Art nourished by food - ECAS Punjab

Art nourished by food

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Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Look around, and you will find that food has a propensity to make its presence felt in everyday happenings in the most subliminal fashion — in imagery, as a motif, symbolically, even metaphorically. It does not limit itself to being a mere reflection of the history and culture of different geographies, but has proven to be a deep-rooted cornerstone of our existence.

And because all of us physically, emotionally, and interpersonally thrive on food, it has come to play a significant role in our social and cultural lives. An aspect that the ongoing pandemic has highlighted equally, and all too glaringly! Our focus these past months, you will realise, has been on comestibles — how to procure, how to clean, how to cook, who to feed, where to deliver, etc.

Jubiliant youths wearing traditional dress with
paisley-embroidered jackets dance as they celebrate the harvest season. PTI

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that food made an early appearance in art, craft, folklore, music and literature. The diversity in its depictions, often serving as revelations about class, gender, politics and religion, has spanned countless civilisations, cultures, and chronologies. It has, in a manner, left an indelible imprint in society's collective memory.

Literary meals

"Food to literature is what background music score is to cinema. It is an intertwined part of the narrative. It engages the senses, establishes relationships, reflects socio-economic stratification and gives glimpses of a culture. It is both literal and metaphoric. From piety to gluttony, starvation to celebration, scarcity to abundance — paying attention to the food, being served or not being served, leads to a keener understanding of the world being depicted," says Dr Harpreet Gill, Associate Professor, MCM DAV College, Chandigarh.

Paisley work in needle is among the most popular designs in a Kashmiri shawl.

She elaborates further, "Oliver Twist's famous entreaty — 'Please, Sir, I want some more'— exposes the gluttony and cruelty of the board members and the plight of orphans in Victorian England. The Cratchits in Dickens' Christmas Carol embedded family warmth into Christmas dinner. And probably also contributed to good old plum pudding being christened as Christmas pudding. Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix and Obelix comic series customarily end with a feast, where the entire community comes together and celebrates their victory. And in this happy image, we look for the gagged and tied Cacofonix. It is a tradition."

Mango manifestation

This recurrence of food imagery across arts and folklore serves as a trail of information-rich clues about the times of its inception. Were it not for its presence in the wall relief of Queen Hatshepsut's funerary monument in Thebes, for instance, we would not have known that the pungent peppercorn had made its way to Egypt in the 15th century BC. The tiny spice's preservative properties had found a place of much importance in the burial chambers of mummified Pharoahs.

In this manner, the arts invite us to feel a specific place at a particular time, with food-related elements completing the sensory experience.

In the Indian context, nothing strikes the chord in the way the mango, our national fruit, does. A symbol of prosperity and fertility, it has long held writers, singers, artists, weavers and designers in its spell. The 13th century poet Amir Khusro called it the fairest fruit of the country — Naghza tarin mewa Hindustan. In a later (circa 18th century) miniature painting from the Deccan School, he is shown seated under a fruit-laden mango tree with his spiritual master, the Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya. Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited India during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, reveals his fascination for the mango in the profusely detailed notes he made about its texture, variety, flavour and usage in his travel journals.

The mango motif can be commonly found in Punjabi juttis with tilla work. ISTOCK

Traditional adornments also depict the fruit in abundance; the manga malai, a gem-encrusted necklace strung with mango-shaped pendants in gold is one of the most famous pieces of jewellery from the Malabar region.

Regardless of what you call it — ambi, kairi, paisley — the mango finds an equally wide representation in Indian textiles. Whether it is the fine needlework on Kashmiri pashminas, or the kalamkari block prints of Andhra Pradesh, craftsmen have skillfully employed, in plenty, the use of the stylised mango in their creations. It also came to be embroidered on to the cool chikankari muslins that Nur Jahan introduced to her tropical wardrobe. Similarly, the mango motif can be spotted in the borders of Paithani silk saris of Maharashtra. Beyond their usage as motifs, extracts from seasonal fruits and vegetables have long been employed to dye cotton and silk yarn.

"Vegetable dyes have been used by the traditional rangrez to create patterns and richly coloured textiles for both functional and sartorial requirements of communities. Through this association we've come to identify colours as baingani, jamuni, piaji, santari, and angoori, among others," shares Delhi-based entrepreneur Shilpa Sharma.

Folksy Punjab

Closer home, the once-vibrant tradition of weaving drawstrings — azarbands or nadas — of Punjab employed the ambi as a decorative element. Paeans have been sung about the 'reshmi naaley' of Patiala, a city that also boasts of delicate footwear with tilla-work as a longstanding handicraft. It is hard to find a pair without the paisley.

Wheat motifs embellish an heirloom rumala
(covering for Guru Granth Sahib). Photo by the writer

The state's well-known embroidered textile, phulkari, is an intricate study of interplay between the creator and her surroundings. Traditionally made on hand-woven khaddar or malmal, a bagh is a type entirely covered in motifs that are generally floral in nature. The belan bagh is a colourful and fairly common variation, with stylised representations of the rolling pin emblazoned across it. Vegetables like mirchi, gobhi, dhania, and karela lend their name and motif-shape to eponymous baghs. Similarly millet cobs and wheat ears have been spotted embroidered along many a phulkari selvedge. The latter also borrows its name — kanki butti — from kanak (wheat). Coconuts and walnuts have also been known to make a geometric appearance every now and then. The sainchi, on the other hand, is a scenic narrative of daily village life and often includes human elements, including women cooking or churning milk.

In all this, it's somewhat surprising that the ambi makes only an occasional appearance here. I suppose that's why we sing about the fruit instead, to make up for that other anomaly! "Ni ambiyan nu tarsengi, chhad ke shehar Doaba", laments a lover on discovering his beloved is moving on and away.

"Rut bhangra paan di aayi, ke ambiyan nu boor pai giya", goes one of several duets that celebrate the advent of spring. A time of much significance for an agrarian land as it also coincides with the harvest season. The reference to crops, seasons, festivals and fields is but expected. Indeed, Punjab's lilting folksongs are a lyrical manifestation of its hardy, happy and spirited people. Songs like "bajre da sitta ve assaan talli te maroreya" also celebrate the voice of the woman, giving her agency to articulate her existence. Confident in herself, she compares her sulking lover's pliant return — "Ruthra jaanda mahiya ve asaan galli wich moreya" — to the millet cob she bends easily in her palm. "Mele nu chal mere naal kude" (see box) in Asa Singh Mastana's earthy voice is, perhaps, the finest example of the joie de vivre Punjabis are synonymous with. Thrilled at the bountiful harvest that waits, the farmer invites his wife to accompany him to the Baisakhi fair, promising her an outing replete with fun, food, and shopping. Ultimately, a joyous celebration of labour!

Mele Nu Chal Mere Naal Kude

Ajj saare chhad janjaal kude,
ajj saare chhad janjaal kude
mele nuu, ahaa, mele nu chal
mere naal kude, ho ho, ho ho

Kar buha samb shtaabi ni,
le pakad sandook di chaabi ni
koi soot tu kad gulabi ni,
pa tille di gurgaabi ni le booteyan waala rumaal kude, mele nuhellip;

Ni vaisakhi ajj manawange,
vaisakhi aj manawange,
mele te bhangre paawange,
ral se peeng chadawange

Te baeke authe khawaange,
Ladduaan da, ahaa ladduaan
da leke thaal kude,
mele nuu, ahaa, mele nuhellip;.

Kankaan diya faslan pakiyaan ne,
kankaan diya faslan pakiyaan ne,
ghar saade barkhta vasiyaan ne,
mera pyaar tere naal boodha nai

Sone da kadaa deya choorha nai,
rab keeta, ahaa rab keeta hai
malamaal kude, mele nuhellip;

Tere nain jo peeti bhang ude,
tere nain jo peeti bhang ude,
te waang tamaater rang ude,
koi nazar na tenu laa deve,

Jaadu na akh da paa deve,
rataa rakhi, ahaa,
rataa rakhi roop sambhaal kude,
mele nuhellip;

— Asa Singh Mastana

from The Tribune

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