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Two artists are starting conversations about Dalit food

Art, poetry and theatre take the equality question to food: what we eat and what it means

Details of Rajyashri Goody's installation, Picnic, which is part of the ongoing exhibition, New Natures: A Terrible Beauty Is Born, on view at Gallery MMB in Fort, Mumbai. 

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Glistening ceramic objects in shades of red, blue and green are set in a ring at Gallery MMB in Fort, Mumbai. Their shapes are indicative of foods common to a Maharashtrian kitchen—chillies, papad, groundnut, puffed rice, bhakri—though a closer inspection shows half-eaten samosas and eggs speckled with dust which could represent scraps of leftover food or joothan—one of the poignant markers of Dalit cuisine, where scraps of food left on the plate by members of the upper caste were given to those belonging to the lower caste.

“These ceramics are just interpretations of food. If you see them as samosas and eggs, that’s fine,” says Dalit artist and writer Rajyashri Goody, referring to her installation, Picnic, which is part of the ongoing exhibition, New Natures: A Terrible Beauty Is Born. A poem by Goody with the same title stands on an easel beside the installation, a moving account inspired by the discrimination Marathi writer Sharankumar Limbale faced at school as a child in the 1960s.

Artists like Goody are trying to engage with issues of food, caste and identity—and change the way their community’s food is viewed. Generally seen through the lens of discrimination or as cuisine that uses insects or animal blood, food made and eaten by Dalits is rarely treated on par with any other—as food that evokes the same kinds of emotions, from celebration and nostalgia to sadness and satisfaction. It is a tough space to negotiate but young artists are trying to make food a tool of empowerment, engagement and equality. For them, it is also a taste of home, of their childhood, something to be savoured.

The cuisine was born in the economics of survival, using resourcefulness and ingenuity to extract the maximum from available resources, noted a 2016 Mint article, A Story Of Culinary Apartheid. The preparations were frugal, with food being roasted, boiled or sun-dried instead of being cooked in oil. Vocations determined what was on the plate. If the community was assigned the duty of disposing of carcasses, they would skin the animal and keep the meat.

But there’s more to the cuisine—and artists are now trying to break stereotypes, such as beef and pork being intrinsic to their diet. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Ambedkarites who adopted Buddhism turned vegetarian. Goody’s family was among them. “Being vegetarian is not just a Brahminical practice. It’s common among Buddhists like us. It’s another aspect that I wanted to bring forward with the installation, because it’s not always about the beef dishes of the Dalit community.”

In Bengaluru, Dalit theatre artist Sri Vamsi Matta has so far organised two shows of a food-based performance, Come Eat With Me, that not only creates awareness of cooking practices in Dalit households but also their relationships with food. “With my performance, the idea is to break the notion that we are a ‘marginalised’ group. We are not in the margins. I am having a human experience, and so are you,” he explains.

“Food is a celebration too at Come Eat With Me. It gives me extreme joy to cook the food of my childhood during my performance,” says Matta, who prepares chicken curry and rice, using poppy seeds like his mother used to instead of cashew paste. Cashew nuts were “not my reality”, Matta says, so they found substitutes to replicate their look and texture.

Goody’s recipes—written as poems—don’t have ingredients and cooking methods; they examine food experiences like untouchability, hunger and joothan through Dalit literature. The installation and poem evoke a spectrum of feelings, from joy and nostalgia to guilt and sadness. “I look at it like a digestion of experiences,” says Goody, who is at an art residency programme at Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam.

The installation named Picnic by Rajyashree Goody at Gallery MMB in Fort, Mumbai.
The installation named Picnic by Rajyashree Goody at Gallery MMB in Fort, Mumbai.

The 31-year-old artist created the installation as a reflection on a 2,000-year-old caste history, its “deep-rooted practices of untouchability”, and to explore how a community’s cuisine takes shape, and the joy it gives. Bhakri, for instance, evokes nostalgia. “I don’t want people to automatically think of something negative when it comes to Dalit cuisine,” she says.

Through his performance, Matta, for instance, reads literature about caste and food, has conversations about the struggle to balance nutrition and taste when one is poor, caste practices in savarna families, food as a metaphor for cultural hierarchy, and the symbolism of considering some ingredients pure and others, impure. Each guest is requested to bring a portion of food from their home. The performance concludes with everyone sitting down to share a meal.

After doing two shows, Matta says what stands out is the way caste seeps into every household, merging with patriarchal practices. People from savarna families have told him that the dining table can be a minefield of anxiety, with hierarchy and patriarchy dictating who eats first or last, as well as portion sizes. “We need to make space to clear this mess as well,” he says.

Goody says her work is not about victimhood. “I am extremely proud of my identity. My work is about respecting our history, bringing it out in different spaces and making people confront it in their own way,” she says.

Food and identity are closely linked. “I am still learning about identifying as Dalit. (Growing up), I was trained not to talk about caste,” says Vinay Kumar, 28, a Bengaluru-based academician who teaches English at Azim Premji University. In 2020, he wrote a piece for Goya Journal about coagulated blood as a delicacy of the Dalit community, while detailing the stark realities of food shortage at home. He wrote, “The only thing worse than actually being poor is someone else finding out you are poor.”

Despite authoring it, Kumar says he avoided reading it for more than a year. “It’s difficult for me to revisit it. To find pride in my identity is a longer journey for me,” he says, but adds that the piece resonated with one of his quietest students. “That is the hope, isn’t it? To create spaces for people to engage with food and caste.”

Also read | A Dalit at the temple door

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