Forgotten Masterpieces: Indian Painting for the East India Company

forgotten masters  forgotten masters


Even though I am a regular art exhibition-goer in London, I often miss many excellent but less publicised exhibitions in town. Luckily, I did manage to see the rare and wonderful “Forgotten Masterpieces: Indian Painting for the East India Company” at The Wallace Collection before my travels to Asia.

Guest curated by renowned writer and historian William Dalrymple, the exhibition is the first in the UK to showcase 100 artworks by Indian master painters commissioned by East India Company officials –ranging from botanists and surgeons, through to diplomats, artists, governors and judges, and their wives – in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1770 to 1840). These Indian artists include Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Sita Ram and Ghulam Ali Khan, who were all uncredited for their intricate artworks. Until now.

The exhibition explores the four main centres of what has traditionally been described as ‘Company School’ painting: Calcutta and Lucknow, where provincial Mughal painters from Murshidabad, Patna and Faizabad were employed; Madras and Tanjore, where artists from the South Indian traditions received patronage; and Delhi, where Imperial Mughal artists created some of the finest works of this period. India’s natural world appeared to be a popular subject for the British officials at the time.


forgotten masters

forgotten masters  forgotten masters


After I started to do botianical illustrations as a hobby in recent years, I became very interested in botanical art. Hence I was immediately drawn to all the bold and meticulous botanical paintings of Indian flora at the exhibition. There is a timelessness feel to these paintings, and you could easily see them being transferred to wallpaper or fabric and sold at House of Hackney to trendy East Londoners.


forgotten masters

forgotten masters  forgotten masters


The fauna paintings are equally interesting. I particularly liked the study of “Great Indian Fruit Bat” (around 1777-82) by a well-known Indian artist Bhawani Das, who was trained in Mughal miniature painting and commissioned by Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of Bengal (1774–1782), and his wife, Lady Mary, to make extensive natural history studies at their estate in Calcutta. I have never liked bats, but the paintings are so intriguing that I found it hard to move away from them.


forgotten masters

forgotten masters

forgotten masters


Aside from the natural world, another highlight was the painstaking architectural drawings of India’s manmade wonders including the Taj Mahal. I felt like asking for a magnifying glass in order to study these drawings! These drawings were done by an unknown artist (possibly Sheikh Mohammed Latif), and each drawing showcases the detailed ornamental patterns and calligraphy on the facades of the buildings. I am not sure if such drawing techniques and craftsmanship still exists today – these works are immaculate and priceless.


forgotten masters

forgotten masters

forgotten masters

forgotten masters

forgotten masters


The exhibition also displays masterpieces from the famous Fraser Album for the first time since the album was broken up and sold in the 1980s. Fraser Album is a collection of paintings documenting various aspects of Mughal life, made between 1815 and 1819, commissioned by a British Indian civil servant, William Fraser. The last court painter of the Mughal empire, Ghulam Ali Khan, was commissioned to illustrate Mughal life using traditional techniques but with English watercolours on English paper. This fusion style is known today as the Company School. 


forgotten masters

forgotten masters


Of course this exhibition is not just about art; the exhibition is fascinating because of its Anglo-Indian history and context. Through these works, we could get a glimpse of the last days of the Mughal Empire, and appreciate the last phase of Indian artistic genius before photography and the influence of western colonial art schools – ended an unbroken tradition of painting going back two thousand years. From the exhibition, we could see that the commissioned Indian artists not only responded to European influences, they also maintained their own artistic visions and styles, therefore these works are truly original and remarkable. Sadly, the vast array of ‘fusion’ works produced during this period were largely forgotten by the world, which is why this exhibition could be seen as a late tribute to the ingenious Indian masters from that period.


Winter soup dinner diet & comfort homecooking

farmers market

Autumn/winter vegetables bought from the organic farmers market


Last winter, I embarked on a ‘soup dinner diet’ for a few months during the autumn/winter period, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I did it again this year. Oddly enough, I don’t actually believe in diets, and have only been on diets a few times in my life (for a short period each time). I love food, and would not want to restrict myself, but I noticed that I would put on weight during the winter months due to lack of outdoor activities. Hence I came up with the idea of having just soup for dinner as an experiment, and to my surprise, it really worked. I did lose weight after a few months of having mostly soups in the evenings, even though I wasn’t extremely strict – there were nights when I just didn’t feel like it. I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted during the day, and kept a record of what soups I made in the evenings.

Besides losing weight, I also discovered that soup meals are more economical. Sometimes a big pot would last for days, even my food shopping has become more ‘focused’ and less random.

Being a pescatarian means that my soup would be made of vegetables (and occasionally seafood). The trick to this diet is to a make a big batch of vegetable stock beforehand (usually during the weekends) and then freeze it in small tubs. Over the winter months, my freezer would be filled with tubs of vegetable stock, which would be used as the base of my soups.

I am a big fan of farmers market, and luckily I live near one too. Every week I would stock up on fresh organic vegetables for my soups. Although I do shop in the supermarkets as well, I try to buy vegetables that are in season rather than the ones shipped from Africa and South America.


vegetable stock

Vegetable stock made from skins and scraps


I learned from a popular Japanese cook/food writer/designer Masaki Higuchi to use only the skins, ends and scraps of vegetables to make the vegetable stock, which not only tastes good but also reduces food waste. When I told this to the vegetable farmer at the market, he said it makes sense as the ends of vegetables tend to have more flavour, and he would try making it too.

Rooted vegetables are seasonal during the autumn/winter periods. Pumpkin, beetroot, sweet potato, parsnip, and various squashes like delicata butternut, ambercup, acorn and sweet dumpling etc are not only good for soups, they are good for roasting, too. I found that parsnip soups are really filling and comforting during the cold winter months.


pumpkin   pumpkin soup

roasted vegetables

squash soup

Top row: Pumpkin soup; 2nd row: roasting different variety of beetroots; bottom row: minestrone with squash


Minestrone is an easy and versatile soup to make, and you can easily alter the ingrdients depending on what you have at home. I also like to add some orzo pasta topped with some freshly-grated parmesan to make it more satisfying.

Besides rooted vegetables, there is also an abundance of mushrooms during this perid, and one of my favourite soups is mixed mushroom soup.


parsnip soup

mushroom soup

corn soup

Top: parsnip soup; 2nd row: mixed mushroom soup; bottom: sweet corn soup


For the last few years, I often would get colds during the winter months especially when work becomes busier and more stressful. Yet this year, I did not catch a cold, and I would like to believe that my soup diet was one of the reasons.

Probably the most immune boosting soup in winter is French onion soup. According to health expert, onions can cure cold, cough and boost immunity, so this soup is one of my winter favourites and it tastes delicious too.


onion soup

French onion soup topped with Gruyère cheese


My soup recipe book now contains close to 100 soup recipes that I have made in the last two years. I rarely plan on what to buy before my visits to the farmers market, instead I pick whatever I fancy and then come up with something afterwards. Although I like to read cookbooks or check out recipes online, I never follow them exactly as I view cooking as a creative process, thus being spontaneous makes it more fun.


mixed veg soup

fish soup

Top: vegetable soup with kale and barley; bottom: fish soup


Ramen is one of the most comforting dishes in winter, but it is hard to find an authentic ramen shop that serves ramen with vegetable base in London, so I tend to make it at home using my own broth. I have also made dashi at home, which can be used as the soup base for miso ramen.

Occasionally, I would see fresh tiger prawns being sold in my local supermarket, so it gave me the idea of making Thai tom yum noodle soup. The heads and shells of the prawns can be used to make the stock, and adding rice noodles makes the soup more substantial. The spicy and sour soup is perfect as a healthy winter meal.


japanese ramen

tofu soup

tom yum soup

tom yum soup noodles


Oden is a classic winter comfort dish in Japan, which are often sold in food carts, but you may also find it in some izakayas, restaurants and even convenient stores. The one-pot simmered dish is often consisted of an assortment of fish balls, fish cakes, deep-fried tofu with rice cakes and daikon etc. The soy-favoured dashi broth becomes more flavourful as the pot simmers away, and it tastes even better the next day. I love having this dish around New year.




Homemade oden


As much as I love this winter soup diet, having soup every night for four months can be a bit boring, so occasionally I would cook other non-soup dishes either as weekend treats or as sides to accompany the soups.

Since I bought the Dishoom cookbook, I was eager to try some dishes from the book. The two paneer dishes worked out extremely well, especially the curry, which I think is an uplifting dish to eat at home when it is grey, cold and rainy outside.



paneer tikka

flat bread  flatbread

Indian nights: Matar paneer (paneer and pea curry), paneer tikka, flat bread


Although I find winters quite depressing sometimes, cooking gives me joy and motivation. If I am stressed out during the day, cooking helps me to destress and relax. I love experimenting and creating something new. Since quitting meat some years ago, I learned to be more open and adventurous with vegetables, and I discovered how versatiles vegetables can be. I almost always cook from scratch, and I rarely eat ready made meals as I believe that “We are what we eat”, so never underestimate the benefits of healthy eating.


homemade pizza


polenta chips

avocado salsa

inari sushi

Top: homemade pizza; 2nd row: Padrón peppers; 3rd row: polenta fries; guacamole with pitta chips; bottom row: inari sushi



‘Just sitting’ at the zazen weekend retreat

zazen retreat


For the past few years, I would spend one February weekend attending an annual zazen retreat organised by my zazen group at a farm outside of London. Our zazen group is quite small, so most of us know each other quite well. People come and go, and there is no pressure to attend the sessions regularly.

The path that brought me to my teacher and the group was windy, but it was worth it. After my teacher moved away from the UK, the annual retreat would be a good opportunity to spend quality time with him and listen to his talks. Our group’s practice is based on the teachings taught by the 13th century Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. However, our group is not associated with any Soto zen organisation or institution, since my teacher (and his teacher) do not like the hiercharchy, rigidity and dogma of any organisation – even the Buddhist ones.


zazen retreat


Due to my upbringing, I have felt like an ‘outsider’ all my life, and I never felt the need to belong to a group, yet my views changed since I became a regular at my zazen group. In Buddhism, Sangha means a community of fellow practitioners, and it is the third of the Three Jewels (the other two are The Buddha and The Dharma i.e. the teachings), so it is an important part of the practice. Practising with a group of people from all walks of life is not only interesting, it also broadens my horizon. They are not friends who I hang out with, though they are more than acquaintances, and I know I can turn to some for support if I need it. I dislike clique groups, so perhaps the reason why I like this group is that we tend to maintain an adequate distance between us. Low-key and friendly, but not cliquey.


zazen retreat  zazen retreat


There are many misconceptions regarding zazen. I want to clarify that the zazen practice taught by Dogen is neither mindfulness nor meditation. It is not about emptying the mind, finding happiness, or seeking enlightenment (this is the major difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen); the core of Dogen‘s teaching is Shikantaza, which can be translated to ‘just sitting’. This form of practice was introduced to Dogen by his Chinese teacher, Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism in China. Unlike other kinds of meditation practice, it does not require you to focus your attention on the breathing or solve a koan or visualise, instead you just sit in a full or half lotus position (if possible) wholeheartedly and be aware of your body-mind (N.B. body and mind is not separate). This kind of practice is more difficult, but over time, you would become more aware of all the sensations in your body and the fleeting thoughts that come and go. Letting go of thoughts, stories and images does not involve conscious effort, as long as you don’t grasp or dwell on them, they would eventually fade away.

When you sit without trying, aiming or judging, you may experience what Dogen describes as shin-jin-datsu-raku, which meansbody-mind dropping off(originally translated from Chinese). Of course, he does not mean it literally, but from my experience, it feels like there is more ‘space, clarity, openness and calmness’ within. This is not a state that you can seek, it happens naturally, and without making any effort. All the effort you need in zazen is to keep your body relaxed and upright, yet this is easier said than done.


lower shaw farm


Zazen is crucial if you want to understand Zen Buddhism because it is experiential. You can learn Buddhist ethics and teachings from many books, but zazen is not an intellectual practice, it is an ‘action’ that does not involve thinking. My teacher often emphasise that zazen is not about sitting still, rather it is an action that requires constant adjusting and you can only find balance through the subtle adjustments and movements. It is like walking on a tightrope or riding a bicycle – both are balancing acts that require adjustments of the postures.

“Zazen is good for nothing” is a quote by the prominent Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (who died in 1965), which completely contradicts other goal-oriented spiritual practices. Zazen is not about self-improvement, and it does not make you a better person; to me, it is more about acceptance and awareness. After practising zazen for 6 years (and prior to it, I spent 6 years practising different forms of meditation), now I simply enjoy the act of ‘just sitting’. I don’t sit because I want to be in a different state, I sit because I want to, even when I feel down/happy/conflicted… We all have the tendency to want to escape from reality, but the truth is it never works. Although practising has not always been easy, it has become a habit to me (like brushing my teeth) and I would miss it if I don’t sit for a while.


zazen retreat


Many people think of retreats as some kind of spa holiday where you would relax for days – nothing could be further from the truth! It is actually exhausting to sit in a upright position for 4-5 hours a day. We would start each day at 7am and end after 9pm, and the day is filled with different work duties (samu in Japanese), hence a retreat is hardly a holiday. However, after just a weekend of sitting and time away from my digital devices, I usually would feel quite uplifted despite the aches and pains in my body.

Like my teacher would say, “After a weekend of sitting, all the stiffness in our bodies would ‘drop off’ and this would be revealed in our postures”. Surprisingly, our sitting postures reveal a lot about the states of our body-mind. According to some cognitive and neuroscience research, the balance state of the autonomic nervous system is one of the benefits of the practice. Besides the health benefit, Kodo Sawaki Roshi said that “Zazen is to tune into the universe”. I believe that zazen is just one of the many methods that enable us to let go of our self-centredness and be more connected to the universe. If all of us can find a method to feel this connectedness, then perhaps our world would one day become integrated and harmonious.





Emmanuelle Moureaux’s ‘Slices of Time’ exhibition at Now Gallery

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux


I have been a fan of Tokyo-based French architect Emmanuelle Moureaux and her colour-driven architecture for some time. Since 1996, she has been living in Tokyo where she established Emmanuelle Moureaux architecture + design in 2003. I have never actually seen Moureaux‘s architecture and installations in real life, so I was really looking forward to seeing her first art/design exhibition “Slices of time” in London.

Moureaux invented the concept of shikiri, which literally means ‘dividing (creating) space with colours’. She uses colours as three-dimensional elements, like layers, in order to create spaces, and her work ranges from art, design to architecture.


Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux


Inspired by the location of the gallery, near the Greenwich Meridian, “Slices of Time expresses the past, the now and the future through 168,000 numbers cut out from paper. The cut-outs are hung in the gallery space, as a representation of the round earth floating. 100 layers of numbers in 100 shades of colours visualise the next 100 years to come (2020 to 2119), while 20 layers of numbers in white represent the past 20 years (2000 to 2019).

On the preview night, I headed to NOW Gallery on the Greenwich Peninsula, and a long queue had already formed outside of the gallery. At the door, we were assigned a timeslot and when it was our turn, we had to queue (again) outside of the exhibition area. We were allowed to walk around the installations for a short period before being hurried out to let the next group in.


Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux


It was wonderful to see the striking installations from above and up close. I am also glad that the architect has chosen paper as her medium – the installation truly reveals the beauty and power of paper. I only wish that I was given more time to linger, but since I was going to be away for several months, this was the only opportunity for me to see the exhibition before leaving. And for those who don’t live in London, there are currently two other exhibitions being held in Taipei (“Forest of Numbers” ) and New York (“100 colors”) where visitors can be stimulated by vast array of colours.


Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux

Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux  Slices of Time Emmanuelle Moureaux