Ram Rahman was born with a discriminating palate but much of the encouragement to appreciate and experiment with food came to him on account of his profession, in particular the style of photography that he chose. Walking on the streets, fascinated by the mundane and capturing it on his lens, Ram discovers food just as he finds his images. And it could be anywhere…chaat in Bengali Market, Ashok Chaat Bhandar or Purani Dilli, paneer bonda or keema at The Press Club of India or kababs at Karim’s or the swish Chor Bizarre. “I love to try out different cuisines. On my recent trip to Kashmir, I had typical Kashmiri Pandit fare at somebody’s house. There was khatte baigan, kaddu cooked in yoghurt and so much else. Kashmiri mirch has a very distinct flavour,” says Ram recalling his recent trip to the valley where he conducted a photography workshop for youngsters. The project was co-ordinated by INTACH, Srinagar, and supervised by theatre personality M.K. Raina.
Back in the city, at Kaffa, the coffee shop in Hans Plaza, Ram is, however, savouring world cuisine. With a light chicken clear soup with vegetables, he begins on a good note. “It has got brocolli, zucchini…I can survive on soups, salads and fruits. I am not a gourmet cook but I have a good sense. I have my own recipe of pasta which is a rage amongst friends. Inspired by zucchini, I started using it along with tomato and paanch phoran masala,” says Ram flaunting his culinary skills. He goes back in time to remember the delicious curry of drumsticks flowers the old cook of his family friends, a Syrian Christian family, used to make. “I used to find excuses to visit them in order to eat it. I even offered to marry her once but found out she was too old,” he chuckles.
Tucking into the soft vegetable dumplings, Ram’s conversation veers towards his photographic skills well-known on the circuit. Ram is known for capturing the ordinary and giving it a twist with an accidental entry of a symbol of politics or an element of popular visual culture which would render a unique flavour to the composition. Giving his take on the fine art of photography which has engaged a lot of artists, Ram says, “A lot of artists are using it as a tool to express some kind of visual idea. The intent is what makes it different. Conceptual photography has become accepted in India because it is easier to understand. But for me, the real world is so fascinating. I enjoy discovering an image. A lot of my work has an element of surprise in them. Of late, I have been working with colour photography though,” says Ram.
Evolution of SAHMAT
In his other sphere of work, however, the change has been drastic. A founding member of SAHMAT, he says, “The organisation has evolved over the years. It stands for the right to freedom of expression and a voice against communalism. After Ayodhya, we put up a huge show with artists and dancers. It had a huge emotional impact. With Internet, television and other things, it wouldn’t have had the same impact now. So we are focussing more on ideas. There is less of spectacle and more of academic work like the ‘Image Music Text: 20 years of SAHMAT’ exhibition we had earlier this year.” As a mark of protest against the exile of M.F. Husain, SAHMAT had recently brought out a book on the 94th birthday of the legendary artist. The artists were asked to make a gift for him — a small work or write — which were then photographed and compiled into a book. The original work was displayed at the M.F. Husain gallery at Jamia Millia Islamia andSAHMAT now plans to take to take it to different cities.
Coming back to food, relishing a vegetable pizza, Ram says, “I am crazy about chutneys and achars…I eat pickles like vegetables. I love pitting people against each other. I will go to Renu’s (Renu Modi, owner, Gallery Espace) house and tell her how lovely food I had at Lekha Poddar’s house. So, she will instantly invite me and have made delicious things for me. In any case, I know her cook very well. Whenever I am going to her house, I call him and give him my requests…” laughs Rahman biting into a hot gulab jamun.