Pudding, salad, saaru and such Urgent Matters
Volume 1 | Issue 4 [August 2021]

Pudding, salad, saaru and such Urgent Matters <br>Volume 1 | Issue 4 [August 2021]

Pudding, salad, saaru and such Urgent Matters

Pushpamala N.

Volume 1 | Issue 4 [August 2021]

The celebrated art theorist N. Rajyalakshmi interviews artist Pushpamala N. after her recent performance of Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru, in Bengaluru.

NR      Ms. Pushpamala, isn’t this is your second work about food? I think I interviewed you some years ago about your short film, Rashtriy Kheer and Desiy Salad (National Pudding and Indigenous Salad) made in 2004, which was based on your family recipe books. What is this thing about food and cooking – is it really art?

PN    ( laughs) As you know, Ms. Rajyalakshmi, much of my work is based on what constitutes women’s stories.  Many years ago, in Chennai, the nutritionist Thilaka Baskaran showed me the first recipe book in Tamil published in 1898 written by one Mr. Ramachandra Rao. I photocopied it immediately. The book is dedicated to Queen Victoria, and in the English foreword the author says that it was written to educate ‘native’ women to feed nutritious food to their husbands and children. Talk about patriarchy! The rest of the book was in Tamil with charming engravings of ‘improved’ wood fire stoves, kitchen designs, cooking pots and so on. This became part of my recipe book collection. I have long been interested in the recipe as a marker of modernity, even of social reform. I was also thinking of the history of feminist art around the kitchen, cooking and domesticity, one of the most famous ones being, of course, The Dinner Party of 1979 by American artist Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party is an installation depicting place settings for thirty-nine mythical and historical women illustrating their contributions, on a triangular table with vagina shaped plates. The artist states that she created it to end the ‘ongoing omission of women from the historical records’.

NR       Wasn’t The Dinner Party controversial?

PN       Well, it is an influential and pioneering work, made in the early years of feminist art with a group of collaborators using fine craft skills like ceramics, sewing and embroidery. It can be called essentialist as one can say that the idea of a woman has been reduced to her genitals. It has been critiqued as Euro-centric and even called pornographic. But we must remember it is a work of its time, and historical. Early feminist artists were centre staging craft skills (which were dismissed as ‘low art’ and feminine) as well as the female body and sexuality as subject and material for ‘high’ art, to displace the dominant male art history. Huge and beautifully detailed and executed, it is widely regarded as the first feminist epic work. I have seen it installed in the Brooklyn Museum, and it is truly splendid.

NR      But Rashtriy Kheer is not about recipes or cooking, is it?

PN        No, Rashtriy Kheer is actually about the idea of the nation. Perhaps you can see it as a recipe for the nation!  I happened to find these old, tattered cookbooks of my mother and mother-in-law, both of whom died decades ago. They were like diaries, a document of their lives. I wanted to use this household material to say something about the period. While my mother’s book had recipes and household hints cut out from magazines, my mother- in- law’s books were originally the Colonel father’s army note books which had been filled in the margins and empty spaces with recipes, birthday poems, packing lists and even personal notes about her pregnancy and childbirth, marking the life of an army family. They dated over ten years, with the son growing up and using them for school rough notes and cartoons. These books were both from the 1950s and ‘60s, the years soon after independence. They form a fascinating subaltern text of those years, which incidentally, had three wars when food was rationed. Feminist scholar Susie Tharu’s essay on the Gujarati writer Saroj Pathak, which looked at the modern Indian family as a metaphor for the modern Indian state, was a viewpoint to look at this material. The script was created from the notes that I found in these books. I referred to the silent film and cartoon form and Eisenstein’s idea of montage as an organizing principle. The characters write with chalk on a blackboard, rub and re-write, forming a palimpsest. Each one plays a stereotypical role as citizens of the new country, with the father’s relentless notes about war, the mother’s recipes and personal notes, and the son’s naughty scribbling. The interesting thing is that the father, who was a Colonel, was passionate about acting and joined a touring theatre company after retirement. The mother had worked in All India Radio and later did a Master’s degree in Education and taught in a teacher training school. They had met doing theatre in college and had an inter-caste love marriage. She was vegetarian but learnt to cook meat and fish for his family. Yet, in these notebooks they erase these complexities and play gender stereotypes. So are ideal citizens in essence, stereotypes?


Stills from Rashtriy Kheer and Desiy Salad (2004)
Photo Courtesy – Pushpamala N

NR      And where did you get the title with its peculiar spelling from?

PN       (laughs) The title comes from the names of two Independence Day recipes from a 1950s magazine that my mother had cut out and pasted. They are in the colours of the national flag and end with a request to salute the country before eating!  I thought the two dishes illustrated India perfectly. You can think of a multicultural country like India with our various communities and ethnic groups as melting into one dish (like a pudding), or coming together as separate ingredients (as in a salad)!

NR      You normally perform in front of the camera, in your photographs and videos. You don’t really do live performance. Yet after the 2004 experimental film, you decided to do a live performance using cooking, years later, in 2018.

PN       I was invited by the Hyderabad Literary Festival in 2018 to contribute a work on Gauri Lankesh, who was a close friend and neighbour. That year they were commemorating women journalists. In most writings after her political assassination in 2017 she comes across as a one-dimensional, earnest figure. But the Gauri we knew was also a lively, pretty, gregarious person with a great sense of humour. She used to throw large parties and was a good cook. She had given me several recipes which I use till today. So instead of doing a more conventional work, I thought of commemorating her by publicly cooking one of her recipes as a performance. The performance would be ceremonial, referring to a Hindu ritual, with the offering of the prasada or the sacred food; and also to the Christian Eucharist where partaking of the wine and bread represent the flesh and blood of Christ.  I chose this particular recipe as Urgent Saaru is a bright red tomato curry, the colour of blood, fit for these times that are – urgent. At the same time, the charming hybrid title, the homely act of cooking and the thought of Gauri having actually cooked that dish, (possibly invented by her mother for unexpected guests) brings her alive. Mother India, who becomes Annapurna or the goddess of food, performs the ceremony. People have asked why I used a ‘Hindutva‘ image of Bharat Mata in relation to Gauri who was killed by those very forces. I thought about it quite carefully and I use the image as a popularly accepted and recognizable cliché. It is also my tongue-in-cheek reply to vicious trolls who called her ‘anti-national’.

NR       I notice that a blackboard figures in both works. Why use a blackboard for Rashtriy Kheer when the texts are taken from notebooks? How is cooking related to blackboards?

PN       The blackboard is a pedagogic device. The blackboard in Rashtriy Kheer makes the notes public, in contrast to private scribbling, brings in more physical action and drama. The space then becomes like a classroom, the classroom of the nation. I did not use the blackboard for the 2018 performance of Urgent Saaru. It was far more plain with just the cooking table. The blackboard, the painted city backdrop, the mask, the full PPE suit for the assistant and the velvet cushion were added elements in the performance for the 2021 Reliable Copy Meals Ready project, which was in fact, a series of cooking lessons. I first thought of the blackboard as a device to start the performance by writing down the recipe. And then it also reveals the action that will then take place, a lesson that will now be taught.


Still from Rashtriy Kheer and Desiy Salad (2004)
Photo Courtesy – Pushpamala N

NR      Cooking is usually a private thing. How does cooking in public work as a performance?

PN     (smiles) Cooking for a public audience is not unfamiliar either, as television chefs have become popular nowadays. In the Hyderabad Lit fest, I did Urgent Saaru in an open ground and there was an audience of around a hundred and fifty people, with small kids. There was just the table for cooking and myself in the Mother India costume. Normally, nobody watches the unedited cooking of a dish till the end on television, but here, as I was performing silently in this splendid costume, my crown and jewels glittering in the sun, my extra papier-mâché arms shaking and flags fluttering as I sliced and stirred, the audience watched spellbound. There were sounds of chopping and grinding; the spluttering of the tadka; the steam that rose up and the aroma of cooking.  Finally, as small portions of the curry with some rice were handed out, the audience came up to receive it, and the community partaking and tasting of the food became part of the performance. Every element has to be experienced in slow time.

While the context of the 2018 performance was a literary festival, my recent Bangalore performance was for a food project called ‘Meals Ready’ for a new publisher, Reliable Copy, who had just published a cookbook of artists’ recipes. The earlier events had been straightforward cooking lessons.  Because of Covid, we had to organize a live Zoom stream at the last minute, which had an entirely different feel. This time I created something like a stage set, like a tableau, in the closed gallery of the art space 1 Shanthi Road in Bangalore, which became like a proscenium theatre.  The live Zoom audience could not smell or taste the cooking. Someone who watched from New York, wrote he had this sense of “looking through a magic portal to a dreamlike scene in a faraway place” where “he wants to be, but is banned from entering”. The experience became more like watching a private domestic act through a window in real time, something voyeuristic.


Still from Gauri Lankesh’ Urgent Saaru live performance by Pushpamala N organized by Reliable Copy at 1. Shanthi Road, Bengaluru (2021)
Photo Courtesy – Pushpamala N

Zoom Recording of the performance

Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru – Pushpamala N from Reliable Copy on Vimeo.

 

NR.     Why are the works silent?

PN       I love early silent cinema. Instead of speech they had title cards. I was particular about using selected texts from the recipe books for Rashtriy Kheer but had to think how to make a script out of them. This was the perfect form. Spoken conversation demands a logical narrative but inter titles only convey key lines of dialogue. They are very crisp and there are no explanations. To give an example, the film starts with the son running in and writing ‘Home tasks’ on the blackboard. Then the father strides in, rubs the board, and writes his military list of ‘Priority of tasks’, which are:  1) digging fire trenches and weapon pits, 2) laying of minefields, 3) wiring, riveting and 4) thickening of minefields. The mother, heavily pregnant, waddles in and writes a recipe for preserving mango: 1) cut mango ripe, 2) 30 gm sugar 70 gm water, 3) keep on fire till sugar melts, 4) pour on mango pieces – and so on. The form and the background music are very important here. Each character had particular movements and a musical score which defined them. The father always strides in from the left to the blackboard and back to sounds of marching music. The mother, heavily pregnant, waddles in from the right to the centre and back, to sitar music. The son runs in in a diagonal movement to cartoon music. I used the cartoon form, where the tone hovers between parody and earnest.

Eisenstein’s principle of montage says that when two different things are placed next to each other, they create a third meaning. The recipe associated with the home and the woman gets contextualized within the theatre of war. ‘Home tasks’ gets a double meaning of both school ‘homework’ as well as domestic tasks. The historian Partha Chatterjee, writing about the place of Indian men and women during colonial rule, notes that men were to deal with the compromised outside world, while maintaining the purity of the home became the domain of women. It seems as if these characters are unknowingly illustrating these roles. What interested me about the texts that I chose from the cookbooks was that all the characters wrote in lists. The ordered form of the list is the modern way of structuring life.

NR      And Urgent Saaru? Why did you not speak?

PN       Urgent Saaru is performance art. It is not theatre; it has its own minimalistic form which consists of a series of simple durational actions. I wanted to just do the normal act of cooking, but in this ornate fussy costume, to make it resemble a ritual or ceremony. A viewer said he liked the “juxtaposition of the majestic with the quotidian”, “the grand symbol of Mother India making a quick meal at the kitchen counter”. Some people asked me why I did not speak, and perhaps I could think of having a conversation with say, a politician.  But I think the slowness of just watching the ordinary act of cooking and absorbing all the little details of the act in real time is meditative.  I wanted to avoid anything explanatory. Another friend in America saw it as a “very beautiful and moving ceremony”, and regretted that she had not known anything about Gauri’s terrible story. So, the performance is to re-invoke interest in that story in an indirect or tangential and human way.

 NR         Your works are so funny even when they are serious! Tell me how you use humour.

PN          I’ve just been re-reading Arthur Koestler‘s Act of Creation after decades. He used to be such an influential intellectual in the 1970s but is forgotten now.  It was an important book for me as a young artist. He writes about how art, science and humour are closely tied together in human creativity and consist of similar ways of making unexpected connections, which lead to new insights and inventions. I like to work on several registers. The language I use is a kind of ‘slang’. The comic brings in an element of surprise and as entertainment, draws the viewer in. The comic sense demolishes the rigidity of the stereotype. Wit, satire, pun, parody and the absurd were considered low forms and not to be used in ‘high’ art, which is supposed to be sombre in tone. And women are not supposed to laugh because laughter is seen as aggressive. But I have always loved using humour and the absurd for comment, subversion or catharsis. It’s the ‘massage’ in the message.

Bios

Rajyalakshmi is a renowned Indian cultural and art theorist. Rising from the humble ranks of being a journalist of the Ideal Times, Bangalore, Rajyalakshmi soon became a popular art reviewer and rose quickly to her position as an important cultural thinker and the foremost expert on the art of Pushpamala N.

Pushpamala N. is a photo, video and performance artist, sculptor, curator and writer. Her sharp and witty work is strongly feminist and subversive and questions the status quo. She lives and works in Bangalore.

1 Comment

  1. Thought provoking interview which allows a global explanation for viewers about the idea, it’s growth, its mutation and changing focus. Well done to both Pushpamala and Rajyalakshmi+++++

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