What did our food look like hundreds of years ago? In an era where there was no Pinterest or Instagram, how do we know what our ancestors ate? We go to art. Paintings down the ages have helped give us a glimpse of what our dining table looked like. Surprisingly, now in this tech-savvy age, artists are again taking to the canvas with hyper-realistic images of food.
"I never realised while eating idli that it has hundreds of tiny holes. Now, I know its true value!" laughs 38-year-old Sarasvathy TK, an artist from Secunderabad (Telangana), living in New Jersey, US. Her immaculate renditions of Indian food connect with the viewer instantly. She is now preparing to ready 11 works under her project titled ‘Bhojan’ for a solo exhibition in New York next year.
The Computer Science engineer was always interested in art, but it was restricted to doodling till a visit to the Louvre, Paris, in 2007 which changed it all. Later after visiting an art exhibition in Singapore in 2008, she broached the idea of a career in art to her husband, Nagaraju Palivela. For years, this self-taught artist dabbled in various genres before Google introduced her to hyper-realism in 2015.
"Works by renowned artists from across the world attracted me immensely. I realised that Indian food was not much explored in this context. So my journey began," she says, adding, "What we cook is an expression of who we are and where we come from. Food akways plays a central role in every culture, globally."
This statement is something that Japanese chef Itsuo Kobayashi and New York Daily News reporter Anna Sanders would agree with. Chef Itsuo has been pictorially documenting his meals on a daily basis for over three decades.
From how a dish is prepared and cooked to how it is finally plated, his drawings today have gained worldwide acclaim with a debut show in the US in January this year. His mouthwatering paintings at the New York’s Outsider Art Fair were sold for up to USD 3,000 each. Likewise, Anna wanted to start 2020 on a good note.
So on New Year’s day, she found herself at her favourite café ordering two bagels—one to eat and one to draw. Before she knew it, friends wanted to buy the painting and she was on to her second, and then her third in the ongoing series. "It’s the sense of familiarity that makes the art appealing," believes Sarasvathy.
With no references to aid her journey in the hyper-realism world, Sarasvathy perfected her craft by stringent self-exploration. She created dishes she wanted to paint and took hundreds of pictures before zeroing in on the layout and design.
She paints on thrice-primed linen which lends life to the paintings because of its smoothness. Inspired by Dutch artist Tjalf Sparnaay and US artist Mary Ellen Johnson, Sarasvathy finds their paintings—droolworthy images of cheesy hamburgers, eggs fried sunny side up, syrupy pancakes and chocolaty éclairs—a teaching in grasping the perfect detail and texture.
The genre is challenging, she says. "I have worked on painting a dosa which had over 5,000 circles. Also, for an image comprising seven gulab jamuns, I had to paint more than 1,000 tiny circles on each. It takes a lot of effort and time," she says, adding that it took six months to paint her first work—Idli, Sambar and Chutney—in 2017.
Each painting takes two to three months as the paintings require detailed output covering colour, texture, shape, condiments, magnitude and depth. "When we work on contemporary forms, we showcase the imagination of artists. But when we have to paint a food/dish, all eyes that are going to finally see it, have a pre-determined picture of that food/dish. As an artist I have to ensure that the picture of that dish in the viewers’ mind matches my work," Sarasvathy adds.
So next time you bite into an idli or a gulab jamun, how about counting the holes and the circles?