With Onam around the corner, talks of the traditional sadya are inevitable. There is a set image that comes to mind when one thinks about sadya: avial, pappadam, inji puli, pachadi, moru curry, payasam, among others. This Onam a unique food event in Mumbai is giving a tangential spin to sadhya. The menu, Raja Ravi Varma’s Feast of Wonders, at Mumbai's The Bombay Canteen brings together culinary history, experiential dining, and AI art.
This pop-up is the inaugural event of the True South series which aims to shift focus to untold food stories of the South. The idea for the series sparked when friends, Sameer Seth, co-founder of The Bombay Canteen and the food magazine Enthcutlet, Lakshmi Chaudhary, founder of the news publication Splainer, and chefs Manu Chandra and Hussain Shahzad brainstormed to blend storytelling and food to widen the scope of how Indian cuisine is experienced. “True South's mission is to bring the history and culture of South India to the world—and break through the silly stereotypes that surround the South and South Indians,” Chaudhary tells Lounge.
With this idea, they knew doing a formulaic dinner with an author for Onam dinner wouldn’t work. They wanted the dining experience to engage all the senses and stir conversations. Each course will be accompanied by a story told by the chefs and historian Manu S Pillai. It will then transform into a visually immersive affair with art produced by artificial intelligence (AI). Artist Ari Jayaprakash, an influential member of the modern underground art movement in India, will reinterpret the iconic art of Raja Ravi Varma using visuals, art and AI.
“Pop-ups have been a great way to introduce new ideas, but we wanted to push ourselves and do something new, fresh and interesting. Food and dining today are really about entertainment; people don’t just go to restaurants to eat but also to entertain themselves,” says Seth.
At the crux of this dining experience is artist Raja Ravi Varma, one of the best-known names from Kerala, whose paintings are etched in most people’s memories. Pillai points out an important detail: Varma’s intimate connection to the Travancore durbar and royal circles, and how he formed an identity beyond it. “Some of the stories we intend to highlight feature him and his family members, not least his granddaughters who were queens in that state. And yet, he broke out of elitist spaces and did many unusual things. The very fact that a nobleman took up art as a profession for which he was paid, and not as just a “hobby”, was scandalous in his time,” he explains.
There is no one better to act as a muse for this experience than Varma who was once even threatened with expulsion from his caste for breaching orthodox norms, notes Pillai. “It was this very capacity to think beyond the ordinary and typical that made him different. And in a sense, the Onam meal we have in mind is also different. It is not a sadya with a few set items served on a plantain leaf. The dinner we have designed is a celebration of Kerala, while also acknowledging its complex history,” he adds.
“One of the courses is the Thali of Unity, which represents the different communities that co-exist in Kerala like the Malayalis, Nasrani Christians and Mappila Muslims. It features traditional dishes like the Mor Milagai, Okra Pachadi, and Black Garlic Beans Thoran, along with the reimagined creations like the Bone Marrow and Short Rib Ularthiyathu, Broccoli Olan Gratin, among others,” informs Chandra.
There's Scallop Carpaccio and Malabar Dry Age Duck Roast that are not known to be part of the mainstream version of Onam sadya, which is often perceived as a vegetarian meal. Pillai says that Onam is not just a Hindu festival, but a comprehensive Malayali festival celebrated by several communities of his home state. He says, “Until the 19th century, several marginalised Hindu groups as well as Muslims and Christians did include meat dishes in their Onam fare. The standardised, homogenised Onam sadya is a relatively recent creation.”
An interesting addition is Erissery Hummus—something people wouldn’t have imagined in an Onam platter. It is inspired by another aspect of Kerala’s rich history. Chef Shahzad explains that the idea was inspired by the Arabs who used Kerala as a port to trade in spices. Traditionally, pumpkin erissery is a must-have item in the Onam sadya. “But what we have done is taken and changed the form of it, to make it a little more approachable and new-age for people on a grazing table where the Erissery Hummus will be served in a chip-n-dip format,” he explains.
The dining experience will be enriched with elements such as installations, static visuals, and dynamic motion imagery. “Including a touch of AI in food experiences opens up new avenues, especially for how this event is curated,” Jayaprakash adds.
As Pillai points out, just as Ravi Varma married a Western style with Indian subjects in his art, the Onam feast is an amalgamation of the new (AI art) and old—Kerala's expansive and syncretic gastronomic history.
The Feast of Wonders will take place at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai, on 29 August 2023 at 7 pm; Price ₹8,850; For bookings, call on 8875010300, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also book a seat using Zomato Live.