Watch | Paatre, a curated exhibition of traditional Indian vessels in Bengaluru
It is a teardrop-shaped sandesher chaanch. Chaitali Datta, an architect from Kolkata, inherited it from her mother-in-law who got it from her mother. In black clay with embossed designs, the moulds were used to make sandesh imprinted with intricate floral designs. Datta does not make the Bengali milk sweet at home, but she has held on to these beautiful pieces from Bangladesh that are nearly a 100 years old, as a legacy that she will pass on to her daughter someday.
“This is exactly why we are curating the Paatre exhibition,” says Chandra Jain of the Crafts Council of Karnataka. “There are so many of us like Chaitali who still treasure, or use, pieces from the kitchens of yore. Paatre will showcase vessels sourced from private collectors, antique dealers and, of course, personal kitchens. For me, these are works of art. They carry within them so much nostalgia and craftsmanship.”
The three-day exhibition in Bengaluru, which opens March 17, will have kalchettis or stone pots, wooden masala boxes, pestles and mortars, bamboo strainers, coconut graters, nut crackers, and more. It took over eight months to put it together.
Jain got in touch with several museums and spread the word among her contacts and Crafts Council members, who generously lent their vessels — from Assam, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha. Many of the 100 pieces at Paatre have also been borrowed from Janapada Loka, a folk museum in the city.
A metaphor for the world
“I remember growing up in Lucknow wondering why the bronze plates at home were called phool ki thaali. I know now that it was because they were delicate as flowers. The alloy of copper and tin made them brittle and they would break if we dropped them! I also learnt that bronze was a great metal to cook and eat in as it did not react with acids in our food,” Jain reminisces.
It is these little bits of wisdom and anecdotes that Paatre will serve to its visitors. “If you pause to consider it, there is so much history, community, wisdom and nostalgia in these traditional implements. Look at how Kabir, Guru Nanak and so many Sufi poet saints have used pots and vessels as a metaphor for life,” she says. They nourish, forge bonds, and are beautifully crafted.
They are also living traditions — telling incredible stories about how our ancestors lived, cooked healthy foods and kept fit. “We have pieces in the curation that go back centuries. There are water bottles people carried on their journeys on horseback, kalashas or water pots, huge cauldrons in which food was cooked for large families or during community events,” Jain says, adding that Paatre is also envisioned as a way to reintroduce old crafts that are in danger of dying out. “So many youngsters have told me how the pandemic had given them that pause, to pay attention to the beautiful things they had in their homes. It made them think of the environment, eating seasonal and local. Paatre is an amalgamation of all those thoughts.”
Pots to pick up
Paatre has invited artisans who continue to make these vessels in the traditional way to conduct workshops. There will also be stalls where the artisans (and stores that work with them) will sell their wares, besides talks and food demonstrations. Jain adds that there have also been enquiries from Kolkata and Hyderabad for the exhibition to travel there.
Meanwhile, Chaitali digs out another old inheritance, an oval hamandista or a mortar and pestle that is blackened with age. She uses it to crush tulasi leaves and black pepper to treat persistent coughs. “To think my great-great-grandmother used it for the same over a 100 years ago, is heart-warming,” she says.
Paatre is on from March 17-19 at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Coimbatore.