What We Eat

Formative drawing and painting lessons often resort to essentialist representations of “village life” as if it was a monolithic aspiration for a simultaneously extant and bygone simplicity; it almost always constitutes a bullock cart, a farmer, a field, a small hut and a clear horizon (or a similar tableau). These staples come to define a bucolic otherworld that evokes nostalgic value in the way it allows a reverse journey to a less populated landscape. But what does constitute the matter of this landscape? What are the lived experiences of the people portrayed? What are the currents that run across and shape the lives that inhabit it?

This imagination reveals a convenient blind spot in the light of the economic marginalisation that farmers have suffered for a very long time now as a denial of their labour as legitimate service. The Gram Art collective used this epistemic privilege to draw attention to what it effectively occludes: the experience of oppression by the less privileged, achieved through an acute attention to the politics of food and food-supply. They prepared for and organised a dinner on the premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan (that was attended by around 150 people who, it can be assumed, belonged from a privileged socio-economic class) where they served food items made with indigenous crops produced on the farms of the Paradsinga village in Maharashtra. The servings were arranged in a fixed sequence, and each item was accompanied by a note on its origin, and instructions on how to eat it.

A statement against genetically-modified products that have overtaken indigenous crops in the market (and by extension, put farmers at a grave economic disadvantage besides posing health risks), the dinner was designed to make each consumer peruse, at length, the item they were consuming. One of the items, called “Bite-coin Biscuit”, was shaped like a round cookie divided into two parts—‘food’ and ‘cash’—denoted by their visual correspondents as imprints on each side. The ‘cash’ part of the biscuit contained wood, which prevented an easy consumption of the item due to its inedible nature. The work effectively hinted at a guilt borne from privilege, and drew attention to narratives that have consistently served to romanticise labour without space for accountability.

Actant Dharmendra Prasad’s installation is a post-harvest object, situated between the field and the kitchen, and left open for conversations to accumulate/ferment in its scope. An enclosed space constructed out of a bamboo scaffolding and hay, the space stands as a material manifestation of time and toil in rural memory. As a philosophy, harvest denotes a knowledge system that emerged with time spent with the elements. Dharmendra points out how, following the mechanisation of agriculture, the time spanning the storing, cutting and threshing of crops for the extraction of grains has become shorter and more regularised. The harvest process then involves a lesser degree of interaction between the crop and the human hand; the grain comes directly from the field, thus compressing the space and time it occupies between the soil and the hand. This loss of site and ritual produces a new landscape of production where the process erases the possibility of error by the human hand. The abundance of ready material in the market imbues it with a form of “ghost labour”[i] on dispersion across geographies as the accomplishment of an “invisible hand”.

This rupture between the person and their product produces an incomplete trajectory of labour where the body of the producer is rendered nameless and amorphous, therefore absolving the consumer of any guilt. The dinner organised by the Gram Art collective included servings of corn residue left behind after animal attacks on the fields they were produced in, the attacks resulting from increasing deforestation in the area that resulted in the local fauna straying into populated areas, foraging for food. The animal attacks have resulted in loss of life and destroyed months of toil in the fields. One cannot help but waste the already inedible serving; the dinner then enables a tactile dialogue between the consumer and the crop, and informs the interaction with narratives of oppression that are otherwise rendered invisible due to a lack of systemic perspective.

Dinner prepared and organised by the Gram Art Collective at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan | Credit: Annette Jacob

Dharmendra muses that we’re slowly killing the horizon through the flattening of forest areas, and vertical intensification of concrete architecture, which transforms our experience of time and space. By housing dialogues, the ‘harvest laboratory’ makes space for an understanding of the human body and its place in the natural ecology. He calls his top-open granary an ‘insertion’ in an institutional space which has created a context for other Actants’ work to occupy. The space was used for a 2-day dialogue by co-Actants Paribartana Mohanty and Akansha Rastogi, where they discussed concepts around cannibalism in art. One of the concepts discussed was ‘anthropophagy’, which denotes cultural assimilation through the act of devouring. It refers to the practice of the indigenous Tupi peoples of Brazil who, prior to their colonisation by the Portuguese in the 16th century, captured their white enemies and ate them via a cannibalistic ritual with the belief that it would help them enter the body of the devoured and form a new, strengthened self through the resultant contamination. The Otherness of the enemy was thus dealt with through an intense physical and erotic contact between matter.

When a dead body is buried in the soil, its constitutive material can turn to compost, which gives rise to new life-forms such as edible plants or crops. The intensity of the repetitive act of eating these resources overwhelms the first act of killing, says Paribartana. The body is then never a blank slate; its matter constitutes discourses that precede its immediate context, both literally and figuratively. One is then consuming oneself in a constant cycle of miscegenation—of matter, colour and hierarchies of caste and labour—that yields new meanings for the body as a site of political contestations.

In housing this dialogue, Dharmendra’s harvest lab makes space for an understanding of art pedagogy, its future expected to assume the form of a mobile school that can travel across locations in a flexible format and foster an environment of sharing for its occupants. This structure seeks to dismantle the hierarchy between the teacher and the pupil; it looks beyond normative conceptions of scholarship, and includes the craftsperson or farmer as a scholar and figure of expertise equivalent to the ‘academic’. The Gram Art collective also seeks, in their practice, to foster awareness about the genesis of food resources and ethical systems of distribution that sustain the producer of the grain. These conversations gain relevance in the face of a possible ecological collapse and a concomitant loss of human rights in the contemporary landscape of the Global South. The cannibal will outlive its immediate flesh through acts of consumption, borrowings, loots and sharing, but the soil has to keep breathing for these histories to re-emerge, recalibrate and dismantle.

[i] Comaroff, Jean and John. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millenial Capitalism”, Codesria Bulletin.

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