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Women on top

RUPA GOPAL profiles two women who have made a career out of their passion.


COURAGE, determination, and oodles of innovation — that is Devagi Sanmugam. A dynamic and talented food personality in Singapore, she has authored many cookbooks, is a food consultant, cooking instructor, entrepreneur and professional bon vivant.

Today, it's hard to think of the island nation as strife ridden and war torn. But Devagi's early childhood was ravaged by such times, with very little food on the table. Her father lost his job. The U.N. relief department distributed food packets to the needy, and her mother fed her family of seven on corn flour rotis and spaghetti kheer, from milk powder and pasta. This started Devagi's obsession with innovation in food. "I was a very hungry, greedy child, wishing that the pictures of food advertisements in the papers would pop out of the pages, so that I could eat the dishes," she laughs.


She began her first cookery classes over 20 years ago, with a small batch of students, one of whom happened to be the editor of Her World. She was so impressed with young Devagi that she did a feature on her. This led to a spate of students. Since then there has been no looking back. Devagi moved on to consultation and is adviser to many of the country's Indian restaurants. She also helps develop new menus, and new recipes. Soon she started organising culinary tours to the local wet markets, hawker centres and ethnic quarters like Little India and Chinatown.

Her first cookbook, in both Tamil and English, was not a success, but the later ones were sellouts — Banana Leaf Temptations, Born To Eat and others. Beauty Secrets From the Asian Kitchen is a novel venture.

Along with successful catering, Devagi set up the Spice Route, a store for packed spice powders, sambols and sauces for Indian, Malay and Indonesian cooking.

Devagi has held demonstrations in Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Scotland, the U.S. and Sweden for local chefs on Asian culinary secrets. She has been aired on BBC and CNN, and is the first Indian woman to be a panellist on the Singapore Sunday Times. She is also a food critic for Wine and Dine, a food magazine.

Not content, she has now launched Big Plans, a company to handle "Epicurean World", her new home-based cooking studio. It's a state-of-art cooking studio, specially designed and equipped with top of the line appliances. It seats 25 students comfortably, where they're taught tantalising Asian dishes. Corporate team-building cooking classes, men-only, kids-only, healthy baking classes, spice appreciation workshops, beauty workshops and on tonics and elixirs are all part of this grand venture.

Food brochure production, logos, recipes, food product launches, cookbook publishing, contests, chef services, and culinary tours can be had at "Epicurean World". Creative food styling, backdrops, location and props are also part of the expert services provided for photo shoots.

Devagi is an indomitable figure, all smiles, and has a famous time travelling with her teacher-husband. She is a complete workaholic, awake till 3 a.m. everyday. Mails are promptly answered, and readers can approach her at sandegi@pacific.net.sg


SINGLE-MINDED devotion to Carnatic music — that sums up Bhushany Kalyanaraman. Hers is an extraordinary tale, spanning oceans. Born and brought up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, it was a typical Tamil household where her father used to ensure that everyone was awake at 5 a.m., reciting the Tiruvempavai. A renowned musician, her father had won the title "Sangita Bhushanam" from Annamalai University. All her sisters too sang well.

Love of Carnatic music brought Bhushany to Chennai, at 16,to stay and study music at the Government Music College. She went back to Sri Lanka, to teach music at a Jaffna college. The riots in 1982 brought her back to India, drawn by her deep admiration for her subsequent guru and husband, Tanjore S.Kalyanaraman, senior disciple of the legendary G.N.B.

A congenial atmosphere prevailed in her marital home, with a very supportive mother-in-law. "My husband was totally immersed in music much of the time," recalls Bhushany. "He never took any fee from his many students, he was a very stern man, a strict taskmaster, and a perfectionist. His family was quite well to do, which allowed him to concentrate on music. A veritable genius as a vocalist, he even had many senior musicians coming to him for guidance. He has been my only guru, after my father. I'm what I'm today only because of him," says a nostalgic Bhushany. Sadly Kalyanaraman passed away a few years ago, leaving a big void in the music world, and in Bhushany's life.

A senior vocalist today, Bhushany has number of students both here and abroad, and many foreign students of Indian origin, who come to live with and learn from her. Many of her foreign-based students have had their formal arangetrams, proving her success as a teacher.

Today Bhushany is an Indian citizen; so much at home is she in India. "I've been all over the world, except Russia. I like it best here. I stay abroad for two-three months, to teach and perform," says Bushany.

Her ambition is to establish a school for Carnatic music in S. Kalyanaraman's name, both here and abroad. Taped lessons too would bridge the distance, in her absence. Grateful for everything that music has bestowed on her, she also wishes to do something for destitute women and children "to be able to reach out to people who do not have the luxury of music, people weighed down by pressing basic needs, to survive."

A Sri Lankan nation ever appreciative of Tamil culture and Carnatic music has honoured her with "GANA RATNA". Sri Lankan organisations in London have had her sing for fund raisers in 2001 and 2003. Bhushany is a fortunate person — she has the best of both Sri Lanka and India, the best gained by besting life's many odds.

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