It’s a bit too early to tell if we’ll enjoy an Indian summer – but it’s not a moment too soon to enjoy a splendidly Indian spring. Nope; this week sees the hotly anticipated arrival of the Southbank Centre’s annual Alchemy festival of South Asian culture. Come rain or shine, it’ll be brightening up Londoner’s lives for many May days and nights.
For a full five years, May has been the month to head down to the riverside with a rumbling tummy in order to eat one’s way clean across the subcontinent. As with almost every Indian event, food finds its way into absolutely everything across the festival’s multi-platform programme; from drama to music, cinema to storytelling.
And this year, I must tell you about a very special story due to be shared on the Southbank. Bring tissues, for the issues that Nikesh Shukla will be exploring will bring a tear to the driest of eyes. The author’s novella ‘The Time Machine’ is a food-centric memoir that provides plenty of food for thought – and, during the live performance-cum-cookery demo, plenty of food for folks, too.
‘The Time Machine’ is a cracking celebration of Nikesh’s late mother and her Gujarati khana; a tale which becomes ever more triumphant as the author resurrects her memory by conquering the kitchen, mastering more and more fodder that tastes just like his much-missed mum’s. Tasty, thought provoking, and proceeds go to charity – what more could you ask for?
A couple of cocktails to help you digest what you’ve witnessed, perchance? Well then, you’re in luck. Chug down a drink or three at Rohit Chugh’s Roti Chai Chaat Shack and Bar, which brings a little bit of Bombay beach within reach. The Shack serves street snacks, chai and tongue-tingling tipples like the Kovalam Beach Kick all day, everyday – the perfect retreat if the heavens open.
If they remain closed and skies stay sunny, I’d propose an extensive exploration of the Alchemy Food Market. Come hungry, leave stuffed, with plenty of stuff still remaining to try on your next visit. Visit streetfood stalwarts Dosa Deli, artisan food producers like The Chocolatier, and the various Indian restaurants setting up stalls serving mobile munchies. Visit a cashpoint first.
It costs virtually nothing, though, to go virtual kiteflying in Udaipur – except for your own exertion. The installation drops you on a rooftop seemingly high above that city, the immersive experience further enhanced with sensory stimulation from the piped-in street sounds that surround you. The digitally-controlled kites are a failsafe way to fly; preventing tangles and mangles whilst giving you quite a rush.
If you’re feeling flush and fancy a spot of lush Indian fine dining, check out The Cinnamon Club’s elegant evening of demonstrations and tastings, hosted by the restaurant’s main man Vivek Singh and his boundary-pushing brigade. Experience of Vivek’s khana leads one to expect the unexpected, but set expectations high for both food and style – wear your smart shoes.
But should you be on a shoestring budget, don’t despair. It costs nothing to soak up the sounds, sights, smells and awesome atmosphere that Alchemy evokes. Nor will you incur a fee for watching, listening and learning from the eminent chefs and foodies demonstrating dishes and waxing lyrical about all things Indian food. Stop and stare awhile; it’d be rude to simply walk on by.
If that’s all got your appetite so whetted that you can’t wait til the 15th, take a walk to Queens Walk from 8th May, where Horn OK Please will be in residence to see off cravings for chai and chaat. Please don’t simply eat it and beat it; hang around for a chat with Gaurav and Sandhya – they’re cracking chaps and they like a jolly chinwag.
Save your pensive chin-stroking for Alchemy’s thought-provoking and insightful cultural programme. It’s not just India that’s explored, but the entire subcontinent; including a day devoted to talks on Pakistan and a free display of The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – a multimedia archive. Musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music will provide aural pleasures.
Treat your ears, too, to music from the likes of Anoushka Shankar, Israeli Qawwali singer Shye Ben Tzur, Nitin Sawhney and Bollywood star Sukhwinder Singh. Without getting too dramatic, Alchemy stages some great stuff – including the UK premiere of Fearless Nadia, kathak-inspired dance by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, and a performance of Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales.
Alchemy tops off the tale in a fashionable manner with the ‘Design Wallah’ pop-up contemporary South Asian craft shop, free fashion shows, and Siddartha Das’ textile installation, ‘Kaal: Unfolding Layers of Time. Clearly, time spent at Alchemy will be time well spent. If you agree, I’ll see you there… and feel very free to buy me a bhelpuri.
Can’t make it to the Southbank this May? I feel for you – but there’s no need to feel too blue; for a little bird tells me that next year the whole shebang is going mobile…
- The main Alchemy festival runs from 15th – 26th May across various sites at the Southbank Centre.
- For more information on the programme and individual events, click here.