In a small courtyard, surrounded by white walls that glowed in the evening darkness, people stood huddled under a tree and played a strange game. A thela or vegetable vendor’s cart had been painted with red and white squares like a chessboard, with heaps of food acting as chess pieces. Two women played referees, repeatedly telling players, “If you don’t eat, you can’t play.” The name of the board game, fittingly, was Appetite.
Each player would make a move and then eat a slice of cake or a piece of nachos or drink a shot of soft drink. As they played, food — baby corn, cherry tomatoes, packaged apples, cucumber, soya sticks — was removed from the board and piled on a weighing machine that contained a white and red bowl. Only when the last player had finished the last round, did the referees explain the meaning of the game — the red squares represent the corporations who dominate the food industry, while the whites are the farmers.
“The thela embodies the first point of interaction that consumers have with their food in a typical Indian context. The cake, nachos and soft drink represent food miles and carbon footprints that the players consume to move ahead in the game,” says Suvani Suri, one of the referees, who conceptualised the game with Simran Chopra. The two interactive designers from National Institute of Design were part of a residency titled “InContext: public.art.ecology — Food Edition III” at KHOJ Studios, Khirkee Extension that has, over the years, championed unconventional art. On April 17, Suri and Chopra joined four other artistes to reveal that food, an essential ingredient of life, also has a cutting edge behind it.
A few days before, two Pakistani artistes, Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat Ul Ain had presented Tea Party and Crow Effect Project. The former used chai to address the shared history of India and Pakistan. For the latter — the name is inspired by the belief that a crow cawing in one’s house indicates that one should expect a guest — the duo invited strangers for a meal and conversation.
A meal and conversation also explained Mona Gandhi’s Eat Future Tense, in which guests sat around a table slurping bowls of Burmese Khao Suey. Mumbai-based Gandhi promotes natural, plant-based, food and the Burmese Khao Suey was packed with flavours — steamed moong sprout, pumpkin, potato, peas, carrot and cauliflower with raw toppings pomegranates, celery, spring onion and lemon in a cashew-based curry. It won over diners, ranging from an elderly housewife who asked for the recipe to a former hippy, who called it “food with integrity”. Gandhi did better than give a talk; she brought issues of grain subsidies, biodiversity and politics of food into a dining table conversation. “People talk a lot about fresh and local nowadays. This, for me, is a classic example of a glocal experience. I deliberately chose a Burmese khao suey but I gave it my own fresh and local twist,” said Gandhi.
In a gallery next to Gandhi’s, Srishti Lakhera sat before a mound of pork ribs, tearing off a shred and eating it disinterestedly. She nibbled constantly through the evening, looking deliberately bored, except when she chatted with guests about the link between fat on the plate and fat in the body. During her research, Lakhera had also spoken to people about which body part they were most ashamed of — and photographs of these limbs and bellies animated a wall to her left. Against the opposite wall, guests sat with headphones, listening to people talk about their struggle with fat. But it was Rishikesh-based Lakhera, a filmmaker, basket weaver and farmer, who grows her own food, that made a viewer comment that he would not eat pork for a long time. “I didn’t know where the pork has come from, beyond the restaurant. We no longer know our food, just as we don’t listen to our bodies while binging,” said Lakhera.
Italian Leone Contini, on the other hand, travelled from the ruins of Satpula to Majnu ka Tilla, crossing sewers, drains, the polluted Yamuna and the nearby farmlands. At Khoj, he invited guests to join in for a meal “that may be poisoned”. Titled Bottlegourd Bokchoy Ballet, the piece juxtaposed the common kaddu with the more exotic bok choy — but the suspense was an envelop with a question mark hanging from the wall. “The envelop contains test results showing if there are any metals in our food,” he said, as guests keenly tucked into the kaddu, cooked Silcilian style, and Tuscan-Chinese Bok choy dish. “I had thought people would be afraid of eating because the kaddu and bok choy might be contaminated,” he said.
Delhi-based Ravi Agarwal served up food for thought in the form of video installations titled A Feast of Sorts. In it, a sadhu talks about non-dependence on food, Mona Gandhi talks about her passion for raw food and a linguist-cum-poet analyses behavioural aspects of food. A photograph of Mahatma Gandhi during a hunger strike hung in a corner, with the Gandhi’s quote: God comes to the hungry in the form of food juxtaposed with the slogan “I’m Loving It” in a fast food brand’s font and colour.