The colours and layers of a burger fascinated Shilpa Mitha so much that the paper-quilling enthusiast decided to make a pair of burger-shaped earrings for herself. On a suggestion from her arty mother, Mitha modelled the earrings out of clay, instead of paper, and they became an instant hit with her friends.
That was a few years ago. Mitha, a resident of Chennai, started making coin-sized clay miniatures of Indian dishes and now the 30-year-old artist has over 11,000 followers on her Instagram page and gets nearly 20 orders and requests every day.
“I realised that there are a lot of miniatures around but no one has tried making Indian food,” Mitha said. “I started experimenting and eventually got to where I am. I focus on Indian cuisine because I want people to get familiar with it. Because abroad, people think Indian cuisine is just curry. There is a lot more to Indian food than curry.”
Her miniature platter includes South Indian delicacies such as sakkarai pongal (sweet pongal), idlis, dosas, pesarattu (green gram dosa); pan-Indian favourites such as biryanis and chaat; as well as Punjabi, Bengali and North Eastern food spreads.
The miniaturist drew inspiration from the South Indian tradition of Bommai Kolu or golu (display of figurines) during the season of Navratri. “Internationally, people collect dollhouses, but in South India we have the golu culture,” Mitha said. “At home we follow the tradition of having a lavish golu. I grew up with these dolls. And my favourite was, of course, the kalyana saapadu (wedding feast) set and the Kumbhakarna set. Indian cuisines have so much to offer and I am just good as long as I find things from here.”
Be it the mustard seed on the coconut chutney or the tinge of saffron on the lassi, all of Mitha’s miniatures are appreciated for authenticity, which, she said, grew with time and practice. “I realised that more than it looking like a work of art, I wanted it to look as real as possible. I specifically got a camera for this with a macro lens. So when I shoot it and it looks real enough, I stop at that. Else I keep trying again.”
Some dishes take more time than others, such as the biryani, one of her signature miniatures. “Every time I make biryani, it comes out looking differently,” Mitha said. “Every time you mix colour with clay, a different shade emerges. Moreover, every region has a biryani. When I make a Kerala biryani, people want me to make Ambur biryani and when I make Ambur biryani, they want Hyderabadi biryani. The condiments also differ.”
Mitha models all of her miniatures out of air-dry clay. Her kitchen utilities include acrylic and oil colours and a needle-like tool to sculpt models. “I need to prepare and create my own ingredients,” Mitha said. “The first step is that I see a picture of what I want to make and then I go through their recipe and see what ingredients would be visible on the dish. I have to go around creating them by sculpting them individually. I finally varnish them. That also gives it an oily finish and makes them look like they have just been cooked.”
But this, sometimes, comes at a cost. Mitha works just by herself and she has a muscle condition that prevents her from kneading clay too often, so her mother, Usha Harigopal, steps in to help her.
Mitha’s latest project was made to mark Republic Day and she replicated regional favourites from over 22 Indian states. “I have covered almost the entire country in terms of regions and their food,” she said. “But it gets a little difficult because you need someone locally to tell [me the] details about them.”
Most of Mitha’s customers are food lovers and connoisseurs, who like their miniatures to be fridge magnets, pendants and sometimes collectibles. But a section of her customers are restaurateurs. Her biggest milestone was creating a burger for the Australian celebrity chef Daniel Wilson. Wilson contacted Mitha and requested her to make a miniature of his signature Huxtaburger for his burger chain in Melbourne.
In Mitha’s kitchen, what is the criterion for a miniature? “It should look interesting,” Mitha explained. “Not all dishes look good [though] some may taste brilliant. I try avoiding dishes that have leaves. You need something that makes you notice things. I also avoid making curries because most of them look the same. I sometimes go by customer suggestions as well.”
While there are plenty of options to choose from, her customers inevitably keep coming back for the dosa and idli, Mitha added. “The dosa is my bestseller,” she said. “There is a reason I keep making South Indian food miniatures. People do not get tired of them. I even get a lot of orders from Delhi for dosas and idlis. Everyone is fascinated with them for some reason. But my favourite is the maggi.”
Mitha plans to experiment with more Indian dishes in the days to come. But before that she wants to recreate a meals plate from a legendary restaurant in Chennai. “I really want to be that one very good fake chef,” Mitha said with a chuckle. “While I do not want to limit myself to any cuisine or style, for now I want to make the Saravana Bhavan saapadu [meals], served on the eversilver plate. But I do not want to limit myself just to Indian food. I would eventually want to try more things.”