Sticky rice with evenly sliced mangoes,a paper roast dosa with chutney and sambar, instant noodles and glazed donuts are some of the things you find on Shirali Patel’s Instagram. All of these dishes are expertly arranged and can be placed within the palm of one’s hand. What? I hear you say. As tantalizing and edible as they may seem, her culinary creations are actually miniature sculptures modeled out of clay.
Shirali was introduced to miniatures at the young and impressionable age of twelve, while visiting a museum in Babylon, Syria. She was so captivated by them that she wanted to take them home. What began there resurfaced years later when she was working as a merchandiser for a medley of Indian apparel behemoths. She had made a miniature of a shoe on her USB drive, so that it could be distinguished easily from the other USB drives. Then she started sculpting everything from miniature books to shoes, but she tells me that she prefers sculpting food miniatures. “People easily connected with my food miniatures, even if they didn’t buy them they were happy to see them” So she ended up specializing in them. I ask her if she’s partial to any cuisine and she says “I’m not particular about any form of cuisine, but I love experimenting with the textures and colors that are found in food across cultures”. She also tells me that her transition from full-time employee to full-time artist took place seamlessly and quite suddenly. After leaving her job as a merchandiser she started making miniatures and got a lot of positive responses, and then within a few months, she started selling her creations online. There seemed to be demand for her creations all year round, on account of most of them being items that could be gifted or collected to be displayed.
Apart from making sculpting food miniatures, she also makes coasters, cufflinks, earrings, pendants, bookmarks and a gamut of other gifting items. “I didn’t want to be limited to making food miniatures” she says. All of her creations are handcrafted and she makes sure to add her own brand of quirkiness to whatever she makes. For instance, she has a line of bookmarks called ‘leggy-marks’ which has a pair of legs sticking out at the end of the bookmark, along with a witty quote on the front of the bookmark. She has also made pen-drives disguised as miniature pizza slices, as elegant pair of Jimmy Choo heels and even a box of miniature cookies filled with white cream.
No matter what she makes, her love for food is apparent. So how does she go about it? Her initial research consists of understanding the food, its colors, textures and taste. Then she makes measurements and converts them to 1/6th of their original size, “The right proportion is essential” she adds. Then the miniature is scaled to the new measurements. Then comes the process of preparing the colors. Shirali tells me that she mixes her own colors. She uses polymer clay for the colors and only rarely does she turn to soft pastel paints, when she needs to achieve a burnt texture for her miniatures.
When she started to learn making miniatures she spent six months studying the dynamics of mixing colors, by now she has over three thousand recipes for colors. After mixing the colors, she assembles the sculpture and fires them in an oven, finally she varnishes the piece, making it virtually indestructible. The end result is nothing short of enticing. Some of her creations even have a glossy layer of ghee or butter all of which are made by using melted polymer clay, which she tells me is a very versatile albeit expensive medium to work with.
Shirali is a self-taught artist and her path to learning the craft was one of trial and errors. She also teaches the art of making miniatures to interested individuals, but she tells me that an hour long workshop is inadequate to cover even the basics of miniature making, also the she feels that the a workshop cannot reach all interested people as they mostly take place in the major metros. Instead she takes on two interns for a period of three months. She has a disciplined routine, she gets into her studio at eleven in the morning, her interns come in a little after that, and they stay till five in the evening. “I usually spend around ten hours a day working on my miniatures” she says. Apart from teaching she has also exhibited her work in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Surat. She tries to do around 3-4 exhibitions a year.
She has had interns from almost all corners of the country. Despite learning with her for 3 months, when it is time for them to part ways, her students tells her that they wish that they had more time to learn. Besides this Shirali is also looking to create and curate a series of online lessons on making miniatures so that people can learn from the comfort of their homes and at their own pace. She tells aspiring miniaturists to focus on scaling, getting the colors right; as they can make or break a miniature, and last but not least, the texture, “All of these when combined, make the miniature look more realistic” she explains. She also stresses the importance of patience and hard work, “The more time and effort you put into a miniature the better it will turn out, some miniatures took me a week to figure out” she tells me.
With her perseverance she turned herself into the face of a brand that belts out gift items with added utility, Shirali Patel and her miniatures are proof, that with continued effort and patience, anything can be achieved.