The Thumb Print meets baker and cake artist SHAHEEMA ROBBANI SAIKIA who is trying to present Assam on a cake
Meditative. That’s how Shaheema Robbani Saikia dubs her passion – baking. “I am into meditation and healing. And when I am baking something or decorating a cake I find myself in the Zen mood. I become calm as a Buddha. I find peace and my aesthetics guide me while I am at it. It is liberating,” adds Shaheema as the waft of a freshly baked cake from the kitchen fills the whole room.
This Guwahati girl started her home baking initiative ‘Baking Mantra’ four years ago. At present, Shaheema is busy with a special initiative. She has tried to present Assam on a cake! It is her contribution to Incredible India Collaboration by Tina Scott Parashar – Global Sugar Artists Network Collaboration. She calls her creation Mystical Serenades of Assam. “I am an Assamese, and it’s important for me to introduce my state to rest of India, says Shaheema as she explains her special cake to the world.
The cake is elaborate. It is more like a dream – of brighter colours, bolder patterns and the urge to tell a story. The story of Assam and its glory. The one horned rhino sitting on the top tier is made of gum paste and painted with edible colours. The one-horned rhinoceros of Assam signifies the pride and strength of Assam. Its home is in Kaziranga National Park which is a World Heritage Site. One cannot miss the top tier that is covered with Xewali Phool or the Coral Jasmine in English. “Also known as night flowering jasmine, signifies the freshness it spreads with its aroma early in the morning,” she smiles.
The Bihu dancers on the second tier are handed painted with edible colours. They depict the dance moves of the girls dressed in the traditional Mekhela Sador. The boys are seen wearing the traditional Dhuti and Gamusa.
Music is the soul of a community. The traditional instruments showcased are the Dhool and Peppa. The scene is to convey joys of the harvesting festival of Bihu. There’s a lot of singing and dancing to celebrate the festival. The Japi or the traditional conical hat is made from tightly woven bamboo. In ancient times plain japis were worn by the ordinary people to protect themselves from the sun while working in the paddy fields. Decorative or ornate japis were worn as a status symbol by the Assamese royalty and nobility. Today the Japi is mainly used as a sign of respect in ceremonies and placed as a decorative item in houses.
You will always remember the first time you see a Kopou Phool or the Foxtail Orchid. Not just because they are so ethereally beautiful, but also – more importantly – because they are an exotic blooming variety of the 293-odd species of orchids found in Assam. It’s generally popular for its use as a hair ornament worn by the Bihu dancers on the onset of Spring. “I created each tiny bloom out of gumpaste, dusted with petal dust and using the flowerist tapes and wires have been made to look like the original flower,” she explains.
Adorning the bottom tier are patterns inspired from the Gamusa. The Gamusa is a handwoven piece of cloth usually white in color with red designs on either end. It is unique to the state of Assam. The Gamusa is given as a mark of respect. The cake board is seen covered with an original Gamusa.
Shaheema’s hands are busy now. A mother of a toddler, Shaheema now bake and decorate cakes with her infant strapped on her chest. “Or I would be most likely sitting next to my sleeping child and dusting my petals and leaves,” she adds. Shaheema started young. She has been baking since she was eight. She inherited the art of baking from her grandmother and mother who possessed great culinary skills. Her grandmother Alhaj Nasira Ahmed of Guwahati’s Machkhowa was her first teacher. She followed her to the kitchen. “I would assist my aaijaan and probably that’s how I got to bake my first cake so early. I would grind the sugar, beat the butter, separate egg yolks from the whites, sieve the flour and she would measure the baking powder for me,” she recalls.
No wonder that she got her first cake order when she was 12. However, she has never thought of pursuing baking as a career. A graduate in Mass Communication and Video Production, she decided to quit her job and travel around the world with her sailor husband. In 2013, her husband coaxed her to undertake a professional baking and patisserie course. She enrolled herself at the Indian Institute of Culinary Arts for year-long diploma in baking and patisserie with six months internship in top hotels of New Delhi. And that reopened doors to her almost lost horizon.
She feels baking in India has taken a giant leap with the sudden burst of home bakers, pastry chefs and other enthusiasts. “People are becoming aware that cakes are not just for birthdays anymore. It is slowly establishing the thought that ‘any celebration without a cake is just a meeting’. There’s a huge scope of growth in this industry right now,” says Shaheema. She further adds that it’s easier for cake decorators right now because there’s so much available in the market — new tools, fresh and interesting ingredients, social media and so many experienced bakers giving baking and decorating classes. These things have made the industry grow.
As of now, she is excited about her new project – presenting her home state Assam on a cake! She feels this will be a small footprint on the sands of time to create awareness about her state, it’s culture and colours. “I am on a crusade to show everyone how fabulous Assam can be,” she adds. The result, Shaheema says, is fun and energetic. A happy beginning, indeed.
The Incredible India magazine is available for purchase. It has all these pieces of art along with tutorials, recipes, interviews and a lot more! All proceeds will go to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. Price – Rs 250 (E-mag) and Rs 300+shipping (hard copy of magazine). Please get in touch with Tina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Link for the Incredible India cake collaboration group page – https://www.facebook.com/Incredible-India-An-International-Cake-Collaboration-1923135621261644/