Making Sense of Food

a review of Shweta Bhattad’s Three Course Meal and a Dessert of Vomit

 

The First Sense, Smell

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” (Translation: “Let them eat cake.”)

-Marie Antoinette (according to some legends), on learning that the peasants had no bread.

The Indian economy smells like a burnt peanut with rich cream and a luscious cherry topping. The savoury 8 per cent growth rate of the economy spreads itself over an inedible base – 42 per cent of Indian children suffer from malnutrition according to a survey conducted for the Citizen’s Alliance Against Malnutrition released by the Prime Minister on the 10th of January 2012. This broth of inequalities is out on the platter and not easy to ingest! Shweta Bhattad, a multi-media artist is one to stare right at this plate and breathe in the whiff of grotesque and glaring social injustice. Her “Three Course Meal and Dessert of Vomit” critiques the economic disparities that let starvation from hunger coexist with over-indulgence and mass wastage of food.

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“Three Course Meal and a Dessert of Vomit”, Shweta  Bhattad, Khoj 2012

To partake of the meal and dessert you are handed a Thermocol plate and rice water rubbed on your wrist is the first course of the meal. A judge’s wig is handed to you to wear and you gingerly plant it on your head. Next, you enter a space with outstretched hands holding begging bowls on one end of the room and a luxuriously extravagant meal of plastic food laid out on the other end. In the centre of the room is an exquisitely designed coffin in which lays the artist. You are prompted to scrutinize food grains in the begging bowl with a microscope only to realize that each grain has a story inscribed on it (– The second course.). The grains tell the story of parched lands, burnt skins, cracked heals and the sweat of hard manual labour. The room fills up with the aroma of rice as the white liquid gradually fills up the coffin – a suggestion of a person drowning in her own vomit due to over-eating.

Food, in its ritualistic eating/ abstaining relationships to people, i.e. feasting/ fasting, are part of almost every culture’s way to both celebrate and mourn. Birthdays, festivals, deaths, promotions, weddings are all occasions for communitarian eating Even the dead are assured delicacies in their grave in some traditions – ancient Egyptians practised burying the dead with food for their after life. The third course is a lavish meal of plastic. If you bend down to drink water from the glass jar you shall see a haggard old woman telling you to not waste food, reminding you of the countless deprived people outside. Bhattad makes you stand judge (literally, as you and everyone in the room are wearing the white wig with acute self consciousness and discomfiture) to a situation of grave social injustice sprinkled with black- humour- zest.

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“Popcorn’s Day Out”, Shweta Bhattad 2007

 

Good Sense, Sight

Some singers sing of ladies’ eyes,

And some of ladies’ lips,

Refined ones praise their ladylike ways

And the course ones hymn their hips…

Yet I, though custom call me crude,

Prefer to sing in praise of food.

-Ogden Nash, “The Clean Platter”

Although Nash, in this poem, prefers to extol the virtues of food over women, women and food hardly have an either-or relationship to each other in popular visual culture and dominant ideology. Women are ever so often compared to food in a manner that reduces them to commodities to be consumed by men. Read menu in a restaurant in Chicago “Double D Cup breast of Turkey. This sandwich is so BIG”. In advertisements, women are almost always used to sell food and related products. Men are shown in the kitchen only if they are trying to show the ease of use of the product. It’s the woman who effortlessly whips up a finger licking meal for her bratty children and husband who comes home exhausted from work. Here, gender roles are defined through food – women are the producers and men, the consumers.

The food industry is very visually oriented. Shiny factory produced, geometrically cut, velvety, gelatinous food products and genetically-modified, succulent, artificially ripened fruits adorn display windows to titillate customers. Another of Bhattad’s works, Popcorns’ Day Out shows how an ordinary snack like popcorn, in a hyperbolic expression of its attractiveness, appears like shining jewels. The corn points to a trend in food packaging and advertisement that makes food so “ornamental” in its beauty that one almost forgets it is indeed an everyday item, something to pop in to one’s mouth and chew at the Movies!

 

In Some Sense, Touch

“Ham burger ham cheese sauce potato chip chip chip,

Cheese roll, mutton roll, chicken roll- Yum.”

-Unknown, rhyme sung while playing a certain clapping game

Sumptuous looking gourmet cuisine from around the world on televised culinary shows sexualize food and make one forget the mundane reality of the same dinner a second time in the week. Greasy, gooey, tender, hard, whipped, dipping ones finger into the mishmash of ingredients, chopping, dicing, kneading, grinding, stirring, rolling, skinning – form a tactile and often messy encounter of the cook with her ingredients.

 

Non-Sense, Hearing

“The ogre loved his children; he ate the children of others. Under the tyranny of the stomach, we are all of us, beasts and men alike, ogres. The dignity of labour, the joy of life, the maternal affection, the terrors of death: all these do not count, in others; the main point is that the morsel be tender and savoury.”

– J Henri Fabre, The Life of the Spider
We’ve heard many fairy tales and children’s stories about food – Goldilocks ate the porridge, Eve the forbidden fruit, Alice drank the portion and ate the cake that altered her height, Snow White fell into deep sleep as she bit into an apple, Hansel and Gretel ate the wicked witch’s house of ginger bread and cake, the Gingerbread man was eaten by the sly fox and Oliver Twist raised hell in the workhouse when he asked for some more gruel. Food has been an integral point in a lot of mythology, fables, novels and legends, transforming people, changing the course of events.

One of the famous Akbar-Birbal tales, called Birbal Ki Khichdi, is illustrated by Shweta Bhattad in Aaj ka Birbal. The story of how Birbal taught Akbar a lesson in common sense through the staging of a farcical cooking session lends itself to the Hindi proverb “Birbal ki khichdi pakana” , which means, to take forever to accomplish a task. Bhattad gives the tale a new-age tweak where a stove, pressure cooker and cooked meal are placed in different compartments of what appears as a glass incubator. Bhattad’s platter of plastic food lies on the top most compartment, which has two delivery windows mimicking self-service counters at fast food joins. She’s taking a dig at the promise of fast, easy sterilized cooking as she cites a food related fable.

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“Aaj Ka Birbal”, Shweta Bhattad 2007

 

Makes Sense, Taste

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,

That wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her;

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die…”

-Unknown

Bharata, in his Natyashastra, an ancient treatise on the performing arts, explains “Rasa”, grossly meaning “feeling”, using the metaphor of taste. Rasa, according to him is the cumulative result of vibhava (stimulus), anubhava (involuntary reaction) and Vyabhichari bhava (voluntary reaction). A sensitive spectator is likened to a food connoisseur who is able to take pleasure in the different tastes, the different condiments and sauces in the food.

Our feelings and emotions are like various flavours: some burn, some are sweet, tingling, bitter, briny, tangy, sour. We have cravings for certain flavours and our palates are more used to certain. The after taste of strong flavours often lingers on for long, like strong feelings, till it’s overpowered by the flavour of the food ingested after.

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