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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.

Baingan Bharta, by Manjit Bawa (Work courtesy of Ina Puri)

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

This section also has Vasundhara Tiwari Broota’s larger work, ‘The Fragrance of Rose’, which showcases the yogic posture of an acrobat. The work seems like a mirror image of itself completing the two views of the same acrobat. The sensuous rose petal at the top is connected with the leafy ground below by a stiff almost ‘phallic’ cylinder. There is something about the work that draws the mind to it as one looks at it for long and there is a sense of evocative passionate silence, just like a wound-up spring on the brink of getting unwound and uncoiled. There is restrained power that emanates from this work which reminds one of the use of rose petal in culinary recipes – subtle, yet ready to explode.

The Fragrance of Rose by Vasundhara Tiwari Broota

The Fragrance of Rose work with the artist Vasundhara Tiwari Broota (left)

and the curator Georgina Maddox (right) (Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Lavanya Mani’s work is a multi-layered narrative about the complex relationship of the orient with the Indian sub-continent through the lens of the colonial powers; the travel of the spices from the east to the Indian peninsula for exploitation by the colonial rulers using ships of sails and imagination. There are multiple things being addressed here – from the evolving palate of the ‘natives’ by the new crops of spices that change their culture, life and the perception of the local for generations to come to the trade routes that formed and forged new relationships.

Resurgence (both works) by Lavanya Mani (Works courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road gallery)

Untitled by Lavanya Mani (Work courtesy of Georgina Maddox, personal collection)

Chetan Mevada’s works try to weave through the highlights and shadows that are part of the market that becomes the hub for the sale of the spices. The market not only carries the aroma of the various spices but also the sweat of the ones who grow it, the ones who sell it and even of those that consume it. The market has its own socio-political context that runs in a layered hierarchy. Humans are the most important part of this chain, and yet their absence makes the viewer focus on the alleys, back streets, jaalis and arches. We begin to imagine the lost markets of spice trade because of modernization in sale and delivery of products today. Does the aroma still linger in those forgotten spaces and corridors?

Market by Chetan Mevada

Vyapar by Chetan Mevada

Gallery display with Chetan's work from left, followed by Meghna's and Lavanya's

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Meghna Patpatia’s drawing is detailed and depicts numerous mini-tales within the large diptych. The sundial is the key to the entire work. You stand and wonder if the work is sharing the residual landscape of human exploitation: a bed of exposed marine life as a result of focused consumerism, where everything that is bred on farms must necessarily be of benefit to human kind.

A Fleeting Contagiousness by Meghna Patpatia

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Kolkata has been a hotbed for communist ideology and the colour red has always caught the fancy of all artists who include it in their works as a symbol to reflect it. Kishore Chakraborty’s nine works displayed in two rows of six above and three below bring a riot of red to the entire show. It is impossible to move on from the collective display. I tried to read the metaphors behind the abstract works and felt that all the works looked like the top view of a crushing board, more like the stone used for grinding spices and to make chutney (sil batta). Interesting to imagine the red meat finely cut and hammered to paste, crushed along with the spices to temper the meat and enhance its flavour. Nothing remains on it apart from the redness and the few crushed spices. I spent a lot of time imagining the cinnamon, black pepper, clove, etc. in different stages of the grind, left now as only remnants of a life lived and exhausted. Flavourful and most satisfying to the palate!

The Spice and Salt that Season a Man by Kishore Chakraborty (Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

The Spice and Salt that Season a Man by Kishore Chakraborty

Gallery display of Kishore Chakraborty on the wall and sculptures by Karl Antao and

Khanjan Dalal on the pedestals (Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Khanjan Dalal and Karl Antao present the only sculptures on display. Karl’s sculpture presents nature (a germinating seed) taking over seemingly synthetic objects (pots); the shape reminiscent of garlic shoots.

Flavoured Pot (Bronze sculpture) by Karl Antao (Work courtesy Gallery Espace)

Khanjan’s sculptures are like purses holding treasures. What riches does it hold? Put your hand in to find out: it could just be a postcard with a picture story from the cumin farmers of Banaskantha in Gujarat.

Sculpture by Khanjan Dalal and the postcards from inside the seed purse

I asked Georgina about art that had been created down the ages with spice and spice trade as a predominant theme; especially, if there have been European and British artists who dwelled on the theme during and after the start of colonization for sourcing spices. She responded thus:

“Historically there are many artworks that look directly and indirectly at the spice trade, the trade of tea, coffee and the other natural resources that India was rich in. The works of Thomas and his nephew William Daniell immediately come to mind; their large canvases and small but vastly detailed prints and aquatints often depicted the Indian landscape in all its glorious beauty with its spices, fisheries, flora and fauna. Oriental Scenery is William's most significant life work even judging by today's standards.

"Then one can see many company school paintings that reference not just the farming and cultivation of spices but also tried to create some kind of anthropological categorization of the farmers who grew these spices, a practice that has been richly critiqued very tongue-in-cheek and humorously by contemporary artists like Pushpamala N and Nikhil Chopra in contemporary times. We also have the Mughal and Persian miniatures that have very elaborate cataloguing of food. The Baburnama is one that is well known for this as is the Jehangir Nama and the Shah Nama.

(For more personal research one can look at these links From Babur to Jahangir, how the Mughal empire enriched Indian cuisine | Eye News, The Indian Express, William Daniell - Wikipedia) I can write an entire paper on this topic so perhaps we can save that for another article!”

I’ve kept the best for the last – my personal favourites. There are two works by Arunkumar HG: ‘Grey Blanket’ and ‘Star Anise’. Grey Blanket has dried leaves pasted on canvas with grey acrylic colour, much like the earth blanketed by the leaves forming and reforming into the greyness of a natural order of things. Life, death, life. The circle continues, though the form may change.

Grey Blanket by Arun Kumar HG and Poem by Georgina Maddox (Photo courtesy Aakshat Sinha)

The lines next to this work by Georgina cover the wide canvas that she has used to touch upon and discover the spice of our lives.

‘Spice in the Aroma of plants Spice as Flavour in food. Spice as Ayurvedic medicine Spice as Aphrodisiac Spice with Religious qualities Spice as element of trade and possession Spice as a vegetative trail along East Asia' – Georgina Maddox

Star Anise by Arunkumar HG with Georgina Maddox (left) and Monica Jain (right)

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

The last work from the show, ‘Star Anise’ by Arunkumar HG not only pops off the wall as relief works, emulating the form of the star anise spice (Chakri phool), but is the source of an aroma that hits the nasal receptors even before one enters the room. This is despite the masks in place to abide by the safety guidelines. The artist has used the actual paste of star anise on papier mache works in the form of the spice. This got me thinking how the spice might have several perspectives to it – social, political, evolutionary, historical, culinary, and sentimental among others – but each one of them can be triggered by a whiff that reveals the existence of the spice in the vicinity. Each single whiff can trigger a plethora of emotions and memories, even to those who may have never smelt that particular spice before.

From left: Yashwant Singh, Shahanshah Mittal, Satadru Sovan, Rahul Kumar and Aakshat Sinha

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Tea time, from left: Kamana Pushkale, Rashmi Khurana, Aakshat Sinha and Satadru Sovan

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

The visit left many flavours lingering in the mind. It was good to have been in the company of friends and fellow artists at the exhibition opening. Monica had made a special effort to keep all the assortments on the evening’s menu homemade. The pandemic might have played on the smelling powers of the infected ones and might have led people to feel lonely and isolated in their own islands, but this show helped a small group of people reconnect with others, with art and with the aroma of spices. Imbibe the smell of life, I say, and spice it up!

The show is on till 12 March 2021.

(All images are courtesy of Art Centrix Space and the respective artists, unless mentioned otherwise.)


Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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