Thursday, 30 December 2010

Food porn: the Munich issue

Back in June, wilting under the scorching summer sun, I fantasised about being in snow, somewhere bitingly cold. A few weeks ago, I got my wish, with a short holiday to Munich and Budapest. The main objective was to visit the Christmas markets: I've never had a very Christmassy Christmas and just wanted to know what it would be like to actually, properly celebrate it. Growing up, my family never really celebrated Christmas, just a seafood lunch at home or at a friend's, and as soon as I started working I usually volunteered to work it for the penalties.

Our arrival in Munich was perfectly timed: day one of the city's famous sprawling Christmas markets. Despite an overnight flight we dumped our bags at the hotel (Eurostars), closest train station Hackerbrücke) and went straight into town, where we stopped at the very first wurst stand we saw for two weisswurst in a bun, with a squirt of sweet mustard. That, after the horror congealed mess served up by Emirates, was the gastronomic highlight of the trip. It was chased by the first of what were to be many, many, mugs of steaming glühwein, redolent with cloves and cinnamon.

It didn't take long until we discovered the city food market, Viktualienmarkt, not far from the central Marienplatz area, with its cosy, snow-coated stalls selling fresh meats, vegetables, plants, wines, cheeses, deli items and more, near a cobblestone laneway lined with cute quaint beer halls.

It was here we planted ourselves for roughly the next day and a half, eating roast pork in buns with a dab of sweet mustard, weisswurst in buns with a dab of sweet mustard, gingerbread and more glühwein than you can imagine. In fact, for our last night in Munich we moved to Hotel am Markt, a simple three-star with views out over the snowy market. We'd discovered it on the first night after searching the streets for Bratwurstherzl, which turned out to be opposite.

What a contrast Munich was to Delhi, with its dire infrastructure problems, its questionable cold storage making certain foods no-go zones and lack of pedestrian planning. Munich, possibly the best-planned city I've ever been to, was just such a relief, even in sub-zero snowy temperatures. And the food: it was a smorgasbord of all the things we can't access, or have limited access to, in Delhi (or are priced out of reasonable range, or need good refrigeration). Amazing chocolate, buttery custard-filled pastries, ham, sausage, beef, duck, an array of cheeses, nuts. Crusty bread, cheap and good wine, an array of local beers (without the glycerin additive). Flavoured yoghurt, berries, clementines. One night we went to a beer hall in Haidhausen and there I couldn't choose between the pork knuckle, the roast pork and the roast duck. Luckily, one option was a mixed grill with all three on one plate.

That was the night I got the meat sweats.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Anish Kapoor in India, finally

I suppose when you're a famous installation artist, second only perhaps to Damien Hirst in terms of popularity but far better in terms of talent, you are allowed to be a bit capricious.

Works by Anish Kapoor, Indian-born, British-based sculpture superstar, are currently on show in Mumbai and Delhi at the Mehboob film studios in Bandra, and the National Gallery of Modern Art respectively.

Now this is a massive, massive deal for India's art world. In fact, organisers first had the idea a decade ago, and only now has it been possible. For starters, there was simply not the exhibition space large enough needed to show his massive works (In Delhi, the NGMA has a capacious new wing where it's showing the sculptures). It is also, as would be expected, an extremely expensive exercise. So to finally be in a position to put on show works by the artist who left India at 18 in his native country, is significant. There are even ads at bus shelters, pasted over the paan stains.

Unfortunately, artists are an unpredictable lot. In the past I've had trouble with artists, in particular one fashion designer who got the shits when I asked him a question about his label's background. He ended the interview after I insisted I needed quotes from him, rather than lifting lines from the briefing notes I'd been given (sample: "Inhouse workshops insure an all-encompassing expression of our vision of beauty"). As the only vaguely usable quote I had from him - "my designs are a synthesis of East and West" - was not going to fill my 450 words, I sent a strongly-worded email to his PR and moved on to profile someone else.

In this case, Kapoor opted to cancel all interviews except for a handful. Now, this is the biggest thing to happen in India this year in arts, so naturally, dozens of journalists were clamouring for access to him. Is he shy? I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that about them, if they're being a little difficult. The British Council, staging the exhibition, said he was concentrating on the preparations for the show beforehand - that is understandable. He would also be leaving Delhi almost immediately after the launch - on November 29 - so wouldn't be speaking to journalists afterwards either.

I was invited to the launch - my best opportunity to "grab Anish for a comment", according to the BC - but didn't go as I was overseas. Today, finally, I went to see the show at the NGMA, at its on sprawling grounds in central Delhi, near India Gate. It costs 150rs for foreigners, 10rs for locals. Inside, there's a string of rooms showing architectural models and sketches of some of Kapoor's large-scale works.

The larger sculptures are in the new wing out the back. The exhibits include the massive red wax quarter-orb that appears slammed against the wall, called Past, Present and Future. It's the most dramatic piece in the room, which also houses a stomach-height perspex cube, with what appears to be a gold stingray and bubbles suspended inside. The name of the work is Laboratory for a New Model. and the exhibition guide tells us that the sculpture "is addressing the weight of human knowledge, from the grand purposes of physics to the more specific concerns of art history." I'm sure it does do that - it must, as the booklet tells us so - but I confess, I couldn't really see how.

I tried taking a photo of the room but as the ratio of security folk to viewers is roughly 1:1, I had little success, just this one:

Close to the mirror you might spot an earnest guard on his way over to berate me.

Outside in the garden is the much-vaunted Sky Mirror, which is mounted a few metres above the ground and tilted at 60 degrees so it reflects the sky on its convex surface.

It would be perfect if there was something going on in the sky, like moving clouds or birds, but all you see is the rather less impressive, tepid blue-grey of Delhi's winter sky. Around the back, however, you realise what it's all about:

There's also a documentary on Kapoor being screened on a loop in the auditorium. In it, the floppy-haired Kapoor is revealed as enthusiastic and likeable, particularly in the bit when they practice firing red wax out of the cannon (Shooting Into The Corner, Mumbai). After the expectoration - leaving bright red splatters reminiscent of paan stains all over the freshly-whitewashed buildings of Connaught Place - he turns around, smiling cheekily at the camera, much like the grown-up boys of Mythbusters. Maybe the cannon ("an active part of the architecture: at once performance, process, painting, installation and sculpture, with the life of the piece being recorded on the walls") is all just a big boy toy with a fancy name.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Durag Niwas & the Sambhali Trust

Soon after making our spur of the Monday decision to go to Jodphur that weekend, I emailed a childhood friend who married into a Jodhpur family (but lives mostly in Mumbai) for suggestions on where to stay. She came back with Raas (way not an option unless you're an heiress) and the family-run guesthouse Durag Niwas.

Durag Niwas is run by Govind Singh Rathore and his family, and is clean, cheap, has a lovely courtyard and friendly staff. It appears like a thousand other guesthouses throughout Rajasthan: clean, basic, with some kind of local flourish like a carved wooden chest or filmy fuchsia curtains, but has one clear point of difference: it's also home to the family's NGO, the Sambhali Trust.

Govind established Sambhali, as he shyly told it, when his mother and grandmother begged him to do something to help the beleaguered women of Rajasthan, in the wake of family difficulties that had left them with no idea what to do. Rajasthan is an extremely tradition-bound, feudal and patriarchal society, and Govind felt that by giving girls and women access to education, personal development and livelihoods, he could help improve their lot.

So Sambhali, which has been around for about four years now, looks after literacy and livelihood projects in Jodhpur and the outlying village of Setrawa, in the Thar desert. The women learn basic skills like to block-printing techniques, embroidery, English. Information on building confidence and anti-domestic violence and women's rights laws is also supplied through the centres.

It has been hard though, he told me, to convince the men of the family to allow their wives, sisters, daughters, to attend the classes: they sometimes have a vested interest in keeping their women downtrodden and ignorant.

Sambhali products can be available here. My friend is also in the process of setting up an online accessories store stocking products made by Sambhali, called Forty Red Bangles.

Durag Niwas also runs excellent safaris out to the desert. Our Bishnoi village trip that ended up in an outdoor opium den may or may not have been with them, and the guy in the photo drinking the opium water may or may not have been Govind's cousin Bunty.