Friday, May 31, 2013

Family Recipes and Emotions


               For my next blog I was going to recreate Mutton Biryani from Ammamma’s original recipe, add a beautiful picture of the biryani on a white dinner plate and share the love and connection I felt to Ammamma while I made this dish. So I dug up my storage boxes and pulled out the recipe books and cards that I have from Ammamma and Ma. I never made it to the cooking part.....

               Seeing recipes written in random pages of a diary, separate sheets of paper, as a footnote in an old housekeeping magazine, or on the back of a greeting card brought up strong emotions. Their handwritings were very similar and while Ammamma’s writing was more relaxed, Amma’s looks as if it was written in a rush. I know Ma used to write hurriedly as she tried to follow along and note down the recipe from a cookery program running on the television and she would omit certain ingredients that were hard to find or something that the family might not eat. I went through each of the pages and cards and read each recipe…..rava laddu, padavalakai kootu, milk maid toffee, lemon pickle, meringue pie, and so many more. As I read through these, I found that amidst recipes of tarts and tandoori chicken were precious memories of home and family, put on paper by Ammamma and Ma. Ammamma had noted down how I brought the house down bawling on my first day home after my birth and how she thought I might be like Ma when I grew up. Ma had noted down the date and time of my brother’s birth, when daddy would be coming to pick her up, what she was feeling on a certain day, shopping lists, and so much more. 

             What is it about family food recipes and certain foods itself that gets our emotions involved? Ammamma and Ma might have noted the recipes just for themselves without thinking of passing it on as a family keepsake. But I find that the act of writing, keeping, giving, receiving, or inheriting recipes may be a very emotionally charged experience. I have never made mutton biryani exactly the way my grandmother made it or the way it is written in her recipe, but when I was given that recipe I felt very blessed and have since cherished it safely. Most of us need only look at a recipe given to us by loved ones to understand the emotional reaction to family recipes- the way certain foods remind us of dear family members and memorable family gatherings, as well as family traditions and cultural heritage. 

             In reflecting upon the recipe collections that belonged to Ammamma and Ma I realized that it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge meaning to those sheets of paper written or cut out to be kept over a life time, carefully or negligently held to be used at some time. For them, they were a means of self-expression, a small picture of their interests, a chance to discover new aspects, and a way of showing love for their families. 

              We all have memories encased in recipes that stir up our emotions, and that now after generations seem like a link. Like smells and tastes, recipes -- either stored away in the mind, carried out by instinct without proper instructions or measurements, or carefully saved in recipe books, or inserted in diaries -- have the ability to touch our emotions and memories. Everyone makes mutton biryani…....but there is more emotion in family recipes or recipes handed down by word of mouth. Along with instructions, you get the little tips, "do it like this", "don’t worry about that", "look for this", which you don’t get from cookbooks. That same mutton biryani recipe has been passed down and used either in its entirety or as suitable by daughters, aunts that married into the family, sisters-in-laws, and daughters-in-laws. I find that family recipes are like a repository of sorts of complex subjective experiences. A single recipe, endlessly tried or never attempted, may embrace diverse and divergent meanings to different people who relate to it out of chance or out of duty, at different moments in time. It holds a different place of value for whomever interacts with it.

            So find a family recipe, ask grandparents, parents, or aunts and uncles to share their version of a favorite dish, and make it with a fresh introspective that includes reflections on yourself and the person you are thinking of. Think of the emotional ties as you interact with the recipes and imagine in those quiet moments, the warmth and embrace of family.

My Ammamma’s Mutton Biryani recipe:
1 kg mutton
1 bunch pudina
6 green chillies
2 inches ginger
10 pods garlic
3 onions 
Coconut 1 tsp
Cinnamon, spices 1 tsp
Rice 3 pavs
4 cups water

Grind all the masala. Cut the meat into pieces. Put ghee, and fry the meat with chopped onions, required salt. Cook for 20 mins. Wash the rice, drain it, fry the rice with spices, add the mutton, cook for 5 mins. Your biryani is ready. 

Amma, Ma 
Meaning- mother
Meaning- Mother’s mother
Padavalakai  kootu
translation- snake gourd dish
translation- measure used for rice
translation- mint
translation- clarified butter

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


                  On my journey to document my do-it-yourself projects; I am sharing Akbar, my first foray into the world of furniture makeovers. The desire to re-do furniture was not some light-bulb inspired moment, but a love for the global market look and the constraints of achieving this d├ęcor in my home within a limited budget.

                  For two years I had this idea in my head and a strong desire to do it in my heart. But the fear of ruining a perfectly functional piece of furniture and of not knowing if it would turn out as I imagined it held me back. But the longing to transform it was bigger and constant. I had to mentally get over the hurdle that if I ruined it….so what! It was just a piece of furniture. I also had to prepare myself for a laborious undertaking that would take longer to complete than my other previous smaller simpler projects. Once I got over these mental stumbles, my vision for Akbar was clear. 


Akbar: doors closeup
             This piece was originally a large mission-style cabinet with a solid base and a hutch part that housed the television with small side cabinets for storing CD’s and DVD’s (We’ve all seen one of those or owned them too...). My first move was to separate the hutch part from the base. I took the top roof plank of the hutch and attached it as a top to the base just to give the now free standing cabinet a finished look. 

Akbar: side view
                  Then began the labor intensive part sanding the whole piece by hand as I had then not yet begun the use of electric tools (three cheers for electric tools!). Executing the hand painted design on the front, sides and top of the cabinet was the most interesting, fun, and rewarding part of the project. Fellow Bangaloreans might recognize the elephants from Cauvery shopping bags. The other patterns are from the internet and some pattern books that I own. These patterns I tweaked to suit the space and also to make it easier to paint some of the details. Overall, my design objective was to achieve a majestic, royal, and impressive piece like the original Akbar. To achieve the old antiqued look, I used a tinted sealer with a rag cloth and  wiped down the whole piece rubbing it into the grooves and corners.            
               The finished product just visually lightened the whole look and the room in turn. I am happy with the way it turned out. Though my critical eye sees a lot of things that could have been done better, most who have seen it love it and say it’s their favorite piece from amongst all my work.

               As I completed Akbar; I learnt that if there’s something you cannot go long without thinking about, then it’s almost a call out from within yourself and you need to answer it. I’ve learned that anyone can create. I’ve heard people tell me that they don’t have the patience or that they could never do it, or wish they had a creative bone in them. Well, I believe anyone can do it. Even I, who had done decorating projects, or have been so called crafty and creative for most of my life, had a hesitancy and fear of taking on the daunting task of furniture makeovers. But once I got started, I am hooked. I realized that not only could I do it, I could do it well. So, if there’s something you have never tried or something you have always wanted to try, the perfect time is now. Try something new, and see what magic you can create.

Happy creating!

I look forward to reading your comments. If you would like more information on achieving this look or help with getting started on one of your own, please contact me. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013


                      The spicy aromas of mutton chops cooking in the kitchen, my cousins and I sitting on the gooseberry tree eating the sour fruit dipped in salt, sounds of Ammamma reciting shlokas and bhajans, the sight of my maternal uncle cleaning his vespa scooter, and playing hide and seek in the grapevines and lush gardens around Ammamma’s house in Mysore are a few of my favorite memories.  

                    Summer vacation days spent at Ammamma’s, some of my favorite times were when she would open her closet and trunks. I remember sitting cross-legged on her bed waiting eagerly as she took out gorgeous colorful silk sarees, small jewelry pieces, ivory hair combs, old family pictures, and other keepsakes. But most of all, I remember the smell of sandalwood that always seemed to linger in her room. Ammamma used blocks and sachets of sandalwood as a moth repellent. That scent even today reminds me of only her. That sense of excitement continued whenever I had the opportunity to open Ma’s closet. It was like a gift received; a treat for the eyes to see those brightly colored sarees and shawls, the feel of the cool silk, and of course the heavy scent of sandalwood.

                     I treasure two sandalwood boxes that Amma gave me. They are especially meaningful to me because one of the boxes belonged to Ammamma that she had received from her mother and the other one was given to Ma by her mother. Ammamma’s box which is now more than 75 years old bears burn marks on them. Ma’s box was given to her as part of her wedding trousseau. These boxes tell a story, share a glimpse of their lives.

                  When I look at these boxes in my home, I don’t see just a sandalwood jewelry box; I am brought back in time to moments spent with Ammamma and Ma, their rooms, and the emotions that were a part of those moments. As I hold these two sandalwood boxes dear to me; I realize that things that appealed to me long ago, the pretty things that I so looked forward to seeing and receiving, have now become more than just keepsakes; they are far more than pretty sandalwood boxes.

                 My inspiration for ‘the sandalwood box’ blog comes from a desire to express the emotion that is intertwined with my affinity for culture, arts and crafts, and the historical and intangible heritage of communities and people. I hope to share a picture of my life that is enriched and influenced by my attraction for all things old world, as expressed in objects around me, and diffused in my personality.

To cherished memories……

Amma, Ma               Meaning- mother
Ammamma              Meaning- Mother’s mother

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

About Me

             Hello and welcome to The Sandalwood Box,
             I am Kavitha and I write The Sandalwood Box blog to express my interests in the arts and crafts, do-it-yourself projects, family and memories, traditions and culture, and all things old world.  I love being creative and adding a bit of ‘me’ to all things around me and to all things I create. Inspiration strikes and I embrace the call to make that idea into an actuality. I would say I have a contemporary outlook but rooted in tradition. 

            All my pieces and work draw inspiration and ideas from my love for the ethnic arts and crafts, the elaborate detailing of old world life. Invariably while working I find a connect between these pieces and some real life experience or memory. I find it very enriching and soul satisfying to make a connection with my Indian heritage through the creation of these pieces. Some of the pieces I make are a handmade representation of the richness, opulence, the majesty, or simply the colors, and a humble representation of the lost art of the handicraft and intricate artistry. Historical periods have an alluring and charming appeal for me.

         Some other pieces are a result of inspirations from old family photo albums and the recollections of my childhood. And these pieces are more nostalgic with a touch of Indian culture. It is a reminiscing of the memories of my childhood. Hopefully reading these memories of mine will strike a chord in you and remind you of your own precious memories with family.

         I am very much a self-taught artist. I started out painting fabric for stoles, place mats, napkins, and cushion covers. I learnt cross stitch, needle point, and crochet very young. I made comic strip books collecting cuttings from Sunday newspapers and hand sewing the binding. Since then I have developed naturally a variety of skills that grows and shines more as I put more of my own character into my work.

       Although I have embraced a new place and culture as my home, I have held on a connection to my roots and my work and interests are a way I get to express this. My work has evolved into a vast variety of balanced looks combining my roots and my life now. 

        As a child; every time my grandmother, mother or aunts opened their Sandalwood boxes; I remember waiting impatiently and excitedly, eager to find out what might be in there, in anticipation that maybe they would let me keep something as they took out things one by one. I remember the love and the sentiments of that moment and the value of that memory years on today. You can read more about it in my blog post titled "Keepsakes". I hope my blog is somewhat like that; igniting in you an excitement and anticipation to see what else I bring out.

I hope you enjoy your time here at my blog and come back often.