For lawyer-turned-artist Aditya Raj, painting is also a way to explore and celebrate his city. In this interview, he speaks to us about candies from his childhood, sketching in restaurants, and chicken pakodas in Karol Bagh in Delhi.
We were first drawn to Aditya Raj’s work because of his drawings of the various carts in his neighbourhood, selling vegetables and fish and flowers. Something about these drawings feel oddly comforting and warm, especially as many of our neighbourhoods are rapidly changing, all cement and dust, and in a perpetual state of flux.
Since we’re always thinking of what local and seasonal means to different people at The Locavore, Aditya’s work stood out for us. Not just because it documents street vendors and small eateries with affection, but also because it serves as a reminder to explore our neighbourhoods and city, and keep our eyes and ears open.
Excerpts from an interview with Aditya Raj, a lawyer-turned-artist:
You document several small and big institutions across Delhi and Mumbai, from restaurants and bookstores, to street vendors and heritage buildings. But so much of it is tied to food. Why do you think this is?
I think to start with, I had not thought of the series of paintings to be so connected to food. The aim was to archive everyday spaces—places that we pass by, or go to everyday, but do not think about twice. I wanted to capture the mundane. What I realised eventually is that food is a commonality when it comes to documenting the everyday. It connects people from all walks of life, and is also the one thing that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia.
Another thing I noticed is how every establishment that I painted had some sort of connection to food. For instance, a bookstore would have a golgappe wala sitting, if not just outside, then a little away from it. Or say, a chhole bhature shop would have a paan shop right outside it. It’s amazing how an entire ecosystem exists in which several kinds of food co-exist, and complement each other.
One of our favourite drawings of yours is of a vegetable cart, as seen from above, like an aerial view. Take us through the process of sketching this, from start to finish.
The cart series emerged from all the photos and videos that I took of vendors during the covid-19 lockdowns. I was stuck in my third floor apartment in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi. My neighbourhood is always buzzing with activity, and during these lockdowns, the cart-sellers became our lifesavers and only connection to the outside world. I would sit on my balcony, and watch as every kind of cart passed by, whether it was vegetables or plastic ware or carpets. So, it was only a matter of time before I turned it into a series of paintings. My quest to archive the city had to include not just shop fronts, but also these shops that arrive at your doorstep everyday without fail.
There’s a strong thread of nostalgia that runs through your drawings, especially in relation to food. The one of candies made us crave for Melody and Phantom Cigarettes, in particular. Why did you settle on candies from the past?
I was sent some Kisme Toffees by a friend who ordered them off Amazon. After eating about a dozen of those in under ten minutes, I was struck by how that one candy had transported me back to my childhood. The memories of walking to our neighbourhood nukkad grocery shop and buying kisme toffees with money that a visiting relative had given me came rushing back. That made me think of all those candies that defined our childhood, and so I painted them.
When you draw small restaurants, bars and street food vendors like Ganesh Restaurant, Janata, and Kyani and Co., they’re often captured from the outside. As a part of your process, do you also speak to people who work there, and spend some time there? And more importantly, do you eat (and drink) from there?
Yes! I love to visit the places that I draw, and experience them for myself. Ideally, I will sit there, order something to eat and drink, and just take it all in. I make it a point to talk to the staff. Sometimes, when the staff is chatty, I tell them what I do, and share my work with them. In most cases, they are very excited about the prospect of me sketching their establishment. They start telling me interesting stories of the place, of celebrities who have visited, or sometimes, just random facts, all of which usually find place in the descriptions that I write alongside my paintings.
What’s been the most enjoyable part of this process for you? But also, what are the challenges?
I enjoy the whole process of painting—going around the city, speaking to people, and finding references. But what’s been a lot of fun is stumbling into new places unexpectedly. On most of my trips to Old Delhi, I would make so many discoveries. Like, I would go looking for a certain kulfi wala, but end up finding ten new ones, each with a different speciality.
In terms of challenges, I do find it a bit intrusive and awkward to take pictures of establishments and shops. You see, I’m not much of a photographer. Another challenge is capturing the feel and vibe of a space in a painting. Initially, I would paint the shop front exactly as it is, but to get it to feel like the real thing took me some time.
No doubt you have made some amazing discoveries when it comes to food. Tell us about a place you have drawn which you think deserves much more attention.
So many places! To start with, most of the legendary places to eat at, be it in Old Delhi, or any other market. People will occasionally write about them, and maybe a celebrity or two will end up visiting. But on a daily basis, they don’t get the footfall that they deserve. Most people resort to ordering online, and the whole experience of going to a place and eating food hot, just off the pan, seems to be fading. One particular discovery was Ganesh restaurant in Karol Bagh. I had only heard stories about their chicken pakoda, but damn, it’s so amazing!
What are projects that you are currently working on?
Apart from a series on places in Mumbai, I am also working on some commissioned work. I take on a couple of commissions a month, and lately, it’s been really interesting work. I am also preparing for my first solo art exhibition in September in Delhi, which I’m very excited about! It will have all the Delhi series’ originals. I am also considering the next city I want to visit and paint. Maybe Kolkata. So all in all, a lot of art is being made!
Aditya Raj is a Delhi-based lawyer-turned artist. You can find more of his work or connect with him here.