Translated from the Hindi by Himadri Agarwal
There’s a well-known saying — Kashi in the morn, Awadh in the evening, and Malwa at night. This is that part of the world where the air is fresher, the water is cleaner, and the surroundings are more beautiful than anywhere else in the state. This is where I was born — this Malwa, where the dark soil is fertile and where there is water to be found at every step.
In the environment I was born and raised in, music was always echoing around me. Just as the qualities of different music gharanas were appreciated, so was the absolutely unique confluence of food from different cultures.
Baba, or my father Pandit Kumar Gandharva, was born in Karnataka and had studied music in Mumbai, so his favourite dishes were either Kannada or Marathi.
Bhanumatiji, or Badi Maa, was from Saraswat, coastal Karnataka, but she was born in Karachi and had studied in Mumbai, so there were some Saraswat dishes, and some from Sindh, that came into our home.
After Bhanumatiji passed away, Kumarji was married to Vasundharaji, my mother. On one hand, she was born in a Marathi family and her initial education was completed in Kolkata, but then she came to Mumbai after that to study music. Therefore, her favourite food comprised not just Marathi cuisine but also the seasoning, spices, and special dishes of Bengal.
Kumarji, Bhanumatiji, and Vasundharaji, while traversing the journeys of their own lives, came and settled in Malwa, Dewas and honestly, they made it their own.
Aai would keep Baba’s health in mind while cooking. Since it was a musician’s house, the food never had too much sourness, spice, or oil. Sour foods which can potentially make your voice hoarse — like tamarind, lemon, jamuns, sour grapes, etc. — were eaten in moderation, but yes, there was a variety of pickles and jams being made. There was naturally little inclination towards eating or serving too much fried food — mostly, there were balanced meals that were prepared using Marathi-Karnataka cooking styles.
In our house, we weren’t racing towards culinary perfection, but yes, every dish that we did make was cooked with great care and skill.
As far as I remember, my first encounter with the culinary ‘arts’ was when I was barely three or four years old.
My Dai Maa, the woman who took care of me, was called Noor Bano, or for us, Noor Amma. She was an impeccably tidy woman, fair, who wore a gleaming white salwar kameez, covered her head with a muslin dupatta, and carried in her hands a tasbeeh, a set of prayer beads that she had brought from the Haj. In her quivering voice, she kept trying new techniques to keep me occupied.
Aai had got me a kitchen set, which in Marathi is called ‘Bhaatukali.’ This set had all kinds of cooking utensils, including plates, bowls, khoncha spatulas, palta spatulas, a griddle, stove, utensils for tea and milk, tongs, sandaasi, or kitchen pincers, cups, plates, tables, chairs — everything. It had everything, and Noor Amma and I would pretend to cook using it. I still remember Amma’s wrinkled fingers and her trembling voice.
She would say…..
Yes, now pour oil into the kadhaai, yes, the pot with the two handles…wait, let it heat up…yes, now put in the cumin…now, this..now, that… And that is how my training began, and Noor Amma became my first teacher of culinary arts.
The food cooked at home has always been light, tasty, and vegetarian. To this day, nothing has been able to compete with Aai’s aamti, which is a special sweet and sour dal, or her ghadi-chi poli, which, in other words, is a paratha made without ghee or oil, a specialty of Maharashtrian cuisine.
Other than Baba, Aai, my elder brother Mukul Dada, and myself, there was one other important member of the family, and that was Kanna Mama, or Krishnan Nambiar. Hailing from Kerala, he had come to Dewas with Bhanumatiji; the most respected elder of the house, he had achieved expertise in various areas. He always helped Aai in the kitchen, and some of his recipes have become a part of our heritage.
Kalapini with Kanna mama
There is a saying — gavaiya so khavaiya. The one who sings, loves to eat.
But honestly, it was the other way round for Baba and Aai. They always ate measured quantities of vegetarian food. But yes, they did enjoy feeding others.
There was a very old (from 1947) diary which had some incredibly special recipes in it. Over time, select dishes from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, and other states kept being added to this diary.
Just like the Bhatkhande style of music is indispensable for students of music, this book was nothing less than the Gita of culinary arts for me. Gradually, this one diary became many diaries, and in addition to food from various states, food from various cultures also started being added to it, and continues to be added to this day.
There are unwritten rules even about which kind of food is to be served on the dining table and how it is to be served; the plate is organised keeping these norms in mind.
There was one thing — whatever was made at home was the same for everyone, and we children needed to eat everything that was served to us. There were no concessions.
Whether it was bitter gourd, jackfruit, Madrasi rasam, Saraswat tamli, pachadi huggi, a dish from Belgaum, bhaakri (a roti made with millets and jowar), kikore (spiny gourd), begun bhaja, a Bengali dish…we had to eat everything. One benefit of which was that we developed a habit of tasting all kinds of food.
I remember, when I was a child, I used to ask for bitter gourd for my school lunch.
When Vasundhara tai came to Dewas from Mumbai in 1963 after her marriage, she brought a large ragada (hand grinding stone) with her to grind legumes for idlis and other things. She was very fond of South Indian dishes. Dewas was a small city; who knew whether or not there would be arrangements to grind legumes and other things? (Homes did not have mixer-grinder machines at the time). She brought the grinding stone, and I clearly remember that it kept being used for years.
For a long time, gas was used mainly for making tea and coffee; food was prepared on a coal sigree, a stove. After breakfast was done, Aai would light the sigree and for lunch, she would serve steaming hot chapatis or occasionally fulkas made on a kadela (a clay frying pan with minuscule holes in it). Especially when Baba went for a performance and returned home after a long time, he would be tired, and she would serve him aamti-bhaat (lentils and rice) with vegetable koshimbir and ghadi-chi poli, leaving him absolutely satiated.
They understood the meaning of frugality very well. Whether it was their clothing, their lifestyle, their taste in food — they never showed off or indulged in excesses. Along with the passionate appeal of tangible beauty, their persona also expressed the nirgun bhaav.
While we are talking about sigrees, let me tell you something else that’s interesting— during that time, in the 60’s and the 70’s, there were no lighters to light the gas. A small chimney, powered by kerosene, would keep burning in a corner of the kitchen twenty-four hours a day. Kannamama would cut long strips out of the empty Brook Bond Tea hard paper boxes, and we would use them instead of matchsticks, lighting them from the chimney and in turn lighting the gas with them.
There was even a ghatti (hand-mill) in our house; Aai had asked Ajudhya Bai, our domestic help, to make a paal (a wall-like structure all around the hand-mill which prevents flour from falling out) out of yellow clay. Right in the middle was a structure called a makri, which allowed the grains to be spun and crushed. It was on that hand-mill using which the wheat-flour was ground to make chaklis, a Maharashtrian dish, and oh, how crispy those chaklis used to be!
Dewas was a small town even in the 60’s and the 70’s. Unlike today, it was difficult to find all kinds of fruits and vegetables all year round. During the winter, when tomatoes were abundant, Aai and Kannamama used to make tomato sauce for us children in the large stove outside. All limits were crossed when, at Baba’s request, she actually made a chawanprash with a hundred Ayurvedic medicines, that too at home! And this was after a whole three days of effort.
There was always a guest at the dining table, or someone who had just arrived, but Aai never took it otherwise. Baba ate slowly, relishing every bite as he said ‘waah’… ‘waah’ praising the smallest of detail that he might have liked about the food.
Once, no raw mangoes had sprouted on our mango tree yet, and we suddenly found a green mango on the ground. Baba cut open that lone mango with a sharp knife, cut long slices out of it, topped it with salt and red chilli powder, and served it to everyone at the table! That too with sounds of aahaa…waah. His habit of appreciating even the littlest of things was truly extraordinary.
The doors of Bhanukul, our home, have always remained open to welcome people. Baba’s close friends in Dewas — writer and journalist Rahul Barpute, artist Guruji Chinchalakar, artist Sajjataz Chandu Nafde, playwright Baba Dike, poet Ashok Vajpayee, writer-playwright P.L. Deshpande, singers Vasantrao Deshpande and Padmakumar Mantri as well as journalist Prabhash Joshi and members of the Ramubhaiyya Date family — friends, relatives, and artists from various parts of the country would always visit our house.
I remember — Pandit Ravishankarji and Ustad Allarakha Khan Sahab had come over; they had to leave early morning after their performance, so Aai was serving food at the table late at night. Another time, Pandit Bhimsenji was singing in Baba’s room late at night, then had a meal at two in the morning! Once it was architect Madhav Aachwal and sculptor R. K. Phadke involved in discussions with Kumarji for days, at other times the poet Anil (Aatmaram Raaoji Deshpande) from Nagpur staying for fifteen days; the qawwal Shankar Shambhu has visited too, and Pu.La Deshpande as well as Vasantraoji Deshpande have stayed in Baba’s room as well.
There’s one thing I have to say here — none of these people were ever too demanding of anything. When shrikhand was made for Baba’s friends and their families visiting on his birthday, the hung curd (chakka) was prepared at home as well. On Mukuldada and my birthdays, our favourite puran polli and jalebis were made.
Baba often had to go to distant cities all over the country for his performances. He usually travelled by train. A lower berth in the First Class compartment (there were no AC compartments in trains in those days) was reserved for him. Both his tanpuras were either tied on each side of the tea table in the centre, or sometimes even set down flat on the upper berth.
In those days, keeping his voice in mind, a thermos of water and three tiffin boxes of food for the journey would accompany him from home.
There would be two meals comprising aloo ki sabzi (potato curry), chutney, soft chapatis made with wheat dough kneaded into milk (dashami), uncut salad, salt, something sweet, and most importantly, Belgaum’s special curd-rice, which is called butti. Baba too ate his meals enthusiastically while travelling. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes Aai would be with him, while at other times the accompanying musicians would also join him in the train itself. Memory of that tiffin in the First Class compartment makes my mouth water even today. Keeping their diet in mind, Baba and Aai never ate anything from wayside stalls during the journey. If something new appealed to them, then they would come home, talk about it, and Aai would rack her brains and try to replicate it at home.
This reminds me of something.
Baba had returned from Bangalore after meeting our family friend Eknath Kamatji and his wife Nirupama.
He said to Aai — “Nirupama served me moong idlis that were as smooth as butter.” In those days, to phone someone wasn’t so easy; in fact, neither were we used to it and nor was it the mobile phone era, with an abundance of recipes on YouTube. So Aai used her discretion, tweaked the quantities of the ingredients, and ultimately, she did successfully make smooth idlis of moong.
The fun part is that Aai used to do all this alongside her own music practice, preparations for special thematic concerts with Baba, as well as noting down the bandishes, which are fixed, melodic compositions in classical music. I am left perplexed thinking about it all today!
There were always students coming to our house, and after all, they were members of the family too. She would listen to the students practice while she cooked. Often, Baba would sit at the dining table itself, humming. He would call out to Aai, ‘Listen! What a beautiful bandish this is!’
‘Bhanukul’ — this house is surrounded by large, dense trees; it is covered by plants bearing all kinds of flowers and fruits. Among them is that species of bamboo which is used as an ingredient in various dishes. Baba had planted it upon Aai’s special request.
Bamboo had blossomed in India between 1984–1985. At this point, it would be appropriate to mention that bamboo flowers blossom only once in forty years, and the seeds that are formed are called bamboo rice. These rare grains of rice are rich in medicinal properties, so someone brought Baba some. As he was wont to do, Baba called his near and dear ones home and served them kheer. When fresh bamboo sprouted in the monsoon months of Saavan and Bhaado, Aai found a way to make a splendid curry out of it, and thus was invented the ‘Bhanukul Special’ curry, cooked in a fresh coconut masala.
When a steady stream of rain continued to pour for a few days, a vessel was placed on the porch and the drops of water falling from the sky were used to make tea…how wonderful that tea used to taste!
As I started taking an interest in the kitchen, Aai gradually began to pass on responsibilities to me. Even then, what can I say about her roti, aamti, puran polli, chakli, and all the pickles she used to make? What spells did she cast? Magic just flowed from her hands! Actually, it wasn’t just ingredients she cooked with — her food was also seasoned with the special spice of her love for all of us.
Now, the times have changed. Just like I regret not having heard some ragas and their bandishes directly from my guru, there are so many other small things that I could never find out. Now, I have to decipher ragas and bandishes on my own terms.
A spread of all kinds of dishes, Indian and foreign alike, has graced our table. A kitchen is nothing less than a laboratory, and I love doing experiments with it. For a while now, my nephew Bhuvanesh’s wife Uttara has been helping me in the kitchen. Under Aai’s guidance, she has become an expert at cooking certain kinds of food.
Now that it has been more than thirty years since Kumarji left us, and six years since Vasundharaji passed away as well…these delicious bandishes do keep echoing in the Bhanukul house, with a seasoning of Malwi food which has been added to the potpourri.
At first, Malwi dishes like daal baafle and choorma were made only occasionally, but now, because of the ‘Malwa influence’ on us, you can hear the ascending and descending notes of the cuisine being hummed regularly in our household.
Agreed, our roots are in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Sindh and Bengal, but we’re quintessentially Malwi at heart!