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A new series that explains Bengal’s food culture through art and rhymes

The online series offers a visual ride through food references found in myths and legends, medicine and literature

'Joy Mongolbar' and 'Itu Puja' by Priyadarshini Chatterjee
'Joy Mongolbar' and 'Itu Puja' by Priyadarshini Chatterjee

Since July 1, a unique series has made an appearance on Instagram. Titled ‘Pat-Padye Khabar Dabar’, it brings a fresh perspective to our understanding of Bengali cuisine and culture through exquisite hand-drawn illustrations and witty rhymes. The series is a collaboration between Tanushree Bhowmik, a development professional and food historian in Delhi, and Kolkata-based journalist Priyadarshini Chatterjee. The partners-in-rhyme have divided Pat-Padye Khabar Dabar into four themes: edible flowers, moa-naru, food in brotokotha or tales of fasts and religious rituals, and food in Bengali literature. The series is a visual ride through myths and legends associated with a particular fare, the healing properties of edible flowers, street food popular in detective novels, evolution of rituals, and more. The duo put out the theme for the week every Wednesday, following this up with posts between Thursday and Saturday.

One of the most striking illustrations, which went up yesterday, is from a body of literary works by Narayan Gangopadhyay. This particular post by Bhowmik talks about Chamurti (four young friends) and their gluttonous leader, Tenida. The focus is on the scrumptious Bengali street-side snacks found in and around the neighbourhood of Potoldanga in Kolkata, where the story unfolds. A part of the rhyme goes something like this: “With nose high as Everest, Teni’s epic glutton/ eats mounds of kobiraji cutlet, ghugni with mutton. Pela, the sickly suffers from repeated jaundice/ eats light shingi fish curry with plain white rice." In another post, Chatterjee eloquently captures the essence of the delicate kumro or pumpkin flowers. Through her illustration and rhyme, one can almost taste the crunch of the pumpkin fritters, with the subtle notes of poppy seeds and the big bang flavours of nigella.

'Murir Moa' from the Moa-Naru segment by Tanushree Bhowmik
'Murir Moa' from the Moa-Naru segment by Tanushree Bhowmik

The collaboration between the two friends happened organically. “I regularly post foodles on social media platforms. Priyadarshini saw the one for aam pora sharbat and called me with an idea of extending this to rhymes and illustrations on Bengali cuisine," says Bhowmik. Thus, began a process of rigorous reading and research. Both realised that while food research tended to be broad, they needed to narrow down the focus to specific themes. “For instance, the theme of edible flowers can include so much, from associations with mythology to different ways of cooking them. But we decided to look at the medicinal qualities," says Bhowmik.

Even within literature, they have further divided their work into three segments: famous Bengali detective thrillers, children’s literature, and modern fiction. One work in this segment to look forward to is based on the Adarsha Hindu Hotel, a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. “In this fiction woven around a hotel, one gets a glimpse of some of the first restaurant-goers. It is an important part of modern food history," says Bhowmik.

Needless to say, the treatment of artwork for this segment is very different from that for the moa-naru [naru is the Bengali word for small laddoos made of various grains and coconut] theme, which is directly related to food.

'Abol Tabol' from the segment on food in literature by Tanushree Bhowmik
'Abol Tabol' from the segment on food in literature by Tanushree Bhowmik

The brotokotha section is particularly interesting, bringing out subtle differences between the tales prevalent in east and West Bengal. “Priyadarshini is from West Bengal and I am from the east, so we will each be presenting the versions we have grown up with," says Bhowmik, who will be working on this theme shortly. Chatterjee has illustrated one about the worship of goddess Mangal Chandi in the month of jaysth. During this time, women in Bengal fast and pray, with fruits such as jamun, jackfruit and mango being offered to the goddess. Grains of paddy, barley and green gram along with tulsi are rolled up in jackfruit and banana leaves to be offered as well. Later, the grains are mixed with banana mash and consumed with sweet yogurt, flattened rice and mangoes. “I also picked up information about the Manasha puja, as part of my research on subaltern food. This has mentions in Vedic literature, after which it pops up centuries later in the iconic mangalkabyas. These brotokothas are in a way an anthropomorphizing of the gods," elaborates Bhowmik.

As one browses through the posts, it doesn’t feel like two different people have worked on the illustrations. There is a seamless quality to the artwork. There are pops here and there of individual styles, but there is a certain similarity as well. However, both assert that this was not a conscious decision. “Perhaps, this similarity has something to do with our similar interests in art—Madhubani paintings, line drawings and Jamini Roy’s portraits," says Chatterjee. The focus, instead, has been on offering as diverse a treatment to the illustrations as possible, which is intrinsically rooted in Bengal. So, at times you will find soft watercolours typical to the ones done by Abanindranath Tagore, folk motifs, and more. For the Chamurthi post, Bhowmik has opted for an inverted exposure kind of style, which used to be very popular in Bengali comic books in the 1980s-90s.

Pat-Padye Khabar Dabar is to be an ongoing series, with the duo swapping the themes between them. “I will finish literature, after which Priyadarshini will start with moa-naru and I will do edible flowers," says Bhowmik. While putting this together, the two have learnt from each other’s work and process. “We read so much as part of the research. The challenge was then to condense this information into six to eight lines of rhyme," elaborates Chatterjee. The series stems from a desire to revisit the chhawra (rhymes), which is an integral part of Bengali culture. "This genre wasn't restricted to the literary circles alone. Great aunts and grannies, who had perhaps never stepped into a classroom, would talk in delightful rhymes, created impromptu," she adds. Going forward the two plan to open the series up to people, who can share their food stories and anecdotes, to make this a truly community experience.

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