The Swift Current resident enjoys the challenge of creating lifelike flowers from sugar.
“It is my meditation,” she said. “When I’m making those, I go really in a trance — so focused.”
It requires a lot of skill, concentration and patience to create these detailed flowers and leaves from sugar.
“One flower sometimes takes eight hours to make altogether, from starting until you put it together,” she said. “Some small ones are very difficult to make actually, because they take a longer time. It’s very fiddling, and then you have to make them in stages.”
Part of the challenge is that the sugar paste starts to lose its consistency once she starts to work with it.
“When I take the paste out, I have to work there and then, because as soon as it hits the air, it will dry,” she explained. “So I (have) to work very fast, without stopping.”
She will therefore work at night, when it is quiet and she can carry on without any interruptions. Sometimes she will not realize how much time has past.
“Recently I was working the whole night and I pulled my head up and saw the light,” she recalled. “I saw on the watch it was quarter past six. From 11 o’clock I started working and I didn’t realize at all that I was awake that long. Lots of days I work like that, until dawn.”
She uses food colouring in the sugar paste to create the appropriate colours for different flowers and leaves. Sometimes she cannot find a colour and she will then make her own, for example from beetroot and spinach.
She has become used to people's surprised reactions to her art. They can often not believe it is made from sugar because it looks so realistic. She will sometimes put a fragrance in a vase, which then adds to people’s confusion when they look at the sugar paste flowers.
“Everybody wants to go and touch that,” she laughs.
These delicate works of art cannot be touched, but she once provided a flower for people to touch and feel when her work was on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.
Her sugar paste art has been on display in four different group exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Swift Current since 2005. Four of her art pieces are on permanent display in the Shurniak Art Gallery in Assiniboia and others are in private collections around the world. She donates most of the proceeds from the sale of her works of art to charity.
“I only keep how much I need for material, otherwise everything goes to charity,” she said. “Some people I sell to, they support their own charity, so I make sure that I give to them.”
Ashtekar was born in Bombay, India. She learned to sculpt in clay and sugar paste after she and her husband moved to England.
She took on all kinds of challenges in England. She studied clay sculpture as well as cooking, and she is a trained chef. She discovered sugar paste art while she was doing a catering course.
“It was one of the techniques you can present and get more marks,” she said. “That’s how I learned. I always wanted to do something like that because I used to do sculptures. So I learned the basic technique from one lady and I started getting the real flowers and I copied the real flowers.”
She also qualified as a family counsellor in England and still had time to raise a family. She is also an experienced musician who has performed on the tanpura, a long-necked plucked string instrument, with well-known musicians from India, including Hariprasad Churasia, Shivkumar Sharma; and Zakir Hussain.
She is a good singer too and she has performed with her cousin, Bollywood singer Anuradha Paudwal, in Winnipeg. Ashtekar was also the co-producer of a music program for BBC radio while she lived in England.
She and her husband moved to Swift Current about 18 years ago when he accepted a job offer at the health region.
“When I came here, I thought that nobody will really be interested in these flowers,” she said. “So I was really depressed.”
A friend saw her creations during a visit to her home and could not believe it was made from sugar.
Her friend encouraged her to continue her art work and the curator of the Art Gallery of Swift Current was immediately interested when he saw her work.
Due to some health issues, she is now thinking about training another person in this delicate art and there is already someone who is interested.
“I don’t know how long my hands will work,” she said. “So somebody keen enough to take it. I will train that person.”
In the meantime she uses meditation and exercises to keep fit and usually by the afternoons her hands are fine and she can work on her art.