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When artists create food for thought

For artists today, the depiction of food offers an entry point to look at issues like climate, ecology, migration and cultural identity

A miniature painting of angels bringing food to an ascetic, from the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art, US. (Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher organised a virtual fund-raiser, titled Pledge, to support organisations involved in covid-19 relief work. One of the nine artworks sold, Gupta’s Langar (2021), is a quirky sculpture of a cascade of miniature kitchen utensils spilling off the top of a gleaming steel tiffin carrier—a prototype of Gupta’s proclivity to use mundane kitchen utensils, among other things. It is a tribute to the efforts of the Sikh community towards feeding thousands during there trying times. Gupta has consistently used food to convey complex sentiments and the sense of community in his work.

Art, above all, captures the intricacies of human experience, and food sustains human existence. A repository of cultural memory, both personal and collective, and layered with socio-political dynamics, food has informed and influenced art throughout history—as subject, raw material, keeper of memory, purveyor of ideas, ideologies and sentiments. The reverse is also true. Creative imagination and aesthetic intuition have constantly nourished and enhanced the evolution of food—food itself is an art. Over time, the boundaries between art and food have only blurred.

Food-related imagery is usually part of the artistic representations of the time, either incidental to the narrative or symbolic in nature. The prehistoric cave paintings at the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, depict scenes of men hunting, gathering fruit and honey, and women grinding and preparing food—glimpses of life thousands of years ago, immortalised in vegetable dye on stone.

Ancient Indian art, sculpture and architecture from the ancient age are strewn with portrayals of food and related practices, sometimes in great detail. A Sunga-era (184-75 BCE) terracotta figure discovered at Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, “portrays a picnic party moving in a chariot. A huge platter or thal of cooked food with clear suggestion of rice, sweet balls, round cakes, etc.,” writes Vinod Chandra Srivastava in History Of Agriculture In India. Srivastava also posits that corn attached to the headdress of a terracotta figurine, identified as Sinivali, alludes to her being worshipped to ensure “fertility of soil and prosperity of crops”.

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Buddhist stupas, like the ones at Bharhut and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, too are veritable storehouses of food-related imagery. “In the Ajanta paintings (in Maharashtra),” writes historian Om Prakash, in his book Food And Drinks In Ancient India, “we see mango, custard apple, a round fruit which looks like a Bilva fruit or a lemon and another fruit which looks like a brinjal.” The depiction of drinking scenes tells us that women from the richer sections of society consumed alcohol freely.

Food motifs are also abundant in the temple art of the early medieval era and in Indian miniature paintings across schools—be it in the portrayals of Krishna’s pastoral life or intricate renderings of royal Mughal feasts. In the works of modernists like Nandalal Bose and Amrita Sher-Gil, food or its preparation is contextual to their portrayal of everyday life.

However, the inherent aesthetic appeal of comestibles can’t be ignored. In fact, the very mention of food in art evokes images of extravagant displays of luxurious food—lobster, slabs of ham, eggs and exotic citruses—captured in minute detail in still-life paintings by European artists, especially the Dutch and Flemish masters, of the 16th and 17th centuries. The rich colours, fascinating textures and shapes make food a fascinating subject that allows artists to flaunt their technical brilliance.

Even though still-life is predominantly a Western genre, there are some striking specimens of still-life of food by Indian artists. K.H. Ara’s Cézannesque still-lifes of fruits, breakfast spreads, crockery, done in his signature impasto style, are striking in colour and form. Ara’s Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group colleague, Francis Newton Souza, one of India’s most important modern artists, has also dabbled in the aesthetics of food. Even in his still-life of an assortment of edibles, “there is a frequent appearance of a loaf of bread, a flask of wine or fish, all religious symbols or at least inclined to be read as such by anyone who knows the sacrament of the Holy communion”, wrote critic and curator Geeta Kapur in her 1989 profile of him, Devil In The Flesh.

Souza’s political leanings come to the fore in works like After Working The Whole Day In The Fields We Have No Rice to Eat (1947), which portrays a farmer family against the backdrop of a window that frames a display of food and wine, perhaps on their rich master’s table, inaccessible to them. The work is a statement on economic inequality and power struggle and food, a metaphor for deprivation.

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Food, also delineated by its absence, is at the heart of disturbing portrayals of the ravages and human cost of the Bengal famine of 1943 by artists of undivided Bengal. Be it in Gobardhan Ash’s turbid watercolours awash with gloom or Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s harrowing sketches of emaciated children with Kwashiorkor-induced pot bellies and cadaverous men and women crippled by acute hunger—food is conspicuous by its absence.

Over the past decades, contemporary artists the world over have used food to make strong political, social, economic and cultural statements through various forms of expression—visual, conceptual and performative. Its narrative function—as an entry point to a larger discussion, a metaphor for complex human experiences or even as raw material—has only grown stronger. “The intersection of food and art has been a veritable platform for dialogue across disciplines, not merely in the tokenistic sense,” says art historian and curator Lina Vincent.

“Engagement with people and community is crucial to art,” says artist, critic and curator Anita Dube, “ and food is crucial in bringing people together, not only in a political sense but also based on the pleasure principle, fundamental to both food and art.” Kochi Muziris Biennale’s 2018 edition, curated by Dube, featured a unique project, Edible Archives, helmed by chefs Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar and Prima Kurien, a fascinating exploration of traditional food and culinary techniques around the indigenous rice strains of India. “Cooking is a performance and food itself is art,” says Dube.

In 2017, Vincent co-curated and conceptualised the Indian chapters of the platform ARTPORT_making waves’s international interdisciplinary incubator program GOOD FOOD India, that brought together projects exploring the ‘centrality of food to human existence and reflecting on an artist’s role in envisioning sustainable cultures’. “The idea was to explore food as an interface to engage with environmental consciousness,” says Vincent.

The programme featured works like Antara Mukherji’s vivid illustrations of traditional recipes, an exploration of indigenous and endangered culinary and cultural practices and wisdom; Aishwaryan V.K.’s mixed media installation This Free, That Free, about changing food patterns and the shift from traditional choices to packaged food. There was Dimple Sharma’s performative installation, Small Piece Of Earth In My Pocket, which calls for action against the atrocities on nature and its effects on human life. “For artists today, food is a veritable conduit for larger narratives around issues like climate, environment and ecology, sustainability, migration, cultural identity, and more, in art,” says Vincent. “And it’s important to remember that food is also about its source, those who produce it, its medicinal virtues and consequences on health, and a lot more,” she adds.

Dimple Shah’s performative installation ‘Small Piece Of Earth In My Pocket.
Dimple Shah’s performative installation ‘Small Piece Of Earth In My Pocket. (Courtesy Lina Vincent)

Kolkata-based artist Sayantan Samanta’s work is rooted in his agrarian background. His sculptural installation Concrete Dinner (2019) is a table laid out with a lavish spread and crockery, all made of concrete, part of his larger commentary on the agrarian crisis triggered by rampant concretisation of agricultural land; the inedibility of the concrete food an allusion to the conversion of fecund land into barren industrial plots. In Hunger Has No Death, Samanta addresses the global problem of hunger by delineating the word in 60 languages from around the world, with paddy and rice husk. Shweta Bhattad’s Gram Art Project, a collective of farmers, artists, women and creators based in Paradsinga village in Madhya Pradesh, is working on food and farmers, traditional farming practice and non-GMO seeds, says Vincent.

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Food is also a recurrent theme in artist Parag Tandel’s exploration of the material culture of coastal communities in and around Mumbai. Tandel belongs to the Koli tribe, Mumbai’s fishing community, and has been invested in an archival project that traces the history, evolution, colonial influence and shifts in his community’s identity. “Food, I believe, is akin to an archaeological site that when dug reveals various aspects of civilisation,” says Tandel. During last year’s lockdown, and as a response to the pandemic, Tandel highlighted the sustainable living practices of the Koli community through a video series, Let There Be Bounty Every Day. As part of this, he shared traditional Koli recipes, accompanied by commentaries on related food practices, culinary influences, etc.

‘Lal Bhaaji’ by Rajyashri Goody.
‘Lal Bhaaji’ by Rajyashri Goody. (Courtesy Rajyashri Goody)

Artist and ethnographer Rajyashri Goody highlights the dynamics of power and resistance within India’s marginalised Dalit communities, exposing sordid details of caste-based discrimination through her multidisciplinary art practice, which includes writing, ceramics, photography, etc. In Goody’s Lal Bhaaji, chunks of meat, bones and puri, all made of ceramic and stuffed with pages from the casteist Hindu law book Manusmriti, are strewn partly on a sheet of crude Manusmriti paper pulp, and partly on the cement floor. The term lal bhaaji not only referred to the eponymous leafy vegetable but was also code for beef among some Dalit communities. “Using the Manusmriti as an active ‘ingredient’ of this ‘lal bhaaji’ is an attempt to conjure new memories associated with the act of eating beef; those not of shame, but of bravery, not of helplessness, but of resistance in the face of Manu’s laws and the wretched caste system,” Goody wrote on her website.

Goody has been working on adapting recipes from food references in Dalit literature, especially memoirs and autobiographies. “While there are only a few Dalit cookbooks, Dalit writing is strewn with references to food or the lack of it.” says Goody. “However, I don’t intend to restrict my work to only narratives of suffering, but also include ones of celebration.” Goody’s Eat With Great Delight is a collection of family photographs that captures joyful moments sharing food.

That’s the thing about food, and about art—they are purveyors of grief and joy, in equal measure.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.

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