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Saturday, April 13, 2024

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Chefs reinvent the rules of art


Blue is a shade that rarely finds a berth for itself on the spectrum of ‘food colours’. Sure, we have the now-faddish blue pea flower — known multifariously as Asian pigeon wings or aparajita in India — imparting its cobalt blue hue to everything from dim sum to cocktails, but that’s pretty much it for the eye-soothing colour.

Yet, blue in its most vivid and evocative iteration of indigo finds itself as the axis around which Eeshaan Kashyap’s ongoing Mumbai food art show, Artist Proof, pivots. It sees the New Delhi-based chef and curator embrace his artistic and performative side, experimenting with 22 different materials, including clay, metal, wood, semi-precious stones and paper. Moulding some of them into tableware, these are presented in the form of his much-fêted foodscapes atop indigo blue-dipped bricks.

“The past few years have seen the emergence of the multi-hyphenate, and the acceptability, or inclusiveness, of a more fluid definition of what constitutes art and design. I think Eeshaan is very much a product of this era — where you don’t have to think in silos but can proudly combine different forms of self-expression — food, art, design,” says Maithili Ahluwalia, founder of the lifestyle store Bungalow 8 that has now morphed into The STANDS, which plays host to Artist Proof. “Also, the explosion of a visual narrative culture makes the presentation of food as important as the food itself.”

Artist Proof experiments with 22 different materials
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Negronis and blue matkas

In the past, it was artists such as Subodh Gupta who gave us a peek into performative art using food as a medium. Most recently, his Cooking The World II installation at the 2022 Venice Biennale had him inviting audiences to partake in a cooking and dining performance inside an open hut fashioned out of his iconic used aluminium utensils. But globally, chefs have been taking this synergy to a whole other level. Think multi-hyphenates such as London-based food artist and chef Tom Wolfe who is best known for his Jackson Pollock-esque food installation performances.

“Every time I’ve visited the Venice Biennale or Salone del Mobile, I’ve seen these great marriages of art, food and performance. I’m especially fascinated with the work of artists such as Subodh Gupta in this interdisciplinary space,” explains Kashyap. “This is why through Artist Proof, I am attempting to not just work in a dynamic way with a plethora of different materials, but also to rid myself of any one bracket of an artist, a stylist or a chef.”

Chef Eeshaan Kashyap

Chef Eeshaan Kashyap
| Photo Credit:
Saurav Nanda

‘The explosion of a visual narrative culture makes the presentation of food as important as the food itself’

‘The explosion of a visual narrative culture makes the presentation of food as important as the food itself’
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Kashyap’s Modern Matkas

Kashyap’s Modern Matkas
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

The exhibition — a tighter, more curated exploration of ideas introduced in his debut show in 2022 — meanders along a path that has elements of both fantasy and practicality. For instance, segueing the blue theme is what Kashyap calls his “cracked pot” moment. A room filled with blue ‘Modern Matkas’. Interestingly, it was a negroni that spawned the idea. “I started to look at pots, especially the matka, in a more contemporary form after creating a terracotta-infused negroni I dubbed the matka negroni,” he says.

Artist Proof has “the quality of going from a minimal, Zen-inspired Japanese aesthetic into a space that is maximal with brass and copper pieces. These take the form of vases, furniture, one-off textiles and even the signature matka in the form of a fashionable tote,” adds Ahluwalia.

Dinner and some AI art

There have been several instances of chefs experimenting with performative art of late. An amalgamation of experiential dining and storytelling via AI underlined the recent Onam pop-up dinner at The Bombay Canteen (TBC).

Raja Ravi Varma’s Feast of Wonders is the first in the Mumbai restaurant’s True South series — a four-way collab between chef Hussain Shahzad, TBC’s parent company Hunger Inc. Hospitality, chef Manu Chandra and Lakshmi Chaudhry, founder of daily news website Splainer — through which they seek to tell untold food stories of the southern States.

Diners at Raja Ravi Varma’s Feast of Wonders

Diners at Raja Ravi Varma’s Feast of Wonders
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

L-R: Lakshmi Chaudhry, Manu Pillai, chefs Manu Chandra and Hussain Shahzad

L-R: Lakshmi Chaudhry, Manu Pillai, chefs Manu Chandra and Hussain Shahzad
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

“Food and dining today are about entertainment,” says Shahzad, explaining that the pop-up kicked off from a conversation with historian Manu S. Pillai, where he shared stories of lust, deceit and murder from the erstwhile Travancore Court. “It was about bringing together the idea of how storytelling, along with reimagining traditional dishes inspired by those stories [think an inji puli choux bun and an erissery hummus], come to life with AI art by Ari Jayaprakash, creating an immersive and entertaining experience.” One of the most bizarre stories was of a courtier using a giant jackfruit to beat his wife’s paramour to death! 

Cheese as installation

Another memorable experiment was at the India Art Fair earlier this year, when an eight-month-pregnant chef Bani Nanda “performed” her craft to showcase the expressive quality of food. Held al fresco at STIR Gallery at Chattarpur Farms in Delhi, the event, Deconstructing Pleasure: A Food Performance, had the founder of Miam Patisserie build a three-foot-long cheese grazing board over three hours.

Chef Bani Nanda

Chef Bani Nanda
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Nanda setting up her cheese grazing board

Nanda setting up her cheese grazing board
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

“I’ve always loved the drama around food and saw this as a great opportunity to put up a performance with the wooden board as my canvas, and the cheeses and condiments as my colours” says the chef-artist, who worked to a set of house music. Highly interactive, the audience was encouraged to be a part of the art by eating off the board. Nanda “performed” by constantly replenishing the toppings and filling up the “bald spots” over the three hours, creating new shapes.

As Ahluwalia sums it up, “We think so visually these days that the tactile and the surreal merge seamlessly. It doesn’t even seem performative, but the new normal.”

Artist Proof is on at The STANDS, inside the Wankhede Stadium, till September 12.

The Mumbai-based writer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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