”.
“My mother, having been a photographer, cluttered the house with prints and visits from
personalities, actors, models and photographers,” he recalled. “Her darkroom was down the hall
from my bedroom and the smell of fixer and developer would permeate our house in Florida. The
magic of images appearing out of light is part of my childhood, as was posing for my mother, who
used my brother and me as models for some of her work. The world of photography – the special
language and license that it offers – is for me a dimension where I feel at home and in control”.
While assorted and disparate, the breadth of his photography contains recurrent harmonies.
“[According to me] Fashion is pageantry, fiction and almost cinematic. Lifestyle is entering and
recording the geometry of life. Portraiture is a very difficult balancing act which reveals much about
both the photographer and the sitter. Fine art is bringing your craft to a ‘special place’,” he said. “For
me the transition is only in the tempo of the action, the nuance of the way you use the instruments
and how you prepare mentally.” This is evident in the list of influences Cortés cites: the glamour of
Richard Avedon and Irvin Penn, portraits of Annie Leibovitz, nudes of Robert Mapplethorpe, the
visions of William Eggleston and the documentary style of Mary Ellen Mark and Bruce Davidson,
and the elegant layouts in Vogue, constructed by the art director Alexey Brodovitch. Indian
photographers like Raghubir Singh and Dayanita Singh, largely influenced him in understanding the
social anatomy of the Indian landscape, he added.
Cortés’ images exhibit his interest in anthropology and his obsession with recording inhabited
spaces and people, and his visuals are the product of his “need to understand the world around, to
freeze geometric shapes and to unveil mysteries of the past and present”. “To what extent all these
produce a ‘feel’ is an alchemy of many elements, which also includes the viewer,” said Cortés. “I
share the view of the photographer Garry Winogrand, who, when asked why he took pictures, said,
‘Because I want to see what something looks like when it’s photographed’.”
Do the tryst
Now that the art season’s upon us, Pratima Chabbi examines Bangalore’s café-withinthe-creative-space phenomenon.
In the late nineteenth century, when Rao Bahadur Arcot Narayanaswami Mudaliar busied himself
erecting the Ionic porticoes of Bangalore’ Old Public Offices underneath the beryl canopy of what
would soon come to be called Meade’s Park, the city’s busiest agora had begun to define its
perimeter. This green expanse, later renamed in honour of the longest-serving commissioner of
Mysore, Mark Cubbon, was where the city’s (or at least the cantonment’s) life of leisure and ideas
centred – concerts at the Bandstand, shards of ancient history at the State Archaeological Museum,
an enfilade of rooms containing literary works at the Seshadri Iyer Memorial Hall.
Bangalore’s early relationship with Cubbon Park, which signalled the marination of creative
enterprise in the city’s public spaces, has, over the last century – and in particular the last decade –
moved indoors, into the café. It is, as the Gallophile writer Edward King said of 1860s’ Paris, where
the “world centres twice, thrice daily; it is at the café; it gossips at the café, it intrigues and the café;
it plots, it dreams, it suffers, it hopes, at the café”.
The most recent example of the creative space enfolding within its confines a café, with each
providing artists, actors, writers, musicians and the conversariat room to draw, act, write, sing and
converse, is the Courtyard Café, which is located in the “creative common ground” Jaaga. “We
always dreamt of an ideal Jaaga where we had a cafe at its centre,” said Archana Prasad, co-founder
and director of the space. “When we shifted from Shantinagar to Double Road [KH Road] in June
2011; [the architect] Sharath Reddy had thought it would be ideal to open a cafe that he had in the
planning in the same space. The Courtyard Café sort of completes the picture in the sense that food,
music, and work space all co-exist in one space.”
Since Jaaga’s structure is built up and the cafe is designed as an open courtyard, the two work well
together: the café breaks away from the formal exhibition and performance space, providing a
“transparent, relaxing environment with no boundaries”. It fosters, as Anu Biswas, a young
illustrator taking time off her twelfth standard routine, stated, a sense of community. “The cafe has
its regulars: co-workers and just people who enjoy hanging out,” she said. “When I did a series of
illustrations of the space, I tried putting them in. Conversations with them grew as they recognised
themselves in the pictures.”
The first concerted effort at creating such a space in Bangalore was made at Ranga Shankara, in
2004, with the opening of the café that sat as an adjunct to the performance space. “It was designed
by theatre actor Sheeba Chadha (from Mumbai),” said writer, director, journalist and RS habitué,
Nirmala Ravindran. “It had mismatched, beautiful furniture, a canopy made of colourful canvas,
theatre lights and other objects for decor, most of it made by actors and volunteers. It was always
packed – filled with actors, directors, writers, and tons of students. It looked beautiful, vibrant and
was always bustling with various kinds of people and activities.”
“For patrons and actors, Chez Anju and Café de la liberté is an extension of the cultural space, the
culture of the place is also about exchanging and sharing views, without this, the experience
sometimes would be incomplete,” said Anuradha Narayan, Culture and Communications, Alliance
Francaise. “The café at RS makes the place I work at infinitely better. I know where I can grab a
quick bite and head back to the day’s work” said Pritham Kumar, a lighting designer and theatre
practitioner “That place spawned a lot a great ideas: It isn’t where you go to unwind; you go there
to get wound up.”
Such spaces nourish ideas and provide impetus for collectives to form, as is evidenced in several
initiatives that were born at Courtyard Café. Travellers Thursday is one such example. “Santosh
Kumar and his crew are some of our most loyal customers and after hanging out at the cafe for a
couple of weeks, and being part of a film screening by another group, slowly a small idea to screen
travel-specific films started to take shape,” said Jagaa’s Archana Prasad. “Today this is one of the
key monthly events at the space, and it brings together hundreds of travellers.”
Similarly, the café at the city’s National Gallery of Modern Art draws hundreds of itinerants every
month. However, unlike at Jaaga, here there’s a clear demarcation between the eatery and the
gallery: the Sabavalas sit at a remove from the samosas. Shobha Nambisan, the Gallery’s first
director said the café served a purely practical purpose: that of offering “artists and visitors some
kind of refreshment to round off their visit to such a prestigious establishment”. While there is the
unstated opinion held by administrators that the Gallery is meant to be a quiet space, with the
artworks occupying positions of prominence, and without the possibility of a café’s noisy intrusion,
there have been attempts to, in a sense, unite the coffee drinkers and the exhibits – the gallery
displays collages on the walls of the café from time to time.
No matter how you look at it, the café at the NGMA will always appear to be an afterthought – this is
first and foremost a gallery, of modern art. There are establishments in the city that take the
opposite view. The Fat Chef at Jagriti Theatre typifies such a space. “The theatre opened in January
and restaurant within a few months, in March,” said Jagdish Raja, Director – Development at Jagriti.
“The Fat Chef gives everyone the opportunity to round off an evening with a meal and a glass of
wine. Cuisine is an aspect of culture and our whole thought was to give the artists and patrons a
The definition of this experience can be as varied as the various artistic denominations to which the
city’s creative folk adhere. Whereas Jagriti’s Raja views The Fat Chef as a fully-appointed chic
restaurant, Jaaga’s Archana Prasad considers The Courtyard Café to be more of a social experiment.
“These spaces provide for a coming out, as it were, from the confines of the studio where one is by
practice inward facing in their thought process,” said Prasad. “Enabling the artist a place which feels
as comfortable or familiar as their living room or studio, but where one can encounter a
conversation – an outward facing part of the creative process, without the burden of hosting or
having to deal with an invasion of private space.”
Black Box and Blue Glow
It had been 10 days since Appa was away, travelling on work. I was lying on Amma’s stomach, my
head between her breasts, as she read a magazine. Mohini sat next to us, painting. After a few
minutes, I jumped off the bed and went to sit in the balcony, gazing at the street below. Satyam
uncle looked up and waved, and I waved back. I called out to Brownie who was sitting at the gate,
and he tilted his head, cocked his ears in excitement and wagged his tail. Far in the distance I heard
a familiar horn and I knew Appa was home.
As soon as I saw the car, I ran to the door and left it half open; I stood behind it, hiding so he would
not see me. I could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs. I waited patiently until he entered
and sat on the sofa. I ran from the other end and jumped into his lap. He wore his deep-grey suit, a
sky blue shirt and a blue striped tie. His brown rimmed glasses perched perfectly and defined the
symmetry of his face. He handed me a white plastic bag and said in his deep, burly voice, “Purni, put
this in the fridge.” “What is in here, Appa?” I asked, and he said, “I will show you later.” I held the
bag tightly in my fists and tucked it away, deep into the fridge. I returned to the room to watch Mohi
at her drawing until I heard Amma call, “Come along for dinner, you both.”
After dinner, as we cleared the dishes, Appa settled into the sofa with the white plastic bag, a pair of
scissors, a knife, a matchbox and a bottle of leftover rum. I observed him; he gave me a gleaming
smile and simply said, “Come soon.” Amma sat next to him on the sofa, and I sat in Mohi’s lap,
opposite them. I was filled with excitement and held Mohi’s hands tightly. As Appa untied the knot
of the plastic bag, I could see a black square cardboard box. He slid the box out and used the
scissors to neatly cut the Sellotape that held the box together.
He opened the box and removed a dark chocolate cake. I jumped off Mohi’s lap and darted to lick
off the chocolate from the corners. Appa cautioned me, lightly, “Wait, not yet!” Mohi pulled me back
up onto her lap. Amma opened the rum bottle and lightly sprinkled the rum all over the cake. Appa
waited for a few minutes and then looked at me and said, “Purni now watch closely, Mohi hold her
tight”; he lit a matchstick and held it over the cake, barely touching it. A bright blue flame spread
over the cake and we heard a swoosh like noise as the flame went off. It was quick yet really slow at
the same time. I sat there, transfixed, and screamed, “Once more Appa,” and he sportingly repeated
the process. This time, I watched carefully and I observed something I had not seen before. I froze
as this magic unfolded in front of me.
Appa cut each of us large portions of the cake. As I bit into it, the smoky, rum taste spread all over
my tongue before the sweetness of the chocolate emerged. I sat on Appa’s leg and he watched me as
I ate the cake, little bites in my little mouth, broken with big smiles and shiny eyes. He watched us
eat with intense avidity yet enjoying every flavour that burst into our mouths.
I held Amma and Appa tightly, curling my body into theirs and them kissed good night. I walked
back to my room and lay down next to Mohi. This particular night was imbibed with a feeling of
magic and dreaminess. My mind remained transfixed by the image of the fire going off on the cake. I
replayed the entire scene at the table again and again in my mind. I realized that more than the
tangible things—the rum, scissors, knife—it was the intangible that made me happiest; the
excitement of Appa’s return, Mohi and me hugging each other tight, the feeling I got when the
smoky cake met my tongue, and Appa’s magic trick. The trick was his little way of expressing his joy
at being around us again.
And he used tricks like this, around the dinner table, several nights a week. He shaped and nurtured
our family through these simple acts of eating, through which he was slowly creating, collecting and
treasuring the stories of our lives.
Magic bowl, magic wand
Laxmi was lolling on the floor in the dining room, flipping through a Tinkle digest. ‘Laxmi, I am
going to use the magic bowl today’, shouted Amma from the kitchen. Amma got no response, so she
walked into the dining room and yelled out again, ‘Its magic bowl time today!’ Laxmi sprung up and
raced into the kitchen.
The pale white kitchen was a large rectangular room; a brown fridge stood right at the entrance on
its left, to its side, a solid granite kitchen counter. Amma had arranged all her spices and kitchen
essentials in in-built racks on the opposite wall. Attached to the kitchen, was a balcony that
overlooked other houses of other people from other buildings.
Laxmi walked in and slipped in the space between the fridge and the counter and stood against the
fridge. She loved its perfect warm temperature. She held Amma by her legs and stuck her face in
Amma's saree. ‘Amma, come, let's do it now’. Amma turned around, placed a kiss on Laxmi's head
and said, ‘I have some things to finish, but in the meantime, you start’.
Laxmi ran back out and dragged a high chair into the kitchen and placed it near the sink. She stood
on top and pulled out a round steel plate at first. She jumped down and placed it in the centre of the
kitchen floor. She hopped back again and pulled out six round steel bowls and sat herself down and
placed the six round bowls neatly on the round plate. Then, she waited.
Amma began one by one, ‘It’s red and fiery’. Laxmi ran towards the rack and pulled out the red chilli
powder container. ‘Bright yellow in colour’: she ran to get the turmeric powder. ‘Light brown,
chunky and sweet’, to which she collected jaggery. For the next half hour, Amma gave out little clues
describing every ingredient, and Laxmi, listened, imagined and collected everything Amma needed.
Amma emptied a spoonful of each ingredient into the bowl, after which she walked towards the
wall with the racks and kneeled down to pull out a large mortar carved from gray sparkling granite.
Laxmi followed her and pulled out a pestle made out of the same stone, with both her hands,
clutching it tight to her chest. She walked carefully with it and gently placed it on the floor next to
Amma pulled the plate of spices and kept it by her side. Slowly, she emptied each bowl into the
large stone mortar. Laxmi sat opposite her with her chin resting on her hands and watched her.
After Amma emptied the contents of all the six bowls, she held the pestle tightly with her right
hand, applied firm pressure and made stirring motion to grind the ingredients. The jingling of the
Amma’s bangles and the pok pok sound of the pestle against the mortar filled the kitchen with a real
feeling, a feeling of joy, a joy of performance. Amma stirred vigorously, stopped and cupped the
paste and put it back in the centre to start all over again. Soon enough, Laxmi walked to the other
side and sat on Amma’s lap and bent her head backwards. She looked up at Amma’s face from
below. She smiled a wide smile, saying ‘Amma, can I do it now’? ‘Okay, come, hold my hand’.
Laxmi’s little hand held Amma’s hand and together they sat and stirred. They collected the paste
together and started all over again. This went on for the next few minutes. Towards the end, Amma
put a little paste in Laxmi’s mouth to which her eyes narrowed, brows furrowed, nose crinkled and
her lips puckered into a round, tight little mass.
Amma got up to empty the paste into a bowl, while Laxmi continued to sit on the floor. Her doe-like
eyes were staring at the magic bowl, magic wand and the empty plate and bowls on the floor. As
she looked at them, she realized that they were no more just containers to her. Each of them was a
vessel filled with a perfect memory of her with Amma at home, in the kitchen. Laxmi knew then
why Amma called them the magic bowl and magic wand - they spun out magical things to eat, they
spun out a warm, intimate feeling as Amma’s hands met Laxmi’s, they produced a stew of memories
and a tender image of Amma in Laxmi’s heart.
Today, when Laxmi sees the magic bowl and magic wand, she is not alone, it has become a way to
get to something more, to something else behind it all: to a story, a familiar story with voices,
sounds and characters.