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World idli day special: Tiffin time via US Post

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on March 27, 2020

Stamps as memorabilia: New Jersey-based artist Sarasvathy TK has decided to mark the day by releasing a limited edition of 22 postal stamps featuring her hyper-realistic painting of this staple South Indian breakfast item

To mark World Idli Day on March 30, New Jersey-based artist Sarasvathy TK is showcasing this steamed wonder through custom-designed stamps

It’s hard to come across anyone who can resist steaming hot idlis. When dipped in spicy sambhar or gently daubed with idli podi — a delectable powder of fried lentils and red chillies — it is simply joie de vivre. On March 30, 2015, an idli caterer in Chennai, Eniyavan, decided to celebrate this much-loved steamed food, and thus began the World Idli Day.

This year, New Jersey-based artist Sarasvathy TK has decided to mark the day by releasing a limited edition of 22 postal stamps featuring her hyper-realistic painting of this staple South Indian breakfast item. The painting is of six idlis on a plate accompanied by bowls of coconut chutney and sambhar.

Food artist: New Jersey-based artist Sarasvathy TK

 

In the US, anyone can design custom postage stamps using the services of third-party vendors approved by the United States Postal Service (USPS). Were it not for the coronavirus-related restrictions, the artist would have travelled to a few post offices in New York to give away her stamps to people there. “You can even sell your rights to the Postal Department so that they can print it out in large numbers and sell it, but as of now I am doing a limited edition and not selling my rights. I want it to be exclusive, but I will share it with a few people.”

An engineer by qualification, Chennai-born Sarasvathy has from 2003 lived in three different countries — the UAE, Singapore and now the US. Growing up in Tamil Nadu, idli was her essential breakfast. In fact, eating idlis day in and day out had made her averse to it. “But living away from India revived my connection with it. I started cooking it once a week and later painting it.”

Fascinated by Dutch artist Tjalf Sparnaay’s mega-realistic paintings of burgers, sandwiches and fries, Sarasvathy soon noticed the absence of paintings on Indian food. In 2015, she started making hyper-realistic paintings — minutely detailed with precise colours and texture — of Indian cuisine.

Initially it took her nearly six months to make a single painting. “There were no references, no videos. I didn’t know where to start,” says the artist over a WhatsApp call.

Today, she takes three months for each painting. To get the right texture is the biggest challenge, she says. “The shine of the vessel, the texture of the fruit, the colours... I want to get everything right. I love still life, but it’s funny that we don’t pay attention to these common objects even while using them; but in a painting, you can go on looking at its minute details, as observed by the artist. I can gaze at a still-life work for hours.”

Ever since the artist chose food as her subject, she has started to observe it minutely — be it while cutting fruit or eating a chapati, Sarasvathy often finds herself lost in their fine details.

Of the five food paintings she has made so far, she will unveil three — idli, dosa, and samosa — on her social media pages on March 30. The garlic naan and gulab jamun will follow in April.

 

If idli made her struggle for the perfect texture, the dosa, naan, samosa and gulab jamun posed other complexities. “I have made nearly 10,000 holes in my dosa painting. Dosa has just so many holes. With naan, the challenge is, again, to get your textures right. It is fluffy, lumpy, stuffed with various ingredients. Every bit of gulab jamun has different colours — there are shades of orange, red, and you have to get them all right,” says the self-taught artist.

Since people in the US often use custom postage stamps to promote their brand, Sarasvathy thought of using that platform to promote the idli — a dish that is today not just pan-Indian, but global.

“I also noticed that there are hardly any stamps on Indian food. In fact, I have not come across any paintings on Indian cuisine either. It is my way of paying tribute.”

While restaurants and eateries remain closed due to the lockdown across the world, Sarasvathy’s virtual plate of fluffy idlis may just brighten up someone's morning.

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based journalist

Published on March 27, 2020

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