SOS: An Ecological Vision of Food and Art

A conversation with Femme Libre d’esprit, Prima Kurien, about her journey through art and food, and what these have taught her

LILA: Your engagements range across fields of design, art and food. You ran a gallery which was known for its openness and unorthodox approach that brought all of this together. Can you tell us a little bit about how these roads have come to intersect for you?

Prima Kurien: I think the paths naturally merged into one another. My husband and I were running Gallery Chanakya between 1990-92, which was the beginning of my foray into art in Delhi. He let me discover my instinctive eye for art and nurtured it patiently. When we separated in 1992, the gallery also closed; it was a year after my son Appu was born. By then I had developed a keen interest in design, textiles and fashion. I started working with Prabha Mohanty who was doing path-breaking research in jute at that time. In 1995, I started on my own, and founded Art Inc. Sunil Nagpal, my friend, provided a space in GK-I and we did a show called Emerging Trends, featuring artists like Probir Gupta, RM Palaniappan, Akhilesh and others, on my meagre bank balance of Rs. 3,000. The show eventually cost Rs. 1.4 lakhs. That show was a leap of faith.

This marked not only the character of Art Inc., but all of my professional decisions till date. It blended my twin love for food and art. It became more intense an experience when we moved to Shahpur Jat around 1998 . It was not a commercial space in spirit – I worked with artists whose works moved and resonated with me, and with whom I forged deep bonds that I enjoy till date. I loved spending time in their studios and gradually began to understand their practice. So there was a sense of belonging; it became a place where one could meet, discuss and ideate into the wee hours of the evening over food and drinks. I began serving brunch at the gallery during previews. The landlord gave us an empty store nearby, and at almost every preview there was a Malayali feast served. Artists came in and became friends. Viewers included everyone from art collectors and curators to the members of the local Shahpur Jat neighbourhood, which included mendicants and transvestites – everybody was invited. The world of art should be a democratic space that draws people from all walks of life together – I just let Art Inc. personify that spirit. So people came, talked, ate and sat around. It was amazing to see such a buzz of dialogue and fellowship.

Edible Archives at this year’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale

LILA: The sense of sharing was the connect…

Prima Kurien: Yes! Artists frequented the gallery irrespective of whether they showed with the gallery or not. Manjit [Bawa] was a friend and was an immense support to the gallery. In 2002, I travelled with Manjit and Rajeev Sethi through South India on   one of their design projects. The idea of ‘Wayside Deity’ emerged in the course of this journey, where we visited beautiful temples, gorgeous architectural sites and many craftsmen. This was a significant turn. One afternoon, Anita Dube dropped by at the gallery and I proposed this project to her, inviting her to participate in it. Finally, the show opened to rave reviews, and commercial success for a change. Most of the work I did at Art Inc. evolved from such interactions with my artist friends and out of an intuitive mindspace. The compulsions of commercial viability was never the deciding factor. It was about being there, engaging, and presenting.

LILA: Such a beautiful place to go—why did you close it in 2003?

Prima Kurien: The commercial viability of a gallery that banks solely on works of artists on the cutting edge, and who at that point were comparatively less known, and not the reigning superstars like Manjit Bawa or Hussein, presented its own share of challenges. This finally led to the closure of Art Inc.

At one point in my 1300 sq.ft gallery there was only one painting hanging, and that was Anita Dube’s seminal sculpture, African Queen – a majestic, nearly 6-feet long aubergine velvet sculpture suspended from the ceiling. I sat alone for months and never got tired of staring at it. On some afternoons, I was joined by Parvaty, a local transgender, who would sit with me and gaze at the work. The art community supported the spirit of Art Inc. I did not want to compromise all the beauty and joy by doing projects I did not relate to, merely to fund the gallery expenses. I think there is a space for Art Inc. even today. More than that, I think there is a need for it.

LILA: You are right. This kind of connect seems to be fading from the world today. Your practice of food also carries a sense of your personal aesthetics, that you share with the world. Could you tell us about your personal journey with food?

Prima Kurien: During my childhood till my early teens, virtually all my summer holidays were spent at my paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes in Kottayam, and most of my time there was spent with my aunts and grandmothers in their huge kitchens – breakfast, lunch, teatime to dinner – the kitchen was a blaze of activity throughout the day. In Kerala, the rituals around preparing fish were an important part of our lives. The fisherwoman, Kuttichothi, would arrive at my maternal grandmother’s house by 7.30 in the morning and take the fish to the outhouse where she would sit on her haunches and clean the fish under my granny’s supervision. All of us kids would gather around the two women, watching the cleaning ritual and absorbing their conversations.

My paternal grandmother, Velliammachi, on the other hand, had an aptitude not only for cooking but also for natural medicine. She was an admirable matriarch, and I have derived most of my values for art and life from being around her. Once, when one of my cousins got conjunctivitis, I was asked to run and fetch Laila, a neighbour who was breastfeeding at the time. When we got home, Velliammachi asked Laila for some breastmilk, and an amazing scene began to unfold before me. Laila sat on a stool, pulled up her blouse and pressed some breast milk onto a spoon, which she then handed over to Velliammachi. Then, my little cousin was summoned and the milk was slowly poured into her eyes. I presume this ritual was repeated a couple of times during that day. In any case, by the next morning we found that my cousin’s eyes had completely healed. Velliammachi, in these ways, instilled in me a strong sense of community. Every year on July 7, Velliammachi’s birthday, a big uruli (a heavy-bottomed vessel), almost the size of a small room, would be pulled out of the store room to prepare biryani for the entire neighbourhood. The aroma of that biryani still haunts me after so many decades. It was a blessing to have spent so much time during my growing years with her. Her strength and resilience, and her extraordinary culinary skills, will always be my inspiration. She is my food goddess.

The author’s paternal grandmother – her food Goddess

My mother has been another great influence on me. She was the youngest in her family, and as a young bride she accompanied my dad to Nepal where he was posted. Recipes were sent to her by her mother, mother-in-law and elder sisters. My mother’s side of the family was very strong in baking and making pickles and preserves. By the time I was 8-9, my mother had become a master baker. The art of making desserts, pickles, jams and wines thus came to me from my maternal side. In Nepal, my mother had all the time in her hand, and her kitchen became a site of her experiments with food.

Before marriage, I barely cooked. I was happy simply watching my mother in the kitchen. After I got married into a Sardar family, I started missing the food of my community. My mother-in-law, noticing this, told me, ‘Beta, aap apni marji ka khaana banao” [You cook the food you like]. But the embarrassing truth was I knew nothing at all! And therefore, I taught myself how to cook. I used to be in constant communication with my mother and aunts for recipes. I poured through recipe books, determined to master my cuisine. In the beginning it was a struggle, but having been nurtured on these flavours from childhood, I knew what to work towards to arrive at authenticity. I just needed practice. It was such an incredible voyage of self-discovery and finding my life’s purpose!

An appetising meal prepared by Prima

The cuisine, I gradually realised, relied heavily on precision and moderation. My prepping and knife-skills got honed. Slowly, I got into the rhythm of the cuisine. I realised, the simpler the dishes, the more complex they were, especially the vegetarian side of the cuisine that relied on minimal ingredients and spices. Extracting flavours out of simple vegetables – for example preparing a curried cucumber, whilst preserving its essential nature, flavour, texture and colour – was key to delicious Malayali cuisine. Through cooking, I realised that less is more. Perhaps, I owe my editorial abilities to it.

LILA: What a wonderful journey! Malayali food has become your specialty now, and your life in Kerala clearly had a role to play in that. Now that you live away from home does your engagement with this cuisine change in any way?

Prima Kurien: The distance means nothing to me. My cooking does not live in nostalgia – I live in the moment. Cooking is an everyday function of my life and an experience that I offer.

Let’s not glamourise or exoticise food. It’s a basic human need. Once made, one can interpret it in different ways. Kerala food is a fine example of inclusivity. It is a cuisine that is not divided by class or caste. Irrespective of economic or social strata, everyone across the spectrum has access to quality food, whether it is seafood, meat or vegetables. In fact the economically less privileged sections of society, not having access to imported food fads, are able to preserve traditional cuisines, by eating the local food that they have been nurtured on. A railway canteen is a paradigm of this spirit. My greatest ambition is to run a democratic food space where, irrespective of whether you are rich or poor, you can access quality food with authentic ingredients.

LILA: But we are living in an age of instant solutions. Food production and consumption have become quite mindless. There are huge concerns about the food we eat leading to toxicity, obesity, and other disease conditions in human beings, and the industry causing terrible environmental pollution, cruelty to animals, increased divide between the haves and have-nots. Do you have any thoughts about a movement for equitable change? Will such a movement be scalable or sustainable given the current functioning of the world?

Prima Kurien: I think it eventually all boils down to mindful consumption. What to eat, how much and when to eat, and where to procure what we eat from. Seasonality and sustainability play a huge role and is a topic of growing concern in today’s world. For instance, today we have big supermarkets that stock expensive imported food items that are not germane to the season or the location where we live. These foods are not always better or tastier than the locally grown varieties we get. Many times the fruits we buy from the imported sections in these markets are tasteless, and very costly. Why do we need to rely on produce from other countries, when we get as good (if not better) food items from our own farmers? When we shop at these super stores, do we think about these things? Can’t we instead support the local  vendors, and farmers who toil away to produce food for us? What will happen to them and their  livelihoods without our support?

Fish Moilee

LILA: Quite right, we often don’t appreciate food as a marker of human thought or evolution in this way. How can the processes involved in  putting a plate of food in front of someone be made part of our children’s essential education, helping them develop these life skills?

Prima Kurien: Children will learn from their parents. On my part, I never gave my son Appu the benefit of thinking that he was privileged. On Christmas day, the carpenters and plumbers with whom I worked were always invited to share a traditional meal with us. Even through his essential growing up years, my mother and I were both very particular about feeding Apu traditional food and conversing with him in our mother tongue. When children grow up like that, traditional knowledge gets imbibed in their system. So, parents play a major role. Today, come summer holidays, we see families flying to America and Europe for vacations. Not too long ago, the custom was to visit one’s village during this time. As a result, the children now are barely aware of their familial customs. If they don’t know their own roots well, how will they understand the rest of the world? Before you expose them to the world, you should expose them to their own inherited vernacular. Once you know your own grammar, you can experiment and grow in different knowledge systems; you can better adapt and adjust to different situations.

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