Shanu Lahiri’s book ‘Tabled’ is a living installation of memories
The artist, who died in 2013, was an acclaimed renegade of the Kolkata art scene.
By: Kunal Ray
Nobody who went to meet painter and art educator Shanu Lahiri at her Lake Town home in Kolkata ever left unfed. From fixing quick salads to preparing elaborate meals, there are numerous stories about her many experiments in the kitchen. Unsuspecting friends have found strange saags on their plate. The Oolong tea leaves that someone had gifted her had been given another life — she had taken the steeped leaves, chopped them up, tempered them with garlic and red chillies, and served them without missing a beat.
The persistent demands for Lahiri’s idiosyncratic recipes have finally led her daughter Damayanti to publish Tabled (www.samparkglobal.in), a delightful collection of recipes, anecdotes, paintings, doodles and scribbles. Teeming with Lahiri’s artworks, Tabled is designed by her nephew and renowned contemporary artist, Chittrovanu Mazumdar.
Recipes and recollections
Lahiri, who died in 2013, was an acclaimed renegade of the Kolkata art scene. Refusing to work with established art galleries, she carved out alternative spaces to exhibit her work. With students from local schools and colleges, she undertook massive public art projects in the 1980s to beautify the walls of the city marred by Naxalite manifesto and political graffiti. The walls became her canvas.
In 2010, she was invited for a similar project in Hyderabad where she, along with children from local schools, painted over the walls of the Lakshman Bagh temple. Her last big exhibition, which was also a retrospective of sorts, was held in 2012 at a friend’s spacious apartment in Kolkata’s Ballygunge area. Lahiri was present almost every day to meet the scores of people who came to see her paintings, on show after many years.
When I went for the exhibition, she held my hand, gave a guided tour, and then offered me some home-made sondesh. Lahiri hailed from one of Kolkata’s most artistic families. Her brothers were littérateur Kamal Kumar Majumdar and the noted painter, Nerode Majumdar. She studied at the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata, and later went to Paris on a scholarship. Her Parisian experiences and other memories are recorded in her fascinating memoir, Smritir Collage (A Collage of Memories, 2001).
Leavened with stories
Tales of Lahiri’s generosity abound. From spending time with eager students who dropped by to consult her on their work to creating anti-nuclear pamphlets that she would personally distribute, to rustling up dishes in a jiffy, she was always up to something. So much so that people often wondered when she got the time to paint.
The recipes and anecdotes in Tabled were originally written in Bengali and later translated into English by Damayanti and Manjusmita Bagchi, with a little help from friends. While reading Tabled, several questions occurred to me. Can a book be an art project, a living installation of memories? Is a book an archive? Tabled seemed to be all of these and more.
Damayanti writes in the foreword, “Rummaging through memories, our table laden with food and leavened with stories stands out. Acting as a unifier, a space of engagement, a strong narrative developed with the table at the centre. Rarely was it only the family around the table — house guests, friends (and their friends), relatives, neighbours, drop-ins. Tabled has been conceived largely out of the persistent demands for my mother’s recipes from satiated diners and was a work in progress for her, almost till she passed away. It is a free flowing anecdotal installation, compiled in no particular direction — an assemblage of illustrations, photos, quirks, recipes and minor narratives.”
Mortar and pestle
Several recipes included in the book don’t mention exact measurements. Lahiri believed that knowing how to use the approximate measure is key to being a proficient cook.
Instead, she says, “However, is there any harm in holding on to some of the methods we have learnt from the past? For instance, there were different ways of cutting vegetables. The potato was cut in a certain way, when it was for the kaliya or for the jhol or when it was fried or to be put into shukto, or chocchori or dalna as per tradition. We unwittingly follow the same pattern. If the generations ahead continue to follow these traditions, the result perhaps can only be good.”
Tabled is also a book about people and food memories. Newly married, Lahiri received her first lessons in Chinese cooking from a Chinese vendor who used to pass by their house every afternoon selling his wares. One day she stopped him and asked if he could make her fried rice. He instantly agreed to do a demonstration.
Another story features her husband Prabhat Lahiri’s encounter with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan on a train journey from Bombay. The Ustad very kindly offered him some parathas and kebabs. From her husband’s description, she instantly knew these were Padmini kebabs. Later, when she made them at home, Prabhat certified that they were indeed very close to what he had eaten on the train.
In 1972, Lahiri travelled to the U.S. and Canada at the invitation of sarod maestro and good friend, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. She would often have Kentucky Fried Chicken, enjoying it thoroughly. Upon returning to Kolkata, she evolved what she fondly called the Calcutta Fried Chicken.
She would set up food stalls during Durga Puja selling ghughni and alur dum, among other delicacies. Curator and close associate Sounak Chacraverti recalls, “Her cooking was akin to the life she led, replete with experiments. She cooked and fed people with affection. That was her secret ingredient.”
Courtesy The Hindu