This year, The Fuschia Tree's issues tackle 'The Unseen': seemingly invisible and tangential ideas that change the course of our lives. We began the month of February with Love. Of course. The most obvious and the most elusive of the unseens. Our current issue is on the thing that feeds our desire to love: Hunger.Read More
By Payal Kapadia, Issue 18, Hunger, February 2013
Every time we eat, we encounter a memory. Of grandmothers making a special kind of pickle, left out to dry in the summer sun or perhaps of the delicious aroma of that curry prepared from a recipe handed down over generations. Each one of us has a unique association with food, especially in India where every region has a distinct food identity. Our food and eating habits define who we are - our memories and customsand beliefs.
It is not just the food itself that is important but the time at which it was eaten, with who it was shared, how it was eaten: each of these parts make up a vivid memory. One of my favourite childhood memories of food was eating luscious red watermelons with kids from the entire neighbourhood, sitting banished on a newspaper so we would not drip the sticky juice all over the floor. The deep green fruit, at first banal in appearance, would be cut by my mother to reveal its delightful rose world inside that we would bury our faces into.
Recently however, I read a newspaper article about square watermelons in Japan followed by another on exploding watermelons in China. I was extremely disturbed by the idea that the watermelon I so cherished was being mutated into this destructive fruit. This is not just the case with watermelons; today, almost everything we eat is genetically modified or chemically enhanced. Bizarre combinations like fish genes in tomatoes or cotton genes in aubergines - it is impossible to actually identify what it is that we are eating.
It is not simply that our food has changed. So have our eating practices.My grandmother’s laboriously cooked Sunday lunches werenot only a gastronomic delight but also a time for the entire extended family to come together and partake in anage-old tradition of community eating. The Sunday meal would be planned through the week over long phone calls, which comprised a detailed discussion of the menu and its accompaniments. A large array of foods disappeared from my life forever when my grandmother passed away and with her my, extended family.
These foods have been replaced with instant soups for our children or twenty rupees burgers for teenagers and packet butter chicken for adults accompanied by a bottle of Coca Cola (interestingly, Coca Cola’s current advertising campaign uses the very idea of a family eating together to propagate the drink). People in urban India are increasingly eating on their own, completely doing away with long sit-down dinners and conversation. Thus, both the kind of food we eat and the way we eat it is undergoing a process of change that the ‘west’ has already witnessed but just seems a greater causality in a country like ours.
In India, food takes on a spiritual connotation as well. Every season, every god and every ritual practice has a defined set of foods. My family belongs to a Vaishnav sect called Pushtimargisthat pray to the baby Krishna. One of the fundamental factors of the religion is feeding the child god, making food an extremely important part of the ritual practice.Eating, feeding and cooking all has some spiritual implication.
This leads me to question not only the future of our food consumption with regards to nutrition but also the other, equally important factor, as food and its association memory, community, and our spiritual being. It also leads me to wonder what people in India’s association with food will be a few generations from today.
I began sifting through artists and filmmakers to inspire my own artistic practice based on the strong connection between food, feeding, community eating and Pushtimargiritual traditions. Here is a selection:
Frederico Fellini, a famed Italian filmmaker for his wild, instinctual, luscious sensibilities and preoccupation with the animal in the man, in his film, Roma: This scene of Fellini’s film on Rome is an elaborate sequence of people dining on the streets. The delicious mixture of food, conversation and the coming together of people over meals is brought out in the most sensuous manner.
Eat Drink Man Woman is a film by Ang Lee also rooted in the family tradition of Sunday meals where the entire family sits together to eat. Over each delicately prepared meal by the father, the family shares the changes in their lives. Ang Lee weaves together an intricate tapestry of food, cooking and human relationships that enunciates the complexities of Asian family values. The title is a quotefrom the Confucius ‘Book Of Rites’ referring to basic human desires.
Daniel Spoerri (b. 1930) is a Swiss Fluxus artist whose work has a long association with food and memory. His ‘Snare – pictures’ involve, amongst other things, leftovers from meals. The objects are stuck on the table as they were found. These objects evoke the memory of the meal, and the people involved in its consumption. Spoerri would specifically invite a select group of people to partake in the meal. Spoerri called his association with food ‘Eat – Art’ and it involved various aspects of his practice. He opened a restaurant in Paris in 1963, with waiters from the art world. This was followed by another restaurant in 1967 in Düsseldorf, with an Eat-Art Gallery upstairs. He later compiled a recipe book of various dishes he ate, originally titled A Gastronomic Itinerary.
‘Leftovers’ (2008) is N.S. Harsha’s artwork that consists of a half eaten South Indian banquet spread out on banana leaves on the gallery floor. The food is made from plastic, following the Japanese tradition of making fake food. The work embodies the strange relationship between the real and the synthetic – as well as the traditional and contemporary. The sense of community eating and coming together over food is present, but the plates remain abandoned.
SarnathBanerjee’s work titled 1943, is an animation piece that talks about the artists memories of his childhood. The narrative unfolds much like the sweet melancholy of a life gone by in a Fellini film. One realises that Banerjee is actually talking about food and eating habits of those affected by the Bengal Famine. Though it fuses several genres of representation, it does evoke a massive human tragedy simply through a plate of rice.
Payal Kapadia is a visual artist living in Pune.