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A new exhibition celebrates vessels as repositories of stories

‘Paatre’, curated by Chandra Jain, highlights the connections between vessels and the diversity of cultures, cooking techniques and craft traditions

Chandra Jain, curator of 'Paatre'
Chandra Jain, curator of 'Paatre'

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“Vessels have contained community, connections, family, emotions and the warmth of the hands that crafted them,” says curator Chandra Jain. “Vessels, when you think about it, are repositories of history and nostalgia.” We are sitting in her living room in a quiet lane in Domlur, Bengaluru, surrounded by what Jain playfully calls her “bhartan bhandaar”. All around her are pots, pans, ladles, and plates of different vintages and styles.

Jain is on the executive committee of the Crafts Council of Karnataka (CCK) under whose auspices she is organising Paatre, a thematic exhibition on vessels. “Chandra taught scores of Bengaluru residents the beauty of Indian aesthetics, which is derived from a deeper meaning,” says architect Aparna Narasimhan, who has spent many festivals at the Jain house.

Today, Jain, or Chandra Di as she is called, is waxing eloquent about an old-fashioned slow-cooker that her father used to take into the jungle. It is unlike anything I have ever seen or could have imagined. It looks like a tall rectangular box. Inside are five slots for dal, rice, two vegetables and one for simmering coals. The closed container rumbles along on the back of a jeep till lunchtime when you open it out for a cooked delicious meal.

Besides the slow-cooker,other objects from Jain’s personal collection that will be showcased at the exhibit include an old Kashmiri samovar and serving bowl, a stunning rice ladle from Kerala, an unusual water-pourer with a lion’s mouth, a Holi water gun made of brass, and much more.

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Parsing out vessels is a mind-boggling task given India’s culinary history, its cooking techniques and its facility with handcrafted materials. Women from Tamil Nadu swear by the “eeya-chombu” made of tin that enhances the flavour of rasam. Wooden containers are used to store tamarind, which otherwise tends to react with metal. Heavy brass urulis are employed to slowly cook the sweet payasam. Curvy bronze pots with a small mouth are preferred to cook rice, the better to drain off excess starch water. Biryanis are cooked in bronze handis. Kerala homes still use the kal-chatti made with soapstone for their gravies.

A variety of objects with specific purposes including water vessels, a milk cooler, an oil filler and caskets for storing special ritualistic paraphernalia. Image: courtesy Natesan’s Antiqarts Bangalore
A variety of objects with specific purposes including water vessels, a milk cooler, an oil filler and caskets for storing special ritualistic paraphernalia. Image: courtesy Natesan’s Antiqarts Bangalore

All over India, we find kindis or water pots with a long snout that has specific regional connotations—for instance, in Rajasthan, this snout pours water into mouths, while in southern India it is used to wash feet. Some vessels are made with bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin in the ratio, 78:22. Kashmiri samovars have a container in the middle to store coals so that the kehwa remains hot. Iron kadhais, or shallow vessels, are used to cook vegetables so that some of the iron content gets into the body. Silver tumblers are used for drinking coffee for this same alchemical reason. There are paan-daans that are like intricate magic boxes. Perhaps this combination of variety with specificity is the reason why Charles and Ray Eames venerated the lota as a design object, which perfectly epitomised form and functionality.

Besides Jain, several others have contributed to the exhibition. Natesan’s Antiquarts is showcasing objects from their private collection that have been chosen for their design elements and history. “People, in the past, gave importance to beauty in everyday objects. They gave a lot of thought to utility and incorporated patterns inspired by nature,” says Suparna Natesan, the great grand-daughter of the founder.

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There is a “Ganga-Jamuna” water pot, which is not just cast in brass but overlaid with copper as well. Two metals, ergo Ganga and Jamuna. It has intricate non-repeating floral patterns that are stunning in their variation. There are water-pots, which have what Natesan calls “fractals” or endlessly repeating patterns. Some objects have unique Indian uses like an oil-filler designed to keep the hands away from the lamp-wick. Everything has a sense of balance and proportion that is exquisitely appropriate for its function. “These are objets d’art, not just in the way they are made but in the way they are used. These are part of people’s homes. Everyday objects that epitomise the refined Indian aesthetic that has evolved over millennia,” she adds.

The other group of objects comes from the folk museum, Janapada Loka, outside Bengaluru. These are rustic vessels used to this day by villagers. They include kansa vessels, which are healthier than stainless steel. “Cooking in these vessels gives a different taste to the food perhaps because they are manufactured by hand,” says Aditya Nanjaraj, managing trustee, Karnataka Janapada Parishat, whose grandfather founded Janapada Loka.

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Vessels, when you think of it, are some of the first objects that humans invented right after they discovered fire. The first vessels were inspired by rock formations—or the phenomenon of water collected inside hollow rocks. Later, humans carved out such shapes in order to cook and thus paved the way for ‘cuisines’. Vessels are also the source and inspiration for poetry, literature and the visual arts. One of the talks at the exhibit is by scholar Chiranjiv Singh on “the body as a vessel.” There are cooking demonstrations using traditional vessels, food stalls to sample various cuisines, and sale of wooden cutlery, soapstone pots, bidriware, cast iron cookware, Manipur’s black pottery and much more. There are workshops on making vessels using leaves, which when you think about it, makes for a handsome vase the next time you throw a dinner party.

“Paatre: a thematic exploration of Kuteera” will be showcased at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath between 17-19 March, 10.30 am to 8 pm.

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