Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A new desi delight

It is now official, folks. I have no backbone.

There I was, watching the History Channel, when they suddenly sprang a programme on the history of Chocolate. Fifteen minutes into the show, my backbone gave way, and I raided the fridge, desperate for anything, just anything chocolatey.

Here's what I found in the fridge - handmade chocolates from Ooty.

The purple ones were minty, and the square ones had all sorts of exotic spices and dry-fruits in them (I didn't stop at one, of course).

The cocoa in these chocolates is grown in spice plantations, interspersed with palm, arecanut and other trees.

Chocolate is quite a new fangled thing in India. Before 1965, the cocoa crop was not commercially produced anywhere in India. Then thanks to Cadbury India, cultivation began in Kerala, and from there, spread to other states in the South (as a matter of fact, in many places, the cocoa tree is actually called the ‘Cadbury’ tree!)

Although chocolate has been around only a few years, we're already inventing a whole new cuisine around it. Homemade chocolates (which all the honeymooning couples at Ooty go ga-ga over) are just the tip of the choco-craze. Every time I visit my local mithai shop, I see proof that we have happily combined traditional Indian milk-sweets and spices with this new upstart ingredient from South America. Have you tasted chocolate burfi yet? Or hunted down a chocolate laddoo recipe from the internet? How about chocolate peda then? Or “Jain” chocolate mousse!

Even at the poorest end of the spectrum, chocolate has made a conquest - when my maid had a grandchild last month, she rushed out of the house, and came back with a gift pack of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut for us to celebrate.

I'm telling you, there's a chocolate revolution happening in India. It's sneaking up on us, bite by heavenly bite, we just don't know it yet!

I'm off to raid the fridge again, people. (Told ya, no backbone). Almond drops, anyone?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I begin to understand Mithila painting

On a wall in the Delhi Crafts Museum, I spotted a series of paintings done in the Mithila folk style. This is traditionally an art form done by women, painted on the walls of houses, in celebration of major events such as births, marriages and festivals.

Even from afar, the murals were striking. They were large, almost 6-7 feet in height, and spread across the entire wall in a series of arches. Each arch contained one painting. This one below, for instance, shows the Goddess Durga astride her tiger, framed inside an ornamented arch.
The colours were bold, and the flat filling-in of colour made the paintings visually stimulating. Below the painting, the artist had signed her name: Shrimati Mundrika Devi, from a village called Jitvarpur in Madhubani District, in the state of Bihar.

When I looked a little closer at the painting, I found myself loving the "double-line" approach. All the outlines were double lines, with the inner portions either left blank, or filled in colour, or filled with little lines. Here's a close-up of one of the small ducks at the top of the mural: see how the double lines and colouring contributes to the rich detailing? Every object in the painting, from the smallest flower, to the largest human, was painted with the same careful attention.
After five minutes of staring closely at small aspects of the painting, I found myself slipping into the shoes of the painter - what was she thinking, Mundrika Devi, when she drew these? Were the walls of her home also filled with these paintings? Did she lose herself in the lines as she painted, did she forget to make dinner? Or did she, as she cooked and tended her house, look again and again at her creation, mentally adding little details?

The more I visualised the life of the painter, the more the painting appealed to me. This was not "Art" as a leisure activity for those with spare time and money. This was art entwined in the daily life, in the very heartbeat of a woman.

This past week, I have been eyeing the walls of my home. I want to do this too, to fill my living space with vibrant strong lines and bold colours. I want to spend time working and reworking pigments, rushing about from corner to corner of a wall, adding a tree here and a bird there, stepping back, drawing again, wandering into the kitchen, wandering back to my walls...working on my email, but wandering back again, always to the colourful wall.

It seems to me that what I really want is to be seduced into a beautiful trance, by the creative and very personal process of decorating my own home. Perhaps that's what Mundrika Devi wanted too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Masala Chai in Jaipur

The best tea I had in Jaipur was at a little stall called Sahu Chai, on Chaura Rasta.
We had been walking for hours in the bazaars, and while it was fascinating, it was also very tiring. By 4:00 p.m., I was beginning to flag - so my friend Swati decided to take us to Sahu's, to perk us up.

It was literally a hole in the ground, a small shop sunken below street level. But Mr. Sahu was something of an artist. I watched him make our tea with a delicate hand, adding just the right amount of tea, spices, sugar and milk. He had an elaborate yet unhurried technique of stirring the tea as it brewed - perhaps he was watching over it for some secret sign?

Whatever the secret, the tea when it came was glorious - piping hot, milky sweet and flavoured with a mix of spices. It was served in a tall glass, and as I drank it, I felt the energy rush hit my bloodstream.
"Where would we be without tea?" I said to myself. I sent a silent thanks to the persistent Englishmen who first popularised tea in India. If it weren't for the dogged campaigns and door-to-door demonstrations of the Tea Association, Indians would have stuck to the traditional lassi, milk and water.

Of course, the English didn't quite bargain for how Indians would practically *reinvent* tea by adding cardamom, ginger, and even pepper to it! Nor did they realise we'd add the milk and the sugar alongside the water, boiling all of it merrily into a thick, aromatic cup. But as anyone who has tasted a good masala chai will tell you, there's nothing better on the planet!