Eat, Pray, Be Inspired


Eat, Pray, Be Inspired

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I was growing up, young girls were much in demand on ashtami. We wore our finest, were invited to many houses in the neighbourhood where we were fed delicacies such as halwa, poori and channa, and given a bit of money. The collections of the day would be enough to fund a month of snacks from the old man who brought salted gram, puffed rice, and orange ice lollies.

Ashtami was one of the most eagerly awaited days of my childhood; a day to venerate Shakti or feminine power in the form of the Mother Goddess. In North India and especially in the Punjabi community, “kanjak pooja” is performed on this day, and little – virginal – girls are worshipped.

For seven years, from age three to 12, I looked forward to this wonderful day. Then one ashtami morning I was suddenly not welcome anymore. I cried all day. My grandmother made me halwa, my mother gave me money but I was inconsolable. “Why?” I asked then. “Because only prepubescent girls are considered pure. Because after puberty they become sexual beings,” I was told.

What could be purer than acquiring the potential to become mothers, I think now. No answer to my “why” was satisfactory then. No answer is satisfactory now.

I didn’t know then that this incident, at the intersection of food and ritual, would inform my art several years later. In 2012, I made a mixed-media artwork titled “The Wound” with incense cones, cotton wicks, and vermillion. The last material continues to make an appearance in my practise, representing blood and menstruation and the way it confines and defines women’s lives.

Most rituals that I was once part of, like kanjak pooja, now seem like the theatre of the absurd to me, but there have been times I’ve been thankful for the distraction tradition and ceremony can provide. When my adored father-in-law passed away, I was grateful for the focus on tradition and ceremony that was expected of me: what to do, what to eat, when to hold the fourth and thirteenth day ceremonies… It was a relief from the self-indulgent grief that would have gripped us.

It turns out to be a Monday, or a Tuesday, or a Thursday, and some of my guests magically turn vegetarian.

A few years later, I watched Subodh Gupta’s performance piece “Spirit Eaters” at the Art Fair in Delhi that helped put a few things into perspective. The performance harked back to a Bihari ritual where a bunch of kanthababas, or professional eaters rapidly consume lots of food to appease departed souls. It explored “notions of identity, cultural specificity, aspiration and excess” that preoccupy Subodh Gupta’s art. The performance was described as simultaneously “repulsive, vulgar, amusing, and awe-inspiring” (but only from our cosmopolitan perspective.)

I do not follow the Hindu tradition of feeding brahmins to appease my ancestors’ spirits, but I do feed the brahmins of today – the powerful, English-speaking, well-heeled urban folk – in lavish ceremonies called dinner parties. (And to feel good, I prefer to feed the destitute as well.) In my modern day “bhoj”, sometimes things go wrong.

It turns out to be a Monday, or a Tuesday, or a Thursday, and some of my guests magically turn vegetarian. Why? Because it is Shivji or Hanumanji’s day. Because “mangal” is heavy and the astrologer says to earn some good karma. “And how rotten do you feel on the other six days of the week?” I ask, and lose some friends in the process. This idea found resonance in my 2012 work, “Mangalvar/Tuesday”, which resembled a plate of food, but was made with incense, rudraksha, and toys on a plywood platform.

The ritual of fasting or abstaining from food exists in almost all religions. In Hinduism, it is believed that fasting literally brings one closer to God hence it is called “upvaas” (upa = near, vaas = stay). This kind of fasting as voluntary suffering with notional benefits and often for very selfish material gains seems strange. While I was a student in Baroda, I was very close to a Gujarati family who fasted on Ekadashi. That’s when I realised that the food on fasting day is a simple meal of deep-fried potatoes, fried singhara, paranthas, sabudana khichdi cooked in yoghurt, milk, and fruits. My ritual for Ekadashi, though, used to be buying antacids for the family.

There is another kind of abstinence from food, apart from fasting, that awakens the inner Shakti in urban women. I ritually repeat it. When it works, I feel more like a Goddess. It is called dieting.

The iconography of Hindu Goddesses has been no less of an influence on this idea of the perfect body than Photoshopped images that the media trades in. We worship lotus eyes, plush lips, rounded breasts and hips and bejewelled bodies. We are either venerated, or desired, or consumers of lifestyles and products that will get us to be desired or venerated. The act of eating – whether prescribed by religion, society, or media – will never be guilt-free.

I remembered this a few years ago while watching a performance by contemporary artist Siri Devi Khandavilli, titled “Get out of debt free, buy my ‘Lucky Lakshmi Dollar Bill’”. The artist casts herself as both the object and the initiator of desire, and draws on the popular idea of “eat all you can and still lose weight” ads. In the performance, she sits and stuffs her face with chocolates from a tray. In another tray, she poses as Goddess Lakshmi on a dollar bill.

For me, this is an example of our schizophrenic relationship with food and ritual – where ideas of excess, consumption, and guilt dovetail with mythology and culture. It’s a lush playground to be engaged in. And one that will not grow old anytime soon.