Shift from cement to butter, no easy task | Sunday Observer

Shift from cement to butter, no easy task

Damith Indrajith
Damith Indrajith

Regularly cycling over 10 kilometres up and down was not something that young Damith had introduced for himself as a physical exercise. Instead, riding by bike daily to ‘The Brief’, the renowned bungalow and stunningly landscaped garden which belonged to the famous Bevis Bawa, brought him much fame in the world of art. Damith Indrajith who mastered the art of sculpture and painting underneath the mighty shadow of Bawa is a world-renowned artist today. The Sunday Observer visited his art gallery named ‘Gallery 7’ in Pannipitiya recently.

Damith who was keen in art since childhood began by creating pandals and lanterns for Vesak with the support of his two younger brothers Dimuthu and Amitha who are award-winning chefs today. At the end of his school days, Damith joined Bevis Bawa who inspired him in his work. Even though Bawa was restricted to a wheelchair at that time, he taught as much as was possible to the youngster who he knew would climb the ladder in the world of art.

At first, Damith started copying Bawa’s sculptures in cement, the latter instructing him when necessary. He still remembers an incident which happened when a journalist from a popular newspaper visited Bawa for an article.

“I am an old man now. Why don’t you write something about this young man? He is a very talented guy” Bawa said pointing at Damith who was beside him. It was quite an unexpected gesture to both Damith and the journalist.

“He was such a gentleman. Who else would suggest to a journalist to write about one of his juniors instead of himself?” Damith recalls his master, with a heart full of love.

Thus ‘The Weekend’ newspaper, carried a story about this unknown apprentice of Bevis Bawa on October 3, 1982; the very first newspaper article about Damith.

Bevis Bawa had a great collection of books related to art, ranging from drawings to sculptures. More importantly, he forced young Damith to read as much as he could to enhance his knowledge.

One day, Bawa and young Damith went to ‘Hotel Neptune’ in Ahungalle to see a painting collection belonging to a colleague. Damith had no idea that it would be another life-changing day for him.

“The General Manager of the hotel was a friend of my master. He had seen me working at ‘The Brief’ and offered me a job as a kitchen artist” Damith recalled.

They wanted to hire Damith as a butter sculpture artist. After viewing a photograph depicting butter sculpture, Damith agreed to take up the job. Of course with the blessings of his master.

This major shift from cement to butter was not an easy task. Unlike nowadays, Damith had only limited means to learn about butter sculptures at a time when the internet was somebody’s dreamy project.

Very soon he started vegetable carvings too. Pumpkin, radish, carrots carved and fancily dressed by Damith was a great hit at Hotel Neptune. The ‘Araliya’ newspaper gave him full pages for his vegetable carving lessons, which by itself was testimony to his capability and talent.

“Food carving is not only about its beauty, it is also a visual appetizer. It silently invites the guest to taste the food” Damith explained.

During his career spanning over three decades, he worked at the Taj Samudra, Colombo, for 26 years. He joined as a kitchen artist and finally retired from the Taj group as one of their ‘master chefs’ achieving another significant milestone in his career.

Though India is world-renowned for art, vegetable carving or butter sculpture had not grabbed recognition there. In this respect, joining the Taj opened doors of opportunities for Damith.

“About 20 years ago, India barely had kitchen artists and I was given the task of training young chefs in the Taj group hotels in India. It was indeed a most enjoyable time in my life,” Damith recalled.

Throughout this journey full of wonderful events he bagged some of the most prestigious awards in the culinary world. Winning a gold medal at Culinary Art Awards in 1990; the most outstanding artist with 2 golds and a silver at the 1992 Salon Culinary awards and 2 golds and a silver at the Culinary Olympics in New Delhi (2000) are some of his major achievements.

While studying under Bawa, he sometimes moved to drawings from sculptures. Even now he enjoys painting, and his gallery in Pannipitiya is full of oil and acrylic paintings. The Coffee shop at the Taj Samudra also holds some of Damith’s paintings.

His abstracts are often seen as a couple of brush strokes, though they are scenery, most of the time.

Stagnation was never a habit in Damith’s life. His urge to experiment new things led him to body painting. He has done several body paintings for events. However, salt dough is his favourite medium when it comes to kitchen art. Dough prepared by adding salt and wheat, mixed with gelatin becomes a thick paste, strong like concrete. A salt dough sculpture of Greek goddess Artemis is his favourite food carving so far.

This multi-talented individual is now planning to open a new gallery at ‘One Galle-Face’, the luxury shopping complex which is due to open in September this year. No doubt this novel movement would bring him more opportunities while he continues to venture in his journey of art.

Pix: Dushmantha Mayadunne