Inside a new photographic tribute to Melbourne’s Indian food culture. DHANYA SAMUEL reports

Sonia Sarangi is an architect by profession, but she is also an avid foodie and photographer. Her recently concluded photography exhibition, Desivolution, presented in association with Multicultural Arts Victoria, is a testimony this, capturing the heart and soul of the Indian food culture in Melbourne.

“Restaurants have become powerful billboards for culture and diversity in Melbourne,” Sarangi says. “It is in this space that many of us are willing to share different aspects of desi culture that others are unaware of.”

Sonia Sarangi.Indian Link

She continues, “The exhibition focuses on the design and food of these ‘new wave’ Indian establishments, I hesitate to call them restaurants as many do not fit that description, from food trucks to specialist market stalls; from healthy street food to contemporary fine dining, tucked away in the laneways of Melbourne. Ultimately, I believe that food is a fantastic window into our culture.”

Photography has always been a silent passion for Sonia, but an important one being in the field of design and architecture.

“It began with me ‘borrowing’ my dad’s film camera before I headed to university and then forgetting to ever return it!” Sarangi says. “I don’t have formal training, but I think that being self-taught is a route that many creative people take. It’s taken me quite a long time to find my voice in photography and to find the perfect platform to share it.”

Sonia Sarangi.Indian Link

Michael Silver (who runs Magnet Galleries where the exhibition was held) showed Sonia some beautiful archival papers on which her photographs could be printed. The minute Khadi was mentioned, she knew this would be the most befitting surface for her photographs. The paper comes from a handmade paper mill outside the village of Tarihal near Hubli, in Karnataka. Khadi papers are made from 100 per cent cotton rag, which is known for its exceptional strength and durability, and have longer fibres than linters which are generally used in papermaking.

All of the food outlets involved in the project “instantly grasped the concept and embraced it”. Sarangi is full of praises for the restaurants, cafes and pop-ups who agreed to be a part of the project. “They were generous with their time and let us into their very busy working routines,” she explains. “I would describe this new wave as young, health-focused, experimental and passionate about what they do.”

Featured in Desivolution are Babuji (4-6 Grey St, St Kilda), Delhi Streets (22 Katherine Place), Dilli 6 (290 Old Geelong Rd, Hoppers Crossing), Original Chai Co (Queen St, Opp. Shed H, Queen Vic Market), Overdosa (pop up stalls across Melbourne), Tadka Boom (22 Goldsbrough Lane) and Tonka (20 Duckboard Pl).

Sonia Sarangi.Indian Link

“Even in a city like Melbourne, which marches on its stomach, it is a very competitive and brutal scene within the hospitality industry,” Sarangi says. “They each took a risk in presenting a facet of Indian food or culture that many of the locals do not understand. And in doing so they each inadvertently took on the role of being constant cultural ambassadors.”

A native of Orissa, born and brought up in Dubai, completing her higher studies in Singapore and then moving to Australia in 2006, Sonia calls herself a global citizen. This nomadic journey has also broadened her horizons about what Indian culture really means and how food always plays an intricate part, especially when you live outside India.

Sonia says that the extensive support of Multicultural Arts Victoria and Magnet Galleries has enabled her to bring these stories to life through her photographs that are quite different to what is often seen in mainstream media.

“Instagram, I fear, has desensitised everyone to picture-postcard photos,” Sarangi says. “My advice would be to take your time to discover an authentic story or topic that you are passionate about. Photographs don’t simply capture a moment, they are also a powerful story telling medium. And the best stories are those that come from within.”