Under my byline

Fast food for fine art

Posted in Architecture/Design, Art, Diet, Foodie, Profiles by Rrishi on 7 September 2008

Artist Kanchan Chander takes a break from her studio for a bite of fish

“All artists are chai-wallahs,” says Kanchan Chander, putting a tray of nice kadak chai and biscuits down before us. She means tea as fuel for long stretches of work or conversation. Chander spends several hours during the quietest parts of the day labouring away in her semi-basement studio. She has a show coming up next year. It’s hardly what one would call a bohemian existence.

Perhaps that kind of thing belongs in an artist’s student days. In the living room of Chander’s little flat in south Delhi is hung a small image from 1979, when she was still studying art. It is an ink sketch of a dancer from a temple frieze somewhere in the Deccan, done on the spot. The quick, swooping lines indicate a figure in motion, yet they retain something of the solidity and self-possession of sculpture.

It’s ink on old newsprint, Chander says, that old, rough, cheap newsprint that you don’t see any more — “Now it’s all chikna-chikna” — and was executed with a nib dipped in an inkbottle. She loves the way a drop of ink would spread on that paper, a sensual experience difficult to repeat with modern materials.

This love of materiality is no surprise in an artist, especially an established artist with a 30-year career (Chander first studied at the Delhi College of Art and then taught there, for 20 years) and a taste for variety. But from her home — the flat above her studio — one would not guess the owner’s calling. There are no brushes lying in the kitchen sink or cutlery drawer, the bathroom shines, there are no paint splotches on floor, walls or sofas, no canvases stacked in the bedrooms.

That kind of thing is reserved for the studio downstairs, which is really a flat of the same size, modified in layout to yield one large front room with a tall square work-table in the middle and a few sofas at the margins to seat visiting friends, and two little rooms at the back, all the rooms connecting through a pantry. Satisfyingly, the pantry counter is lined with old brushes and tins.

One of the back rooms is Chander’s main workspace, and here a plastic stool and a tatty armchair, flanked on one side by a low shelf laden with the tools of her trade, both face a large, colourful canvas resting against the wall and drying under the fan. A dusty music system is stacked with jazz, classical and oldies CDs, many of which were burnt for her by her college-going son Pallav — who loves acting and theatre.

Upstairs, Chander has made us fish. “When you’re working, you want something quick and fast,” she says, “and I find fish is healthy and easy to cook also.” We’re so busy talking that the fish is a little overdone, but it’s surprisingly flavourful, she says because of her sparing use of salt.

FAVOURITE RECIPE

LEMON FISH

½ kilo shinghara or surmai fish, in medium-size, boneless pieces
Masala paste made from mixture of garam masala, red paprika, dhania powder, salt and cornflour
Juice of three lemons
Grated garlic, ginger and onions
Olive oil
A pinch of rosemary
A pinch of parsley
A few sprigs of fresh dhania

Wash fish and marinate for several hours in masala paste. To cook, first warm olive oil in a pan. Add grated ginger, garlic, onion and rosemary and stir until golden-brown. Then add the marinated fish, add salt to taste, and cover. Let it cook on low flame for 12 to 15 minutes. Make sure to turn the fish pieces carefully. Once cooked, transfer to a flat dish and pour lemon juice over it, evenly. Garnish with green parsley and chopped dhania, and decorate with lemon wedges on the side. Guilt option: put cheese on top, either grated or a slice, and warm for 30 seconds in microwave to soften cheese. Eat with toast or rice.

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