Stirring up memories
Subodh Gupta, 53, Artist + cook
It isn’t easy to say what came first: Subodh the art practitioner or Subodh the epicurean. “What if you hadn’t been born an artist, what else could you have been?” I ask. “An actor,” he says, “But an actor comes under the artist category, so not that,” he adds, before delivering the final verdict: “If I was not an artist, I would have been a fabulous cook.”
That he chooses the more humbling “cook” instead of the aggrandizing “chef” is revealing of the impulse that drives his culinary adventures: not the pursuit of certifiable excellence, but a continual engagement with the everyday gestures that mark the production and consumption of food. For Gupta, the entire domain of the kitchen is embedded deeply in the realm of memory.
Gupta’s earliest memory of food is focused around the coal-fired chulha. His mother’s stove was located in the veranda of their home in Khagaul, Bihar. His recollection, though, is redolent not of the predictable nostalgia of the smoked flavour of the food, but rather of how the lit coal served as an alarm clock of sorts. “You have this sense of a certain time, of how long the coal will last. You have to cook within that time for the entire family,” he says as he recounts his mother’s daily cooking rituals, the essence of which he has condensed into a singular LED artwork that has “Ma ki dal” spelt out in the Devanagiri script. Should his mother decide to cook meat or fish, a separate chulha would be used. Gupta remembers the way his mother used to make fish, how “she always picked up the tomato and she would just squeeze it into the frying pan, and when she put water in it, the tomato used to float”.
Gupta processed this particular act as proof of the powers of intuition and instinct that are elemental to the act of creation, that in fact bridge his twin identities as artist and cook. “You have to be in the right frame of mind,” he says, when speaking about deciding what to cook—for when he visits his studio, instructing his cook to pack his lunch in a many-tiered dabba, or when he invites friends over to his home in Gurugram for dinner. His specialities include a fish curry with okra and brinjal, and his Sunday lunch preference is jhinga (prawns) with rice, dal and sattu. “That creativeness comes with your instinct. And experience over the years. (While cooking) you have to be confident enough to make mistakes, and that’s the same with art.”
It was when he was studying art and, later, while honing his practice, that Gupta began to tap into the ritual-driven nature of his Bihari culinary past, an impulse that fired the conceptual coals that would result in performance-oriented pieces such as Spirit Eaters (2012), when he transacted with the nomadic community of Kanthababas, who are summoned by grieving families to have food on behalf of deceased souls; or that propelled him to cook a five-course dinner for eight continuous days for an audience of 50-60 people as part of his performance at Performa 13 in New York in 2013.
“The memory of food comes from your whole experience,” he says. “When I went to (the) hostel, I missed my home food, so I started cooking in my college—I bought a stove, I bought ingredients, and I made mistakes in the beginning. I asked my mother and started experimenting with food, and that’s how I started cooking.” Gupta’s proficiency with food has cemented his reputation among his fellow artists as an excellent cook, someone whose identity is centrally linked to his gastronomical obsession and is manifested through his quirk of bringing back ingredients from his travels abroad, to cooking at his own exhibition opening at the London-based gallery, Hauser & Wirth.
Of late, the proclivity towards orchestrating feasts has begun to take precedence in Gupta’s practice, assuming a proportion that goes beyond his artistic investigation of it, and veering towards celebration. A long-held wish is to invite friends to his studio for a series of elaborate meals and to stage the act of eating as a performance of sorts. He is also in the initial phase of assembling a recipe book that will bring together his culinary experiences and their intersection with his memories of food. It could become his most prominent contribution to Bihari cuisine, given the immense reach his name affords.
A double take
Lekha Washington, 34, Designer + lyricist
I feel like I confuse people,” says Lekha Washington, a Mumbai-based artist, designer, and newly-minted lyricist. “When they ask me what I do, I’m at a bit of a loss on how to introduce myself.” She has penned the lyrics of two English songs in Vishal Bhardwaj’s forthcoming period drama, Rangoon. Sitting in her cosy Bandra studio in the Ranwar pakhadi, one of the few East Indian Catholic villages that remain in Mumbai, home as much to urban artists and musicians as it is to long-time residents, Washington opens up about the collaboration with the National Award-winning film-maker and music composer Bhardwaj, whose long-standing collaboration with lyricist Gulzar is well known. In Rangoon, Washington shares the mantle of lyricist with the 80-year-old Urdu poet and film-maker.
Both songs, Shimmy Shake and Be Still, have been critically appreciated.
“Vishal Bhardwaj and I have been exchanging poetry for a while now—I write in English, he writes in Hindi. (Last October) he said, send me what you have and I will set it to tune. I sent him five or six (poems), of which he picked one.” This was Be Still, a poem that Washington had written a few years ago.
For the second song, Bhardwaj sent her a tune and she wrote the lyrics to the melody. The first set she wrote was, by her own admission, “overcomplicated”. “I wrote it as a poet who didn’t want to be oversimplified.” Bhardwaj asked her to send him another set. “He said, send me words that are two syllables or less. So I took 3 hours to write one, and because I felt it wasn’t going to be enough, in the last 5 minutes I wrote the first paragraph of a second set of lyrics. And he picked the second set.”
This was Shimmy Shake, whose chorus goes, “A little shimmy shake/ A little double take/ Time’s runnin’ out, so kiss me”—all words with one or two syllables. In fact, the longest word in this song is “remember”. Metre, says Washington, who has been writing poems since she was 9, is the main difference between writing lyrics and poems.
In January, Washington was particularly prolific—“a dear friend is keen on publishing a book of my poems, so hopefully that will happen this year,” says Washington, who is better known as an installation artist, an actor (she has worked in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi films) and a product designer. In her 2015 solo exhibition The Nature Of Things, held at the Sakshi Salon, an outpost of the Sakshi gallery in Mumbai, Washington had exhibited her patented chair, The Dot, alongside installations like Up, a 5.4ft vine of metal leaves coated with rust powder, rising towards the roof. The Dot—from her design firm Ajji, which specializes in furniture and lighting—is Washington’s most famous piece of furniture: It looks like a large two-dimensional circle that can be hung on the wall.
In October, when Bhardwaj approached her to send him lyrics, Washington was also putting together a touch-sensitive, light-based installation called Lightström with sponsorship from Philips Lighting. The piece was part of the Tornado Of Dervishes series, a set of installations made with fabric. The series was shown at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. She is at present working on another light-based kinetic installation that is meant to be exhibited next month.
Magic before movies
Chaitanya Tamhane, 29, Film-maker + magician
Chaitanya Tamhane has made only one feature film—Court (2015), a Marathi drama that he wrote and directed—but there is already a weariness in the way he talks about movies. Last November, he was in Mexico for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative that gave him a chance to observe Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón at work. The best conversations they had weren’t about movies, though, but a subject that fills Tamhane with enthusiasm: magic. “He was more fascinated with me talking about magic than about cinema. I would tell him about the similarities between the two,” says Tamhane. On his last day on the sets, which coincided with Cuarón’s birthday, Tamhane performed a customized magic effect in front of the 100-member crew which ended with a special message for the film-maker. “There is no point describing it. You have to experience it.”
He means it. Through our conversation, Tamhane fools us repeatedly with a pack of cards, objects in our pockets, a book and chits of paper, using them as devices. The latter requires the participant to name four people closest to him; its impact feels similar to the emotional pay-off at the end of a great movie. This is mentalism, quite different from magic, he points out. “Magic is an intellectual puzzle where people think there is a trick. In mentalism, you don’t know if it’s actually happening or not. The fun is in the ambiguity.” Tamhane practises both.
He began at 20 when, sifting through the collection of the local “DVD-uncle”, he found The Best Of David Copperfield. He gravitated towards the more accessible branch of close-up magic, performed in an intimate setting. Tamhane now specializes in card magic, an art form that, he says, is unfortunately perceived as a birthday party gimmick. “It’s the fault of magicians who have trivialized it by doing things like taking out eggs from women’s bras. It’s a performance art form that has all the elements of psychology, theatre and the exploration of mystery as a feeling. It takes a lifetime to master,” he says. “I have missed out on a lot of socializing in my youth to practise cards in a locked room. In magic, 10 years is like one month.”
Tamhane performs privately for people he knows. Some of the mentalism performances have dark themes: The lights are turned off, and things might appear to move on their own. For effect, he has a collection of creepy objects like registries from mental asylums, pendulums and photographs of murder victims. Their authenticity, he adds mysteriously, is for the audience to decide. “I’m not claiming anything.”
Tamhane’s turning point as a hobbyist came when he saw magic being performed live for the first time at the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM), the “Olympics of magic”, at Rimini in Italy in 2015. The difference between a live and recorded performance, he says, is like “watching a cooking show and actually eating the food”. He vows to attend the next FISM, in South Korea, in 2018 even if he happens to be shooting a film (currently, he is finishing the script of his next feature).
There is a connection between magic and movies, Tamhane insists, pointing out that early filmmakers such as Georges Méliès and Lumiere Brothers were magicians. From Orson Welles getting lessons from Harry Houdini when he was a boy to Woody Allen being a “close-up” specialist, there are many instances of filmmakers being fascinated by magic. “Both deal with perception and the senses, and then the effect happens in your head,” he says. He finds the films of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Roy Andersson and Michel Gondry’s music videos close to magic. Giving instances of the use of illusions in cinema, he points towards the use of real animal growls in the soundscape for the fighting scenes in Raging Bull (1980), where the director wants us to feel the character’s animal instincts, and the miniature car crashes in The Dark Knight (2008). “Your subconscious is constantly absorbing what’s happening. My job is to fool that and not the conscious perception,” he adds.
His obsession with magic sometimes makes him worry about his filmmaking career; he spends a lot more time and money in studying and watching magic than cinema. Once you are bitten by the bug, he says, it gets you for life. “It’s this world of weirdos, geeks and kids who never grew up. Everybody has a story: some were bullied as kids, some were introverts. This was the only way of expressing themselves.” Anyone would be fooled into believing that it’s this world that he belongs to, not the one where he was invited, in 2016, to be part of the jury at the Venice Film Festival.
— Sankhayan Ghosh
Gresham Fernandes, 36, Chef + DJ
Five years ago, Delhi had one of its hottest restaurant openings—a place offering an innovative approach to European food. It was clear that Smoke House Room at Mehrauli was going to change perspectives. The launch party was one of the biggest nights of chef Gresham Fernandes’ life. Not a small matter for the culinary director at Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, who currently oversees about 40 restaurants, under seven Impresario brands across the country. In 2013, Fernandes did a three-month culinary residency programme at Copenhagen’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant Noma. Since then, he also serves up genre-defying meals at The St Jude’s Project, an underground dining space at an erstwhile bakery in Bandra, Mumbai.
Fernandes’ life changed irreversibly at the after-party of the opening of Smoke House Room, which started at 2am and went on until 11am. “It was like a first kiss,” he says. “It’s still my favourite gig of all time.” He had shown up at the home studio of Delhi-based musician Tapan Raj, who is one half of the Indian fusion group MIDIval Punditz. Raj was deejaying for friends, using just a laptop. “It was music which could even be played at home, for friends who were over,” he says. “It’s cosy, you have the right type of people sitting on a couch.” That night, he felt he might yet realize a dream he had abandoned.
For before Fernandes became a hotel management student, he would take charge of house parties at his friends’ places. “At the time, it was about mixing A into B, picking the right track,” he says. At clubs, he would watch the DJ handle turntables and the specialized digital music player CDJ, fascinated with the way people responded to music.
He chose, however, a more practical career—one that offered both creativity and stability. It was a time when nightclubs in Mumbai were being rapped for having an active drug scene. “My mom didn’t like the idea of me getting into that scene. I didn’t have the funds, and hotel management was a more secure career option,” says Fernandes. “I gave up on being a DJ.”
Now that Fernandes has risen above the drudgery of cooking on the line, and has achieved a degree of mastery in his first profession, over the past two years, he has started putting both time and funds into music, equipment, educating himself, and a career in deejaying. DJ PlanB—as he is known—plays gigs at friends’ parties and restaurant properties twice a month; his most recent gig was at Out Of The Blue in Bandra, Mumbai.
In measured steps—before he buys a track, he asks himself if he will like it 10 years later, and before buying equipment, if he will use it 30 years later—he’s building a repertoire of sounds, tracks and melodies that define him, much like the minimalist techniques in multi-course menus that are now identifiable with chef Gresham. “The type of sound I play is a 4/4 Techno beat. It takes time to kick in. It’s a longer, evolving, atmospheric sound, not rigid.”
In the meantime, he’s also learning how to play the piano, and looking for a turntable that will be a sound investment. “I’m not musically trained,” he says. “However, as a chef, I wouldn’t want to open a mustard sauce packet, I would want to make my own. So it is with music.” Fernandes initially started by mixing songs, but now he wants to read music, recognize chords, understand instruments.
In his performances, he has learnt to calibrate the energy of his dancing crowd. “It is like playing chess; you have to think ahead. With feeding people, you have to judge their reactions in the first two courses, and then break down future courses based on their response.”
Fernandes is also a new father; his daughter was born in January. Does he play music to her? “Funny you ask,” he says. “We were dancing earlier today to The Kennedy Center Honors on YouTube.”
—Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi
Alive in the forest
Sabyasachi Chakraborty, 61, Actor + wildlife photographer
Actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty is almost as reclusive as the subjects of his photographs—the denizens of the wild. It takes about a dozen phone calls and some text messages before he responds. When we do meet at his Golf Gardens home in south Kolkata, though, Chakraborty takes only a few minutes to open up, his wildlife photography stories the fuel for long conversations, helped along by cups of fine Darjeeling tea.
Chakraborty, who has essayed the role of Feluda—Satyajit Ray’s celebrated Bengali sleuth—in six films directed by Ray’s son, Sandip, and acted in Hindi films like Dil Se.., Khakee, Parineeta and Mira Nair’s The Namesake, shares a story to underline the trust implicit in wildlife photography, an obsession since 1995, when he headed to the Palamau Tiger Reserve in Daltonganj in Jharkhand with friends in a 16-year-old Ambassador car. In between an acting career spanning 130-odd films, Chakraborty’s passion has been propped up by multiple solo and joint photography exhibitions, a stint as member of West Bengal’s Wildlife Advisory Board, a celebrity endorser of Nikon Professional Services, as the author of a book on his Africa travels, and as the maker of a documentary on the Gorumara National Park in north Bengal.
It was while staying at a resort in Kanha in Madhya Pradesh that Chakraborty chanced upon a langur with a baby nearby. The moment he moved closer and aimed his camera, however, the animal slid away. Moments later, a photographer turned up in a car with National Geographic stickers on it. He approached the same langur mother, slowly sat down, took out his camera and began shooting as the langur posed.
Chakraborty realized that one must not approach a wild animal as a predator. “In Gorumara, I chanced upon a herd of bison. I approached them but aimed my camera elsewhere, shooting the sky and the grass,” he says—it was one of the rare occasions when his acting skills came to the fore in a forest. “It was only when I had the bison herd’s confidence that they could ignore me while I kept shooting them.”
Such lessons from the untamed wild guide him in life as well—a langur mother in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, slapping her suckling, mischievous baby; the same baby subsequently getting mollycoddled by other female langurs; and the tusker in Bandipur, Karnataka, who merely warned Chakraborty against clicking pictures with a loud grunt, but didn’t attack. Once, he chanced upon a tigress when he was atop an elephant and, taken by surprise, she may well have leapt at the photographer but for the timely intervention by the elephant, which raised its trunk. Wild animals, Chakraborty has come to believe, are ethical beings.
Chakraborty, who is particularly fond of animal portraits, usually travels to the forests three-four times a year. On the second day of our meeting, he plays a selection of his photographs as a slide show—a thrilling run through the world of zebras, cheetahs, hyenas, lions, Royal Bengal Tigers, blue monkeys and silver-backed jackals, as well as smaller beings like beetles, red bugs, butterflies and dragonflies. It’s a small encapsulation of Chakraborty’s private world of wild wonder and he remains remarkably modest about his own skills as a wildlife photographer. “I shoot wildlife, yes, but professional wildlife photographer I am not. That requires much more time, devotion and money,” he says. “I just feel happy and alive in the forests. That’s all.”
Finding the rhythm in language
Tabu, 45, Actress + writer
The poet-lyricist Gulzar gifts her notebooks from time to time, prodding her to finish her “copy”. Film-makers Mani Ratnam and Sooraj Barjatya, among the very few Tabu has been comfortable showing her writing to, have urged her to write more often. Yet, writing continues to remain a deeply personal aspect of the actor’s life.
She remembers a starting point to her writing: During a school excursion, she was struck by the paintings in the Ajanta and Ellora caves. She started keeping a diary; it would be with her at all times. “It was initially a stream of consciousness project when I began,” she says.
One of the greatest gifts her career in cinema has given her is a person she considers her best listener—Gulzar, with whom she has worked in films such as Maachis (1996), Chachi 420 (1997) and Hu Tu Tu (1999). Tabu claims she had more “chutzpah” in those early years and, during the making of Maachis, shared her words with him. He patiently heard her out, and continues to do so each time she reaches out to him.
Tabu doesn’t take his “critique” too seriously. “It’s like a parent patting his child’s back,” she says. But there’s a self-awareness within her as a writer now. “I have matured. The filter within me has made my words more comprehensible,” she says.
An actor who has worked in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films, Tabu finds herself constantly introspective about the different rhythms of each language. “I know love and pyaar may mean the same things, but they have completely different connotations in their sound, texture, feel.”
There are times, she feels, when her actor-writer persona feed off each other. “I (find myself) observing how the feel of a word or prose on paper assumes a completely different meaning when spoken or performed in different languages.”
Tabu says it has been a while since she has shown her “latest copy” to Gulzar. But she will. And if she doesn’t heed the many pleas of her friends, maybe he will be able to persuade her to say “yes” to the publishers who have been waiting for her book.
— Soumik Sen