One Christmas Eve, Valampuri John, a celebrated Tamil orator and writer, was invited to a baking show for a Christmas Special where he comedically stated, “Cake is called cake because if you want it, ‘thirupi thirupi cake-anum’ (translation: you have to keep asking for it),” leaving the crowd in hysterics. A young girl in Avadi, who was spending her Christmas vacation watching the Special on Podhigai was intrigued by the pun.
The young girl was Bindhu Hephzibah. She grew up to complete an MBA and work a corporate job only to realise that her passion was in the arts. She would hoard art books and try to teach herself painting techniques during her free time. It was around the year 2008 when the recession coincided with the smartphone boom. “I suddenly had access to resources like never before,” she exclaims about how it changed her life.
She dropped her nine-to-five job and decided to move to Erode, where her father was posted in the Revenue Department. That was the first time she visited an art gallery. “There was a teacher at the gallery, so I immediately decided that I would enroll,” she recalls, “Very soon I started painting and selling my art.” Her marriage took her to Chennai where she not only expanded her passion for the arts but also began conducting craft workshops for children. She was at the pinnacle of her career when she was pregnant and had to put everything on hold.
Her pregnancy was a milestone in many ways. “I joined Facebook when my daughter was born,” she states, “It was amazing how I was suddenly connecting with artists from all around the world now!” While networking and making connections, she stumbled upon a cake group. She scrolled through the feed thinking to herself, “I can design better cakes than this.”
Until then Bindhu had never thought that she would get into baking. “I was trying to lose weight so I would stay far away from cakes,” she laughs, “But here I was dipping my toes into cake decoration.” That was her ‘aha’ moment. The new medium made a world of difference. She no longer had to struggle to sell her paintings as people were a lot more inclined to invest in a creatively customized cake. Valmpuri John’s cleverly crafted pun echoed in her head as she created a page on Facebook and Instagram and named it Cake’kanum.
“We used to bake every now and then for Christmas,” she narrates, “About 15 years ago, electric ovens were not very popular so we used whatever we had lying around in the kitchen —a curd churner for mixing the batter and Idly plates for baking.” The inception of Cake’kanum in 2018 led her to take an online course where she learned to bake different types of cake at the end of every week. “From there it was just freewheeling and experimenting along the way,” she laughs.
She completed the online registration of her cloud kitchen in a jiffy, and almost immediately found herself with a warm and welcoming customer base. As the home baker’s cakes were transcending her first and second circle on social media, she reinvested the profits into Cake’kanum’s passion project—themed tier cakes.
“My first ever theme was Tamil Nadu.” The record-breaking 17 tier cake was backed by three months of research and design. “The cake was a representation of the Tamil community, heritage and history. Bindhu ensured to document and include everything—from the Sumeru Kandam (a fictional submerged continent) to Rajendra Chola’s travels around Asia. One of the details even included a map depicting the diaspora of Tamilians across the globe. The icing to the cake (pun intended) was the topmost tier which was decorated with Kaniyan Poongunranar’s famous words from the Purananooru, celebrating love and brotherhood—yaadhum oore yaavarum kelir (translation: To us, all towns are our own, everyone is our kin). “My intention with this cake was to compel people to set aside their differences and make them realise that we come from a land of love and acceptance.”
The project gave Bindhu the adrenaline rush that she was longing for her entire life. She was not only making meaningful art in a medium everyone was interested in, but also was telling stories and sending across a message.
Through the next four years, she experimented with themes like ‘Madras Nalla Madras’ on the occasion of the City’s 380th birthday and ‘Aadi Perukku’ (a Tamil Monsoon festival) celebrating nature and the traditions around it. Every layer of spongy goodness would depict stories and elements with layers of meaning towards the theme.
Bindhu’s themed cakes were making an impact. Cake’kanum was breaking misconceptions about the city and Tamil culture. “I’ve had many people contact me and tell me that the stories on my Chennai cake made them understand that the city was not as uncouth as it seems in the movies!” In fact, the cake reinforced and validated every stanza of Anirudh Ravichandran’s anthem “Chancey Illa Chennai’.
Towards the end of 2020, the home baker enrolled herself for the Russia-India friendly art battle hosted by Tina Scot Parashar and Tatyana Nazarova. “It was an exciting experience where artists from India were tasked to depict Russian culture and the artists from Russia would have to depict Indian culture on a cake,” she explains with delight. While most other participants depicted articles of clothing or architecture, Bindhu differentiated herself from the crowd with her comprehensively designed cake (much like the Tamil Nadu theme) focused on the Russian’s impact on the world through the classical arts and communism. The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue was the cherry on top, depicting the importance of gender equality to the development of the country.
“The themed cakes were getting a lot of attention,” declares Bindhu with glee, ”I’ve been thinking of taking on more serious causes like ‘rebellious Indian women who fought for equality—making life easier for women today’ and ‘breaking the misconceptions about North Madras’.
Cake’kanum is not only about telling impactful stories through its decadent layers but also about breaking the economic divide. “I believe that baking should be more inclusive,” Bindhu says, “That is why I am starting baking classes in the next two weeks where I will be teaching the basics of baking without an oven or special ingredients.” The home baker believes that in many ways we still live in a patriarchal world. She urges women to not give up on their dreams and ambitions. “Once you learn to believe in yourself, the world will learn to believe in you and your cause,” she concludes.