On the MAP Bengaluru website, the eye is drawn instantly to an untitled K.G. Subramanyan painting from 1980. Distinctive in its vivid blues, the work shows a woman prodding a basket of fish and prawns. A playful blue tiger sneaks up, and away, with fish in its mouth. Subramanyan came from Kerala, where karimeen, or pearl spot fish, is an integral part of the cuisine. It was coronated as the state fish in 2010.
These kinds of intersections of food, art and history make this ongoing exhibition, Stories On A Banana Leaf, stand apart. Each of the 17 works—paintings, sculptures, prints, posters, textiles from the MAP, or Museum of Art & Photography, collection—is accompanied by a text about a particular ingredient and a total of 22 recipes from the museum team for dishes that can be cooked at home. Like the exquisite Chetra, from Madan Meena’s Barahmasa series, in silk screen and natural pigments on paper. It shows a nayika dancing, surrounded by fiery red chillies. The painting is not just beautiful but also offers a sociocultural context for the food depicted—in the months of March-April, or Chetra, women in Rajasthan celebrate the chilli harvest with dance and song.
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The text traces the origin of chilli and its journey to India, while the accompanying recipe ferries the viewer from the arid land of Rajasthan to lush Bengal, where chilli is used in the tomato-khejur (date) chutney, among other things.
“In a Bengali household, no meal is complete without serving this version of tomato chutney…. The sweet taste mixed with the rich flavour of dry fruits such as cashews, dates and raisins can leave you wanting for more. I have fond memories of this when I got home from boarding school for the summer,” states writer Paromita Dasgupta in the introduction to her recipe.
The theme of the show was conceived in April, when the second wave of the pandemic was at its peak. “At that time, we talked about what it is that gives us comfort—something that is symbolic of security and moments of togetherness. And in the past year, food has been one of the prime sources of joy for many,” says Arnika Ahldag, associate curator at MAP. People who had never cooked suddenly started making banana bread, attempting sourdough or whipping up dalgona coffee. “More than comfort, it was a gesture of self-care,” she adds.
The team started sifting through artworks from the collection, some dating back to the 18th century, choosing those that highlighted ingredients or culinary practices. The recipes were drawn from the members’ family collections. “We asked team members to share anecdotes alongside recipes. These are mostly Indian ones, and easy to cook,” says co-curator Vaishnavi Kambadur. “We are not professional cooks but this project is extremely close to us.”
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The exhibition looks at food as a marker of identity and as the social glue that binds a community. Take, for instance, the advertisement for Cadbury chocolates and cocoa powder from the mid-20th century. It delves into the history of the Cadbury family, which was part of the Quaker community and wanted to develop a social consciousness even as it tasted corporate success. “Their main factory was set up in Bournville, a site south of central Birmingham, England—a model town that also features a community bath and recreational facilities,” notes the accompanying text. During research, the team found that between 1893-1900, this town had sought to provide employment to women.
“These kinds of sociocultural histories struck us while putting up the exhibition. We also found food items in textiles. In specific chintz textiles, we found depictions of pomegranate flowers. Also, note that the yellow hue from pomegranates was used to dye chintz. So it’s not just about direct use of ingredients in a dish but also about it being part of a significant art and cultural process,” says Kambadur.
The exhibition contains an extensive bibliography, in case viewers are keen to look up the books and documents later.
It’s interesting to note that the earlier works from the collection, such as the jharokha paintings, part of the Mughal miniature tradition, or the Company paintings, focus on the people associated with food—cooks, fish sellers, street food vendors, royals consuming wine, and more. Works from the 20th century shine the spotlight on the produce, in a more still-life style, focusing on the intricate details of the ingredients.
“At the very outset, we asked ourselves, do we want to confront people with research or appeal to them in an emotional way? For us, the latter was more important,” says Ahldag. She, for instance, chose to share the recipe for meen moilee, a dish she cooks often. “The fish dish was made for the British, as a tamed, less spicy version of the fish curry. I love it for the flavour of the curry leaves. I add a lot more chillies and spice—by doing this, in a way, I am trying to remove it from its colonial context,” she explains. “It is such personal and social connections that become evident in this exhibition.”
Stories On A Banana Leaf will be on view till September-end.