Art student Megumi Sakakida Deepak loved the taste of Indian food she ate at the restaurant she worked in, in Japan. It brought her all the way here in an affair of art, food, coconut chutney, and marriage

Look what food can do! It brought Megumi Sakakida from Kyoto to Kundapura in her quest for the sound of the Kannada language she liked hearing, and a desire to meet its people, explore its culture, and of course, food.

“I was working in an Indian restaurant called Kerala in Kyoto, Japan. Two of the chefs were from Karnataka — one from Karkala and one from Kundapura. They taught me about Indian food and culture and I was fascinated by India. I decided to travel here, and toured south India in 2009 and 2010; I visited Bangalore, Karkala and Kundapura. If Kyoto is my fist home, Kundapura is my second. I was very comfortable here, and it felt like home. So I decided to come back here and become a part of India,” smiles Megumi, dressed in a colourful salwar-kameez, two braids, and wearing a mangalasutra! She can now speak fairly good Kannada and has even been learning the written script.

She talks of the next leg of her India sojourn. She had completed her bachelor of visual arts in Japan, and decided to join Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath for a Masters programme. Many in Japan advised her to join Shantiniketan (West Bengal), but Megumi was keen to join the Parishath because she wanted to learn Kannada! During her student says in Bangalore she attended Kannada classes every Saturday. She had met many Kannadigas and wanted to speak with them in Kannada. “Learning Kannada was not so hard because I found the grammar similar to Japanese. Some words are also similar. Kannada script is very cute looking; it has round characters.” She went “home” to Kundapura for holidays.

During her art course, she met and married classmate Deepak, from Kushalnagar, Coorg. After completing her course, she started working with a Japanese firm as a consultant for Japanese tourists wanting to visit south India. Her parents were initially surprised at the decision of their only child. They however, let her be, because she was happy. Moreover, technology has made keeping in touch easy, she says.

As a beautiful convergence of her love for a new culture, and her art, she has put together a series of artworks “Nanna Bharateya Jeevana”, which looks straight out of a graphic novel panel. It started off as a way of documenting the food she ate, drawing out the dish, writing its name in Japanese and Kannada. “I can see each culture through its food,” she explains. She lists neer dosa, ragi mudde, and rava idli as her favourite foods. Rice, she says is the connecting factor between the two food cultures.

“I couldn’t express myself very well in words, so I wanted to paint my feelings.” Her work titled Nanna Kanasu shows her wearing bindi, flowers in her hair, and, a mangalasutra. “I had attended many Indian weddings and I was dreaming about getting married in India,” she laughs. There’s a lovely sketch in her series of a bride and groom titled “Ganda-Hendati” (husband-wife).

“I’m interested in the food culture here. I love the plantain leaf. We eat very differently in Japan. We never mix rice and curry — it’s always one bite of rice and one bite of curry, separately, and with chopsticks. We don’t have the concept of vegetarian food. The vegetables are in the meat dishes!”

Her other food fascination, is coconut. “We only get dry coconut in Japan.” So when her best friend Shobha (the chef’s daughter) got married in Kundapura, Megumi lived with them for a month, partaking of all the preparations and rituals , from painting the house, shopping for saris and gifts, picking coconuts from the farm and carrying them on her head home. “I grated 50 coconuts for the wedding. At the end of it, my hands were bleeding!”

All these find their way into her art and there’s a cute depiction of her sitting across the eelige mane with a mound of green coconuts behind her, furiously grating. Another painting illustrates in detail the recipe for coconut chutney; Megumi says she loves the taste of coconut.

In All her artworks features is a little white dog. “It is ‘nanna manassu’ (my heart),” she explains, because I feel shy to show myself in my pictures, so I use the dog as a symbol.”

“It was difficult to get a job in the art field in Japan. That’s why after my course, I joined the restaurant. I would help cut vegetables and serve food. That’s how I got to try Indian food. I ate my first masala dosa when I was 21.” She comes back full circle, back to her restaurant days in Japan. “I want to say thank you to India. It changed my life. When I graduated in Japan, there was no hope for my life. Everything looked bleak. I hated living in Japan. But after coming to India things became colourful and exciting. Now I also appreciate Japan better.”

She breaks so often into Kannada, it’s surprising. “I hope I’ve become a Kannadiga,” she says, with a sweet wide smile spread between her two braids. With earnest zeal like that, she leaves no doubt in your heart.

You can see Megumi’s paintings at the Rangoli Metro Art Centre, MG Road Boulevard. The exhibition is on view till June 8.