Peppery Soliloquies: Art of Spice

by Aakshat Sinha

On 12 February 2021, I attended my first exhibition opening since the pandemic, ‘Peppery Soliloquies’, curated by Georgina Maddox at Art Centrix Space, Jain Farm, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. This was also the first physical exhibition at the gallery for over a year. I had visited a few shows earlier but this was my first outing to attend an opening. Besides of course the pleasure of viewing art, what I’ve missed most because of the lockdown is the opportunity to meet friends and contemporaries in the art world; there was also the related fear and apprehension since the phased opening of public and private spaces for gatherings. So, I ventured there with the nervous excitement of meeting friends and exchanging notes with them while engaging with the artworks in the exhibition.

Spices add flavour to food and each addition creates a new recipe. The same is true when a diversity of minds come together to enhance the experience of interacting with art. It was therefore fitting that the first opportunity to attend an exhibition opening would be a show dedicated to stories and monologues around the theme of spices.

From left: Kamana Pushkale, Rashmi Khurana, Georgina Maddox, Satadru Sovan, and Aakshat Sinha

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

There was a marked difference in the layout of Art Centrix Space since my earlier frequented visits. The parking area of the past has been converted into a beautiful green hilly patch owing to the closure of the space during the past one year that would've helped nature to take its course along with the vision of Monica Jain, Director, Art Centrix Space. The gallery space is located in a farm area and the air was definitely clearer. A few people had already reached for the opening: Satadru Sovan, Shahanshah Mittal, Yashwant Singh, Kamana Pushkale, and Rashmi Khurana were there along with Georgina and Monica. Fist bumps and smiles behind the masks made for cautious greetings and without losing much time on pleasantries, I walked in.

The first thing that greeted me was a snippet from the much acclaimed novel, The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Devikaruni. The work of prose sets up for the experience that the artworks in the exhibition unfold.

Opening quote, from 'The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

There are two parts to the show – on the left and towards the right. The left room has the work ‘The Golden Bird’ by Vasundhara Tiwari Broota with the exhibition note on one wall and ‘The Goat of Ammoru’ by Viswanath Kuttum on the opposite side.

Exhibition note (Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

The Golden Bird by Vasundhara Tiwari Broota

View into the room from outside (centre table with spices and books)

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

On a table in the middle of the room has a table nests a few books, a hand pepper crusher, an open box with a few spices and a hand sanitizer! Viswanath is a comparatively younger artist from the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. His depiction of a goat chomping on the low hanging leaves at one end of the composition with a dark pot on fire at the other end captures the circle of life that awaits the goat, being fattened up for the upcoming sacrifice to the gods. Isn’t this akin to our human life cycle as we go on gorging and devouring everything while step by step inching towards our inevitable end? The momentary pleasure is what excites us and holds our attention.

The Goat of Ammoru by Viswanath Kuttum

I noticed that the press note mentions that the artists were specially commissioned to work around the spice theme for this unique exhibition. I asked the curator Georgina Maddox what triggered the idea to do an entire show around the theme. This is what she’d to say:

“Spices are something that I have been looking at both personally and politically, from a contemporary perspective and a historical one as well. This is because the trade of spices is something that fascinated me for many years. It all began with discussions I had with my classmate Khanjan Dalal and our one-year-junior Lavanya Mani, who was like our classmate only! All three of us are from MSU (Maharaja Sayajirao University) Baroda and we spent many hours at the tea stall discussing the impact of spices on trade, language, eating habits and consequently on art. While St Thomas came looking to India for Christians, Vasco De Gama came looking to trade spices, and so on and so forth.

“I have seen Lavanaya's work with the theme of colonialism, trade, food and culture in her work for many years now since she has been practising and Khanjan has been looking at globalization, culture, memory and also the idea of farming since he lives in Gujarat and works with potters and farmers in his area where he has set up his studio. Hence these two artists were a natural fit.

“Monica is also a big history buff and she really warmed up to the idea of looking at spices. It excited her thematically and before we knew it we had decided to work on the show. However we were struck down by the Covid-19 pandemic but we decided to wait it out until it was safe to have a physical show. This wasn't an exhibition that could be experienced online. This also gave the artists more time to work on their concepts for the show. (On the personal front I met with a terrible accident in October 2019 but thankfully I have managed to come out of it and step back into life and work, thanks to the support of family, friends and the art community!)

“As I expanded and discussed my list of artists for the show I recalled that the works of Karl Antao's work in Mumbai (at Sakshi Art Gallery) and then Delhi (at Gallery Espace) and how it dealt with post-colonial identity, the matters around gender, language, love and sexuality, and I thought he would also fit in beautifully in the show. Then Arun Kumar HG is another artist who I was aware of working on biodiversity, the ecosystem and farmer's issues since he comes from a rural background as well. Vasundhara Tewari Broota has been doing a very interesting series on yoga, inner and outer strength and looking at Ayurvedic practices in India, so she was gracious enough to do two works for the show!

“Kishore Chakraborty has always been a passionate Marxist who I have discussed many times his love for food, spice and also the colour red that he is totally obsessed with and so he found the theme appealed to him as well. Unfortunately he recently lost his wife, but he was really excited to be part of the show and gave us his work despite facing such a terrible personal loss. We also wanted to include some young artists, so we shortlisted the works of Viswanath Kuttum whose native home is the Andaman Islands and whose process of working with powdered charcoal and paint, beeswax and resin fascinated me along with his story about the goat sacrifice festival Ammoru where the goat fed on a diet of herbs and greens is then offered up to Lord Shiva and Goddess Kali Ma. Meghna Patpatia’s work was introduced to me via Monica and she is also a KHOJ awardee. Her painted drawings have their roots in a phenomenon called 'transverse orientation', where all beings are drawn to light, drawing a parallel to the epoch of the Anthropocene in which we live today where consumerism is like a moth to a flame.

“On a very personal note, I met Ina Puri at a lunch party that Bhavna Kakar had hosted for us, and I shared with her about the process of my show, and she got excited about sharing a personal work that Manjit Bawa had gifted her, of a Shaura (a painted ceramic platter) inspired by the Baigan Bharta that he used to love cooking. We were so happy that she wanted to remember Manjit after so many years, and she visited the gallery and shared his special recipe with us. I have also shared a few pages from my mother's Anglo-Indian cookbook that she compiled in 1971, even before I was born . . . hence this exhibition is very personal and I believe for me, a very powerful experience to curate something so close at heart.”

As for my personal experience, I found the space on the right to be larger. It housed the artworks, including ‘Baingan Bharta’, a Shaura (a painted ceramic platter) by the late, much loved artist Manjit Bawa. This is the only work that wasn’t specially created for the show. Ina Puri’s handwritten note that carries the recipe for the baingan bharta (aubergine mash) made the experience of looking at the ceramic platter more engaging. One can almost taste the spiced, flavoured dish.