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The maestro and the spice of life

Photo: V.V Krishnan.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Pandit Ravi Shankar and his family members try out some delicious food at Taj Palace's Masala Art restaurant in New Delhi.

CHOOSING TO dine out with Pandit Ravi Shankar and his family at Masala Art, Taj Palace Hotel's classy restaurant that prides itself on serving "delectable traditional dishes with a contemporary twist" seems to have been an appropriate choice. The sitar maestro walks ahead with wife Sukanya, accepting greetings from the restaurant staff and some awed looks from customers, while granddaughter Kaveri Shankar and Panditji's tour manager Terry Galindo follow, admiring the décor with a "Cool! It looks like a Sushi bar." This family too is delectably traditional, and it has its delicious contemporary twists.

Pandit Ravi Shankar is well versed in etiquette of different kinds, though not always comfortable with it. "I always drop my table napkin," he says ruefully, and the restaurant's host for the evening suggests he attach it to his shirt using the buttonhole provided in a corner of the cloth napkin. As the others round the table exclaim at the novelty of the idea, the maestro informs that though the buttonhole system is prevalent in the U.S., he has not found it on the Continent. But, he adds candidly, once it is firmly attached to him, he is quite capable of walking out with it as well!

The meal is decided over drinks like fresh fruit juice and sugarcane juice - listed in the menu as a "Masala Art Masterpiece" - from the extensive beverages menu. Sukanya Shankar is in the mood for roghanjosh - a lamb dish in gravy - and it turns out that Kareli Roghanjosh is one of the restaurant's "signature dishes". Panditji is fond of dal, yellow lentils with plenty of `tadka' in the traditional style. But here he settles for Hyderabadi Khatti Dal, another signature dish. There is rice to accompany these, and a whole array of Kababs. The maestro's favourite potato dish abroad is pommes de terres avec de l'aille - potatoes cooked in garlic. But he is happy with Masala Art's special potato preparation, Katliyuan Aloo, lightly spiced with curry leaves.

"There used to be automats in America, machines where you could press a button and select your meal," Panditji recalls. "It could be chicken or some other hot meal. There was a whole system behind it, because after you got your meal, it would be replaced in the window. The drug stores also always had a food counter where people could sit and eat."

"Was that in New York?" asks Terry.

"All over America. I am talking about the 1930s and `40s, even up to the `60s. Now of course they are not there," he concludes, and one pictures his pioneering years, travelling to the fashion capitals of the world, a fashion icon himself, wooing art connoisseurs to Indian music and completely wowing the younger generation with his skill and his Adonis like looks.

Sugarcane juice and napkins with buttonholes are not Masala Art's only novelties. Here, you not only have the choice of multiple-course meals, even the dinner plates are in two separate pieces. Fitting together like a puzzle, one segment is in the shape of a broad crescent moon, and the other, an ellipse.

You have to be careful how you eat, points out Panditji, since the unlucky eater's food might go through the space between the two parts of the plate! Though greatly pleased with the décor and innovations, he mulls over the idea of newness that has taken compulsory hold over people's sensibilities of late. They would even want something new to be done to the glasses, he says, suggesting, "Maybe they can make holes in them!"

Indeed, though the glasses are whole in all respects, there are some with inventive shapes reminiscent of the stork's beaker in the fable of the stork and the fox.

This family loves its jokes, and they are passed round the table in multilingual variety. In the midst of it, Kaveri, born and brought up in the U.S., is advised about the spices. Though not used to hot food, she pronounces it quite palatable. What grabs everyone's attention is the phulka trolley, which an expert chef wheels round to every table to produce rotis puffed up and piping hot - the epitome of Indian hospitality. Kaveri also tries the naan and everyone admires the "men in white," who are visible from their glass enclosed tandoori unit.

From the dessert list, there is Chenna Payas or ice cream for those with a sweet tooth, and for those who want to digest all those kababs, there is Bhune Jeere ki Chaas - buttermilk with roasted cumin. What do gurus do best? Give blessings, and Panditji, true to style, foretells that Masala Art will be a big hit in Delhi, as also the planned Masala Craft in Mumbai.

Leaving the restaurant amid pleasantries, some autograph seekers shyly approach the Shankars. No anonymity here. Theirs is a tradition of celebrity.

ANJANA RAJAN

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