Food is celebration for the soul as much as celebration is food for the soul.
If an Indian childhood is anything to go by, I would never have enough space in my head to contain the cornucopia of memories filled with sweet and savory paraphernalia I got, relished, and hesitantly shared with my sister– all while paying lesser attention to the context in the first place. In doing so, these treats unwittingly acquired new contexts.
Golu (Bommai Kolu in Tamil, Bommala Golu in Telugu, Bombe Habba in Kannada) is one such context, bringing with it another excuse to dress up in silken clothing, wear flowers and run around the neighbourhood with friends. It's likely you may wonder what Golu is, at all. One could call it a niche tradition, much like a sub-festival within the festival of Navratri specifically observed in Southern India, where women set up an odd-numbered stairwell covered in fabric and beautifully adorned with traditional clay toys in their homes. In its most traditional form, these toys are collected over the years, as ancestral heirlooms and handed down to the generations. Deities fill the top rows, court life and royal ceremonies come next, and finally, everyday scenes from the villages line up on the bottom rows. This display over Navratri culminates in a social evening of the ladies and their little girls visiting one home after another to admire each other’s Golu. And be treated with some of the aforementioned delicious knick knacks, of course!
Over these last 3 years, this festival has taken over my imagination. It started when after attending Golu at K's cousin's, after years of being in the vicinity of one, I was taken by its inherent playfulness that I associated with it as a child. Ironically, neither K nor I have never had a Golu display at home, growing up!
Golu is now an inspiration in a few different forms. This project I am about to show you has somewhat of a ridiculous backstory. Early in our new apartment in Berlin, K and I had a friend over for dinner, and after I'd enthusiastically cooked us dinner, we remembered we had no table (yet) or any decent arrangement to lay out the food. K broke out his improvisational ideas and fetched the ever-reliable Ikea stool to the rescue. I uttered "Food Golu", laughing at our quick creativity.
I held on to the term almost instantly and have been toying with making something of it ever since. Late last year, I worked on some visual experiments to figure out what it meant.
I finally landed at a project called Pedestalled Memory.
Pedestalled Memory. The food of the time is now the celebrated– the memory of the dolls and traditional prasadam (food made for ritual) merge into a singular shrine-like dream of the celebration, while no two Golu's are ever the same. The traditional melds with the contemporary, the improvised, and the personal into a playful nostalgia of the modest Indian middle-class crafter.
Here's a peek into my early studies:
With the sweets served at Golu, I set out to create a pedestal of beings, with just a hint of a deliberate ordering. While I loved the cute-sy aesthetic, I wasn't happy with the idea of this meandering into the realm of fondant art and using sculpting to do my talking. A few more studies later (which are a tad embarrassing to show here), I arrived at my series.
Pedestalled Memory: Hot
Pedestalled Memory: Fruit
Pedestalled Memory: Sweet
Pedestalled Memory was exhibited as part of the Sacred Food show at the Entretempo Kitchen Gallery in November 2016. I'm grateful it pushed me to keep working on evolving this idea.
As part of the show, the artists were invited to host an Artists and Curated Dinner where we prepared a course each for our guests.
I decided to work on the dessert and took the opportunity to have an interactive interpretation of another childhood-inspired project, Paper Boats (remember this one?) Guests made origami sculptures of what they remembered most vividly from their childhood (of course, there were visual inspiration and instructions for assistance), without really knowing what'd happen next. After these figures were made, they were quickly baked and perched atop the pudding, ready to be served, each to their respective creators. It was a delight to see guests working enthusiastically at this hands-on exercise, albeit at the lean end of the meal, and a bigger delight to see happy faces when their rice pudding was served with their own personal sculpture on top.
While this sums up the latest Golu adventure, I have the feeling I haven't yet had enough. This incredibly personal, colourful and iconic tradition seems to have a lot more inspiration planned for me than I'd have ever imagined as a mere spectator in my childhood, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed to manage making more work of it soon!