Sunday, June 27, 2010

Who designed the sil-batta?

Who Designed the Sil Batta -
and why should we care?



When my mother-in-law came to Delhi from Calcutta, more than forty years ago, she brought with herself a stone-grinder – a sil batta – on the train. The sil was part of the household goods given by her family, to start her new life as a married woman. A few days ago, in the absence of my cook, I ground fresh coriander and garlic chutney on the same sil-batta. It was vigorous exercise for my arms. As the volume of green leaves transformed into a darker green, and I saw and smelt the shape of the white garlic clove disappearing into the green paste, amidst my growing anticipation of tasting the chutney, I was struck by a thought. Who designed the ubiquitous sil-batta, that indispensable part of every Indian kitchen even today? Was it designed at all? Or did one or many of our ancestors simply pick up a stone lying around by chance and use it to beat something on another convenient stone?

The germ of the idea may certainly have come from there, but when I look at the smooth black oval softness of the batta and consider how snugly it fits into my hands; the pocked and dotted surface of the sil and how well it uses friction to grind finely, it seems to me it must have been designed. Designed not in the sense that we think of today, with elaborate drawings, concept doodles and engineering drawings, but in the classic sense of the word – ‘thought of, conceived, deliberately visualized in the head’. Individual makers would have introduced minute changes in the basic configuration – depending on their personal or regional preferences. So the oblong batta preferred in Bengal becomes triangular in North India. The size of the sil varies. But, by and large, the sil-batta is instantly recognizable – the type is standardized yet each piece is unique, with its own identity.

The widespread use and acceptance of the sil-batta and its enduring popularity shows the success of its design. Of course, along with the sil, most conventional Indian kitchens today also house an electric mixer-blender, the ‘mixie’. I have one too. A Black & Decker model, bought less than a couple of years ago. We believed that it would perform better than the locally made mixie which had given up fairly soon. In about a year, much before the locally produced model, the blade of the wet-grinder of the ‘branded’ mixie had broken, and the vessel of the dry-grinder had cracked. Considering how infrequently it was used for our small family of three, and considering the claims of quality and durability of this international brand, this was unexpected - to say the least!

We considered toting the mixie back to the shop in Sector 18, not far at all from our home, but increasingly intimidating to reach with the intervening metro construction, road widening, stacks of malls and cars. And after all that effort, the shopkeeper would probably direct us to the company office, somewhere in the Industrial Sectors of Noida where we would spend more time and energy. After spending a precious morning in hunting out the bill and warranty card, we let it be.

In any case, the mixie was rarely used. One had to consider carefully what could be ground in it. The fine poppy seeds, the beloved posto of the Bengalis, used for flavouring and texturing vegetables, emerged virtually unchanged from the mixie. Mustard seeds, another favourite spice for both fish and vegetables, could only be ground in huge quantities, and even then not fine enough to bring out their pungency. Dry grinding other spices in the mixie was fast, but most of the flavour was lost.

If you pause to think about what the sil-batta does for and to you, it seems that it may actually be far more progressive and modern to use it rather than the mixie. The energy and resources consumed in its design and production are minimal – the design is well-disseminated, familiar to both maker and user, does not require fancy 3D mock-ups or scale-models, and contains no high energy parts such as steel or plastic. The stone may require high-energy resources in quarrying but further shaping is primarily by hand tools wielded by skilled stone-workers, and causes practically no pollution in production. The stone for the sil-batta in my family must have been quarried half a century ago. Unless I drop it on the floor and break it, there is no reason why it will not give service for another half a century more and be used by my daughter to pass on to whoever she wishes. Whenever my cook or I use it, the only energy we expend is ours. The taste is fresher, I believe the nutrients are retained, and I do not need to go to a gym to get exercise for my arms!

Contrast this with the steel and plastic mixie. Its production is complex, and requires detailed drawings (now probably produced on a computer, itself made with high energy materials) as a prelude to being manufactured in a large complicated factory - the setting up and running of which consumes precious water, and energy - and causes toxins to be released in the air, water and land. Every time the finished product is used, it consumes a lot of electricity. And then it breaks down in about a year.

Why don’t I throw the mixie? Or give it away to my maid as I do so many extra utensils? Perhaps it’s the particularly Indian habit of thrift. Perhaps because I nurse a fond hope that I may discover that there is something that the much advertised and branded mixie is good for. Or perhaps because it occurs to me that Gandhiji was right – giving away things whose use you have outgrown but whose usefulness you believe in, is acceptable. But giving away things that you think are practically useless, is hypocrisy.

I am, however, almost sure that my maid will be pleased to own a mixie. Why? Because we have been led to the belief that the mixie - like the image of the ‘pucca’ house - symbolizes modernity and progress. It is another matter that the pucca houses of concrete that practically every villager in India aspires to live in - and which already disfigure our cities and towns - are climatically and structurally quite inappropriate for most parts of India. They heat up dramatically in the summers, lose heat in the winters, and are unable to cope with the cycles of dry heat, humidity, or cold weather that make up the climate in many parts of our sub-continent. Whether it is the capital complex in Chandigarh that is said to represent the epitome of the ‘Modern Style of Architecture’, or the AWHO or the DDA built flats in the National Capital region of Delhi, or the hastily put up structures by local contractors all over the country, they all spall, rust, crumble and flake sooner rather than later. Sometimes, they also collapse and fall apart much before their slated time – like my Black and Decker mixie.

So we have gone back whole sale to the sil-batta. Pink onions and green mint, brown roasted cumin seeds, soaked almonds, fresh ginger, mixed dals, are all freshly ground, and just as much as we want. I no longer have to store huge quantities in the fridge, or waste much water in rinsing out the grinder, or worry about power cuts getting in the way of preparing food. The mixie is still there, occupying space in the kitchen. I hold onto the split vessel tightly trying to prevent spills when I summon up the will to use it (perhaps once in the past six months), curse it when I occasionally dust it, and look gratefully at my mother-in-law’s faithful sil, and marvel at its designer and maker.


Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
23 June 2010

24 comments:

  1. enjoyed reading thru.. thru & thru..!
    'sil-batta' or shil-noda.. as pronounced in Baangla.. is definitely a very important domestic item. not restricted to kitchen alone.. the shil & the noda often participate in various rituals as well.
    i remember the noda being used as a substitute for a lot of things.. eg, a light hammer, a nut cracker etc.. extremely versatile.

    i fondly remember the "sil-batta banwaa lo..!" call of the crafts-man who used to visit our street/muhalla once every month.. looking for work. he used to carry a number of sils in his bag.. different sizes.. but, still to be worked upon. he used to also 'repair' old sil-battas.. whose 'pocks & dots' had begun to disappear due to prolonged use.
    a new sil bargain would discuss size of the stone, its thickness, colour of the stone etc. and.. finally the chiselling..! something i loved watching! the 'pattern' of chiselling the surface of the sil.. is an art in itself. the stone slab (shaped like a 'boat-in-plan'..)was divided into 2 distinct zones. borders were chiselled in.. to frame the zones and the chiselling patterns decided. spiral, concentric, herring-bone, arrow-like or simply parallel staight-lines..
    the angle of the punch differed in different parts of the stone surface.. as also the size & depth of the punched dents. density of the dents were different in the two zones.. and the rows of the dents were staggered for better grinding. some craftsmen would also use floral patterns on the top end of the sil.

    my grandmother used three different sizes & types of shil-noda.. being fussy about which one to use for what sort of grinding..
    we too have a shil-noda (inherited off course) in our tiny kitchen.. as well as a working 'mixie', which is somewhere in one of the lofts..

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  2. thanks tapan,
    that was illuminating! I did not know that there were differnt types of sil battas within one kitchen! would love to see yours and photograph it too...

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  3. The sil batta reminded me of nittoo my elder sister who resides in UK, who is still waiting for it and is disappointed with us for not taking it to her so what if its heavy it has utility value and is an integral part of every Indian family.My younger brother uses the sil batta extensively for grinding chatanis and masalas because you can't get that taste in an electric grinder and of course i too have it in my kitchen

    Nalini

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  4. Daipayan BhattacharjeeAugust 29, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    Nice write. I am an industrial design student at IIT Delhi, I am thinking of redesigning the sil batta. I want to retain its functional character but give it an appearance so that it looks like it belongs to the modern urban indian kitchen. What are your views on this? Do you think indian women would like a modern looking sil batta, or would prefer the sil batta in its traditional form??

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  5. Hi Anisha,

    How are you??? Thoroughly enjoyed the article of Sil Batta...Infact a different artcle i have come across today after ages...

    Cheers!

    Urvashi.

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  6. Anisha Shekhar MukherjiNovember 11, 2010 at 2:18 AM

    Thanks, Daipayan and Urvashi.

    Daipyaan, my point of view is that if there are certain elements about the traditional sil that help it function well, one should retain them.

    The basic issues I think are, to make the sil-batta more convenient/ handlable - whatever - keeping in mind the paucity of domestic help; and to make it 'trendy' (for want of a better word)so that even people with a hang up against using traditional stuff are attracted to rediscovering it. So, perhaps the emphasis should be on reviving the sil-batta in a new avatar, rather than 'redesigning' it.

    All the best. keep me posted on how your projetc develops.

    Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

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  7. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post on Sil Batta ..the very ethnic food processor quintessential part of every Indian kitchen ...and Nalini would like to share wit you that Nitoo is still obsessed with carrying a sil back to Scotland ....since we couldn't give her the Sil, Sunita ground some hara dhaniya /lahsun /jeera,mirch namak to have with Dhabar'k rutti ...If Daipayan can design something which can replicate the Sil Batta taste ...well he has his customers lined up ...

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  8. Nostalgia...... Reminded me of my Amma and Nani who had filled my stomach with magical delicacies. I agree that "sil batta" would have been their magic-wand :)

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  9. Dear Anisha,I really enjoyed this article!!I hope you remember me(Maryam from Afghanistan).Though we had tough time regarding our seminar with you,but I believe you will forgive us for not listennig to your instructions!!!
    Regarding this Sil Batta...we also have something semilar tool which is called Hawan(in native Persian Hawang)in the form of stone/bronze handle and a bowl,which is available in each Afghan's kitchen,and is one of the essentials for the kitchen...

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    1. Anisha Shekhar MukherjiMay 25, 2012 at 4:58 AM

      Dear Maryam,
      Hope you are well. Thank you for telling me about Hawan; it would be really interesting if you could post a picture of it. Would like to see how it looks. And no problems about the seminar, as long as you finally took away something positive from the experience.
      Best

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    2. Nice writing Anisha. Enjoyed it thoroughly. I am an archaeologist and working on the ancient house-hold properties including sil-nora/ sil-batta.
      my query is can anyone please inform me that who are the people in India producing the same in recent days.. do anyone have knowledge about it?

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    3. Dear Paromita,
      Thanks for your feedback.
      Sil battas are still a part of most household kitchens, even though they may not be used on a daily basis. Most local markets sell sil-battas,and even in urban situations, there are the 'silbatta wallahs' who cycle around with their implements to craft notches in the sil, which have got evened out by use. Not in gated communities like ours, but a few kilometers away, where my cook stays,for instance, they are a regular feature. In fact, she intends to take my sil for requisite attention by the sil-noda walah.

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  10. Hi Anisha
    We have recently moved to Delhi was searching for sil batta in delhi however dont know where to find it. Kindly let me know the loaction if you know where we can buy sil batta in Delhi.

    Kavita Rampal

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  11. Kavita, Though I haven't needed to search for sil-battas since the one in our house is still giving good service, I believe you should be able to get them in Chitaranjan Park in South Delhi. My cook tells me that Harola in Noida is another place where you can get them. Depending on where in the NCR you are located, you could check these places out.

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  12. dear anisha. It was great reading this. I am half lahori. so my grandmother used a Kundi Sota, which is just as effective, but my maternal grandmother used the sil Batta with the batta in the shape of a moghul arch. My maternal grandmother had dentures and did not require any tooth brush but she still bought one occassionaly- To clean the sil of the sil-batta. A trick that I still use. Try it
    Pawan Jain

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    1. Great to hear this, Pawan. Thanks for the tip about the cleaning trick. If you have any photographs of your grandmothers' sil-batta and Kundi-sota, would love to see them, too.
      Best,
      Anisha

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    2. At the time of making paste some stone as paste form mixed with cooking paste. Is it hygienic. I think it may harm for body.Pls explain is it good for human health?thanks

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    3. I am not certain what kind of stone your sil-batta is made of, but most sil-battas are made of hard stone, which is unlikely to wear out in the form of paste or otherwise. Even if they do so to a marginal extent, I would imagine that hand-ground stone for sil-battas, which is a natural material generally made through small-scale carving or chiselling methods, is still better than ingesting plastic or some chemically processed material made through industrial means.

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  13. HI Anisha Ji,

    I have purchased a kundi sota but it's wearing out, I applied lot of mustard oil as old by seller for a night but still soil particle is coming out. Please tell me is there any solution to this.

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  14. I gather your sil-batta is still new, and there's stone dust coming out. My cook, who is a veteran in such matters, advises that you pound and grind either a raw potato or some guava leaves in it. She says all the dust particles will adhere to this paste, and when you wash it off, you'll have a clean implement. Hope it works; let me know whether it does.

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  16. Where I can buy a silbatta I stay in Mumbai

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  17. Where I can buy a silbatta I stay in Mumbai

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  18. I'm sorry I have no idea - I don't live in Mumbai. Maybe you could ask some old-time residents.

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