‘Mogra’ and Merlot
On a recent night, under the lingering fragrance of a champaka tree, two taste-makers sat down to converse about tradition, aesthetics, saris, and, interestingly, entertaining. Held at the Cinnamon boutique in Bengaluru, and moderated by Malika Verma Kashyap, founder of textile consultancy Border&Fall, the conversation between fashion designer Sanjay Garg and Sunitha Kumar Emmart, owner of GallerySke, was illuminating in more ways than one.
Emmart mused about the meaning of tradition and pointed to dancer Malavika Sarukkai as an artist who had figured out how to stay relevant while maintaining links with her Bharatanatyam tradition. Garg, she said, drew from tradition when he entertained. Garg said that many of his impulses arose from “anger” at the way Indians were mindlessly aping the West in their search for style. It is a familiar lament. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee said as much for a story I did for these pages some years ago.
Garg, like Mukherjee, admires people who have a strong sense of identity and embrace their Indian heritage and culture, without seeking validation from Western, or indeed any, brands. For this reason, said Garg, he eschewed flowers in vases at his dinner parties, preferring instead to put coils of mogra in a banana leaf at every table setting. The minute I heard this, I decided to copy the idea. It was stunning in its simplicity and beauty. What’s more, it had been right there in front of my eyes the whole time. Mogra flowers are wrapped in banana leaves and sold all over the south. Like Subodh Gupta made our stacked utensils into fine art, it took a Garg to elevate the humble banana leaf into table decoration.
Which begs the question: Is there an Indian way of entertaining? Is there a way to be modern in today’s India without being Western?
In his iconic essay, “Is There An Indian Way Of Thinking?” poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan characterized modernization as a movement from the context-sensitive to the context-free in all realms. It is a stunning and subtle observation about how each of us, in our attempt to be a modern global citizen of the world, is shearing off the roots that bind us to our very specific regional culture and accompanying traditions. If you haven’t read this essay, please do. It isn’t long and it will open your eyes.
Here then, in no particular order, are some thoughts about a modern yet Indian way of entertaining:
The “bring-a-friend” party. The Indian idea of hospitality is vast and encompassing. We invite “family and friends” to our weddings. Given our small apartments, a modern way to adapt this idea is to call a few friends home for a meal and ask that they each bring a friend. You might be surprised at who they bring.
No other culture uses flower garlands the way we do in India. And yet, we all stick Oriental lilies and tuberoses in vases at our homes. Why not buy strings of tuberose or jasmine instead? You will get the same fragrance without the Western impulse to stick them in vases. Garlanding guests as they come in reeks of weddings or five-star hotels, but if there is a fun, modern tongue-in-cheek way you could do this, it would be cool and Indian.
I love seated formal dinner parties and the production that goes into them. Since I love stationery, I love name tags on the dinner table too. How to put name tags on my eight-seater dinner table vexed me until I thought of using a a rolled ball of atta (flour dough). Sticking a name card into the dough ball mixes formality with casualness, something we do very well.
Go contrarian. India is a land of colours but riotous marigold garlands draped on dining tables feels a bit old. Why not provide a calming white counterpoint to the colour and chaos outside with all-white table decor, using Kerala kasavu saris as tablecloth and party attire?
Why do we go to parties? To be stimulated, to have a good time, at the top of the hierarchy, hopefully to create a memory. I find that polite conversation gets boring really fast. To stand around holding drinks, smiling and talking about the traffic, is the most inane of exchanges. Why bother? Recently, I held two “idea exchange” lunches at home. The deal was that every guest had to come up with an idea that they wanted to share and present it like a TED talk, except for 3-5 minutes. So everyone talked and everyone listened. It was like a Bengali adda with a brown bag lunch. Everyone loved it. We served bisibele bhaath, which is like a one-pot meal. People took their plates, sat in a circle, talked and listened. All on a working day.
When Indians of the previous generation wanted to show their love, they handmade something for the guest. Now, cooking while your guests are around only works if you have one of those Western-style open kitchens. Most of our apartments have dinky kitchens that don’t lend themselves to shared cooking experiences. But a version of this Indian habit of hand-feeding can happen.
Why not roll a paan for your guests as they depart? You will have to teach yourself a new skill. Like an ice-cream counter, have them choose flavours (and make sure that there are basic versions for those who don’t like paan, like a chocolate wrap), and hand-feed them by popping it into their mouths. This also works with golgappas.
Hand-feeding your guests is sexy and Indian. It reeks of hoary tradition and yet, because it is done so little these days, will surprise and delight your guests.
Entertaining is an act of love, a way to break the monotony of life. In today’s efficient, time-constrained world, we all have taken to “sourcing” the best products and brands to save ourselves time and the trouble of thinking. But going that extra mile to root your parties in the Indian “context”, as Ramanujan calls it, not only makes them memorable, it also—I am convinced—feeds your soul and spirit.