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Small wonders leave a big impression

The art is labour-intensive. Most of the artists spend anywhere between 8-12 hours at their workstation

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About half-a-dozen ice cream cones in candy colours that can fit in your palm, avocado toasts topped with eggs sunny-side-up that you can prop up on a nail, or a loaded cheese burger that you perch on your fingertip — the world of food miniatures is more than a small wonder. And, across the country, miniaturists — professionals and enthusiasts — are looking to sink their teeth into it. Their Instagram pages are stunning virtual galleries of intricate food miniatures in myriad colours — everything from elaborate banana-leaf meals and ramen bowls with all the works, vada pao and chicken biryani to glazed donuts and frosted cakes — inedible and incredibly tiny, but no less appetising, and steeped in aesthetics.

 Small wonders leave a big impression

An intricate food miniature. Agnika Creations

Take for instance Chennai-based miniaturist Shilpa Mitha, whose Insta handle @suenosouvenir has over 20K followers. Mitha has among her fans celebrity chefs, and has miniaturised Daniel Wilson’s signature Huxtaburger on request. The former sound engineer started out in the creative field as a paper-quilling hobbyist. “But I wanted to try more pliable mediums and turned to clay. That’s when something clicked,” says the 31-year-old. Kolkata-based Agnika Banerjee, an HR professional, quit her job to pursue her passion for miniaturing. These days she is most likely to be found in one corner of her room, bent over mounds of clay with a quirky assortment of tools. Her miniatures come in the form of everything from fridge magnets to food jewellery under her label Agnika Creations.

“I believe food miniatures are evocative of childhood memories of toy kitchen sets — they appeal to the child within,” says Mitha. Her inspiration came from the autumnal festival of Golu — a festive display of dolls and figurines. Rupashree Adam, another Chennaiite who shifted to New Zealand, was initiated to the world of food miniatures by a YouTube video. Adam’s Charming Miniatures is a delightful collection of incredibly tiny and delicious-looking delicacies from around the globe, crafted in polymer clay — a manufactured modelling compound made of polyvinyl chloride, plasticisers and pigments.

“The clay is soft and pliable until baked in an oven at a low temperature,” says Ahmedabad-based Shirali Patel who creates and sells her miniatures turned into everything from bag charms and keychains to earrings and pendants, under the label Small Ideas. Mitha, on the other hand, prefers to work with soft and light air-dry clay that doesn’t require an oven to cure. She uses acrylic and oil paints to paint her miniatures and finish them with a coat of varnish to give them a delicious sheen.

Texture is paramount in food aesthetics, fake or not — the nooks and crannies, streaks and granules, crumbs and pockmarks are vital to giving these miniatures a life-like finish. Detailing is crucial and these miniaturists use everything from sophisticated sculpting and dotting tools and even specialised lamps to simple everyday paraphernalia like needles and blades. “I use a ‘mold putty’ to make a mould that I use for many of my miniature utensils,” says Adam. Patel, on the other hand, picks a toothpick, toothbrush, aluminium foil and needles as her kit essentials, her vast collection of tools that even includes instruments typically used at a dentist’s notwithstanding. In the end, as Mitha points out, the art rides on the strength of the artist’s nifty fingers and exceptional skills. “Sometimes, a needle and a toothpick is all I need,” says Mitha whose work is known for its intricate detail and realistic finish.

“But, above all, the art calls for extreme concentration and lots of patience,” says Adam. A labour-intensive art, most of these artists spend anywhere between 8-12 hours at their workstation. “One time I spent 16-17 hours a day working on my miniatures,” says Mitha. The astonishingly long hours started taking a toll on her health. “Nowadays, I try to restrict myself to 8-10 hours,” she says.

But sculpting each of these miniatures require extensive research. “An understanding of the ingredients and the cooking procedure is crucial to ensure authenticity. There is a lot of reading involved. Recipe videos help too,” says Mitha, who more than makes up for her lack of culinary skills with her delightfully appetising miniatures. Patel, who receives numerous custom orders, says, “Often I am asked to create food I am not familiar with. So, it’s important to first learn about the food I am miniaturing. One of Patel’s personal favourites, interestingly, is a multiple course Bengali thali, a cuisine she had no idea about.

Regional Indian cuisine is a trending theme on the Indian food miniature scene. “When I started making miniatures I realised not much was being done with Indian food. So I started out with my idli-dosa platter,” says Mitha. She went onto create everything from paneer tikka and sweet pongal to elaborate sadhya meal and intricate biryanis where each grain of rice need to be sculpted one at a time.

Both Mitha and Patel want to illustrate the stunning regional diversity of Indian cuisine through their intricate miniatures. Banerjee’s latest is an exquisite collection comprising an assortment of typical Bengali dishes ranging from kathi rolls and crumb-coated fish fry to koraishutir kochuri, muri-tele bhaja and a khichuri platter complete with begun bhaja and fried Hilsa, that would be retailed from select Biswa Bangla showrooms.

Adam is driven purely by passion. It is her dream to see one of her miniatures at Madurodam, an extraordinary model city of miniatures, at The Hague in the Netherlands. “Besides, when I open my own restaurant, I will showcase my miniatures,” the Le Cordon Bleu graduate signs off.

(Priyadarshini Chatterjee is an independent food and travel writer based in Kolkata)

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