Stories on a Banana Leaf: A new online exhibition by Museum of Art & Photography

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चैत्र (Chetra), Barahmasa-I series, Madan Meena 2020, Silkscreen and natural pigments on paper

Over the past year, food has been one of the prime sources of joy for many. Whether it was cooking our first meal in the lockdown, attempting a sourdough starter, whipping the infamous dalgona coffee or perfecting the round roti, we all have perhaps dabbled in some culinary activity or the other. Even today, we continue to hunt for local ingredients, exchange recipes and use kitchen tools and objects that carry their own histories.

As one of the most basic needs of humans, food binds us to each other and our ancestors. Culinary dishes lie  ‘in between the lines’ of history – they add beauty and comfort where there is struggle and darkness. The sensorial longing and memories of taste  provide comfort and joy,  drawing us together and yet again, leaving us yearning for more. 

Art has often used the very essence of food and its tools – fruit, utensils, farms and kitchens – to remind us of how our connection with food has continued over centuries, bringing us stories of healing and care. Highlighting this unique and celebrated intersection of art and food, the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) launches its latest online exhibition – Stories on a Banana Leaf.

This exhibition looks at food as a marker of identity and also as the social glue that binds a community. Bringing together paintings and photography by acclaimed artists including KG Subramanyan, KH Ara, Jogen Chowdhury, and JP Singhal, as well as sculptures, paintings, prints, advertisement posters and textiles from MAP’s collection, the exhibition offers a range of recipes from the Museum’s team for people to cook at home. 

Following are some stories that stood out for Abir Pothi:

For the love of fish

Untitled, KG Subramanyan c. 1980, Oil on canvas

KG Subramanyan’s painting depicts a woman who appears to be prodding a basket of blue fish and prawns, perhaps playfully. Behind her, a blue tiger, bearing sharp teeth, holds a fish in its mouth. In the coastal state of Kerala, KG Subramanyan’s place of birth, fish is an important component of local cuisine. Karimeen (Green Chromide or pearl spot fish), found in both fresh and brackish water, was crowned the state’s official fish in 2010 and remains a crowd-favourite.

Chillies, harvest, seasons and its unconventional use

चैत्र (Chetra), Barahmasa-I series, Madan Meena 2020, Silkscreen and natural pigments on paper

From contemporary artist Madan Meena’s Barahmasa-I series, this artwork depicts a woman dancing at the centre of red chillies, perhaps, perfectly laid out on a rooftop to be dried. In Rajasthan, the part of West India that Meena belongs to, the summer months of March-April (chetra) dry chillies quickly. Women celebrate by dancing and singing tales of chilli harvest. Read the complete story, with a recipe of tomato khejur chutney,  here. 

Coconut, more than just a fruit

A coconut grater and vegetable cutter c. 18th-19th century, South India, Iron

In India, coconuts form a staple part of local cuisines, particularly in southern regions of the country. Coconut chutney, which uses freshly grated coconut, is served as a condiment and is often paired with dosasidlis and other rice dishes. Aside from its use in savoury dishes, it also features in desserts like the famous Bebinca, a layered Goan delicacy. Toddy, an alcoholic beverage consumed predominantly in Kerala, uses sap extracted from a coconut palm tree which is then fermented. Read the full story, along with the a coconut cake recipe, on MAP. 

Capsicums: the edible globetrotters

Fruit-I, Jogen Chowdhury 1977, Ink and pastel on paper

Jogen Chowdhury’s paintings are minimalistically outlined and highly textured, elements that stand out in this painting from 1977. The artist’s proclivity towards darker colours, such as black, perhaps harks back to memories of his early life in Kolkata as a refugee from the Partition. He remarks that “our plight, both physical and mental, must have also affected my use of colours.” The work could simply be a still life, yet it’s difficult to ignore the moment at which Chowdhury has chosen to capture the subject. His treatment of the skin of the pumpkin or bell pepper through the use of his signature cross-hatching technique seem to suggest signs of decay, but the retention of orange colour in the bottom half serves as a reminder of its vibrant nature. The artist has savoured what is remaining and inspires to find beauty in all things, old or new. Read more here. 

Batata’s origins

Print from the portfolio Abundance from Rural India, J P Singhal, Published by M L Binani and Dinesh Singhal, c. 1970, Print on paper

Sweet potato or Ipomoea batatas L. was grown in the Caribbean as batata or camata as early as the 15th century. They were introduced to the subcontinent as early as the 17th century and the North-east of India was particularly known for its cultivation. In 2018, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science of the USA frequently published about the origins of the Convolvulaceae (morning glory) family that the sweet potato belongs to and found evidence of sweet potato’s origins from the East Gondwana region, which is the region surrounding India, Australia and Antarctica. Today a rather ordinary vegetable, sold in most markets like shown in J P Singhal’s print, they give us enormous comfort, cooked as a snack across India like in the recipe below. Read the complete story here. 

The pomegranate: a colourful antiviral 

A Robe, c. 18th century, probably Coromandel Coast, Cotton, hand applied or painted and mordant dyed

One of the oldest fruits in the world, pomegranates were often used to perform rituals and believed to contain talismanic properties, and proven to benefit health, fertility and wellbeing. The plant entered India during its trade with present day Iran. From cups made of pomegranate wood to textiles made of the naturally dyed arils, every part of the fruit, plant, flower and stem added value to human livelihood. In this chintz coat, we see designs of an unopened pomegranate fruit with small flowers scattered across the vines. The coat was either traded with a European/British man based in Indonesia (as they were the ones who wore such ‘dandy’ robes) or was made with the intention of trade with Persia. Pomegranates also add a pop of colour and sweetness to many savoury dishes like in the tabbouleh-kosambari salad shared here. 

All images and text courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru