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Nostalgic trip down memory lane - in a world of old cooking vessels at Shilpguru Jagdish Prashad’s workshop
Cooking in today’s age is convenient thanks to a host of modern gadgets – be it cooking equipments or vessels. The vessels range from non-stick cookware, copper bottomed steel, microwaveable dishes and more. Harking back to another era are the age old cooking vessels fashioned out of brass, copper and bronze. A common sight once upon a time, these have now slowly faded from memory, being replaced by more high tech glistening substitutes. Laxmi Narayan Jagdish Prashad, Master Craftsman 1974 and Shilpguru 2007 is a wizard at the crafting of brass and copper vessels and is a fountain of knowledge of the times when every village boasted of a thatera or a brass / coppersmith. Given the dictate of the market, his work now borders more on decorative pieces finely engraved and enamelled and hardly any utensils. After a lot of reticence and much prodding what becomes evident is his fondness for old vessels, their unique shapes and how it was used.
Jagdish Prashad says with a lot of feeling, “purane bartanon ki baat hi kuch aur thi”(old vessels are literally a breed apart). They were heavy and shone like gold when kept properly. What is there today? A vegetable gets cooked in four whistles in a pressure cooker. Where is the taste? Earlier food was cooked slowly in copper or brass vessels simmering on a Chula or a coal based stove. The taste was different.”
Prashad is a hereditary craftsman who learnt the art as a child. What got him recognition was the combination of this hereditary skill with the art of decoration – chitai. He says, “chitai I learnt from Mohammadans. All their utensils especially copper have beautiful chitai or engraving on it. Our profession was just to make the vessels.” Even now in traditional Muslim families, copper utensils are given at the time of weddings. He elaborates saying in earlier times there were no aluminium, plastic or steel, so utensils were made of copper and brass. Copper is also used in rituals for its purity. Drinking water stored in a copper cup overnight is beneficial for health. For cooking in copper or brass vessels it has to be coated with tin. In North it is called “kalai” and there are specialists who do it. This involves giving a tin coating to the inside of the brass and copper vessels. A small amount of tin is heated and exploded into the vessel and when it is still hot rubbed into the metal with a rag cloth. Prashad says, “without this coating, cooking in such vessels will be equivalent to poison. Cooking in utensils which have kalai not only adds to the taste but lets the food absorb small amounts of the metals for natural intake. There are a lot of benefits.” Today, such kalai valas are a rare breed with a few present in the bylanes of Old Delhi.
Tracing his ancestors, he adds, “many of the older generations worked in palaces of the royals. They would turn out new vessels giving vent to their imagination and this was encouraged by royals. Usually, since a lot of space was required, so thateras were spread on the outskirts of the city. It probably explains such presence in Old Delhi also.” Everything was made, gharas (pots), kanastars (jars with handle), parath (plates in which atta is kneaded), paan dans, buckets and more. Today, he grins, “an old paan dan becomes a jewellery box by removing the insides, the old gharas become flower pots or planters. Copper is a wonderful metal which does not corrode with time. Which is why during excavations, copper jars are unearthed after centuries with their contents intact.”
His little workshop has several items tucked in everywhere, huge cauldrons, plates, pots in various shapes, sizes. What stands out is the versatility of the utensils and their utilisation. Prashad shows a dish which he explains was used for serving raita from Punjab. It has a little handle to carry with a pointed nose or spout through which the raita can be poured directly on to the plate. It is known as Punjabi Gagar. A modern day adaptation could be as a serving bowl at the dinner table, where it can be directly poured into katoris or plate. With its design it does away with the need for a spoon. A little bucket with a collapsible handle was an interesting travel companion along with a rope. The traveller could use it at any well or pond to drink water or bathe and simply move on. A very light weight travelling companion! He describes the copper boiler from Amrtisar called the Amritsari Hamam. The ones from Amritsar were made in copper, brass and a combination of copper and brass which was called Ganga Jamuna because of its two colouring. Similar ones are also made in Maharashtra but these are taller and longer. Today, he rues, “they have virtually disappeared. One could spot them at all Railway Station.”
He collects many of the old pieces and reinvents them by working all over it with chitai. The pot is filled with lac and worked on. It is then further plated to a look alike copper, silver or gold finish. Such pieces are used as planters or flower pots and in demand in spas and resorts. An old vessel is salvaged from the scrap yard and is put to a decorative use. He adds, “no one makes old vessels like these now. The joints in the vessel were done on fire, bhatti. Now it is soldered. The old joining lasts centuries. Copper was cheap then about Rs. 2 a sear, now it is several hundreds a kilogram. It makes a difference to the workman and the buyer. Maintenance of these vessels is high which is why no one wants to use them.”
With pride he says, “I have travelled thanks to the Government of India to various countries and have seen cooking vessels across the world. But their repertoire is not a shade to the variety and diversity of cooking vessels that we have here.” Cooking utensils then were another ball game altogether!