Through her practice, artist Rajyashri Goody probes the perversions of caste in India, and how food forms a locus where the interplay of power and powerlessness is unfortunately most evident.
In September 2016, Rajyashri Goody was in Gwangju, South Korea for a few weeks as one of the artists at Asia Culture Center’s international residency programme. “The people around me then—who were from different parts of the world—immediately assumed I was vegetarian since I’m from India. It was just supposed that the country has a one-dimensional vegetarian cuisine, and that certainly isn’t the case,” says 33-year-old Goody, who grew up in Pune.
Meanwhile, several thousand kilometres away, in India, the news was rife with nationwide protests that had arose as a response to reports of gau rakshaks (so-called self-styled ‘cow protectors’) harassing and lynching Dalits, or those belonging to minority groups, after they were suspected of eating or transporting or found in possession of beef.
In June that year, members of the right-wing Bajrang Dal had brutally attacked a Dalit family in Koppa, Karnataka, for allegedly carrying beef back home, in the wake of the then-imposed ban on cow meat by certain state governments. The following month, four members of a Dalit family in the village of Mota Samadhiyala near Una in Gujarat were flogged with sticks and iron rods by men from oppressor castes for skinning a dead cow. While the attackers had falsely accused the family of slaughtering the animal, little did the family know that their occupation—of being engaged in the skinning of dead livestock for hide, considered lowly and ‘impure’ for over generations—itself would imperil their lives. Subsequently, forensic reports revealed that the cow was killed by a lion.
These news reports, among a slew of other similar caste-based attacks, are from over six years ago; certain instances even unreported or underreported by the media. Today, there is no abatement in such vigilante harassment. Last August, a nine-year-old Dalit boy was beaten to death by his school teacher in Surana village in Rajasthan for touching a water pot. Such actions, largely enabled by those holding political clout, emerge from a reality that the mere existence of Dalits is disconcerting for the country’s dominant castes and classes.
“Eating is a primary experience of our lives and tinged with caste. Dalit people have had a very complex relationship with eating—or the lack of access to food—and I found myself constantly grappling with these questions,” says Goody. The homogenisation of food choices and eating patterns, enforcing a hegemonic culinary lexicon, has gradually invisibilised a section of society in the country. Goody began to realise that it was imperative for her to talk about her background and community.
“If I spent my time solely around upper-caste people, I started feeling strange, I felt lost. I could no longer listen to, or be witness to, the ignorance of a certain group of people,” she elaborates.
Informed by her background in sociology and visual anthropology as well as her Ambedkarite roots, Goody creates works—through ceramic sculptures, writing, photography, and installations comprising found objects and food items—that use acts of everyday resistance to reclaim and resist Dalit identity.
Currently an artist-in-residence at Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, she attempts to question the complex association that the community has with an act as primal as that of eating—coloured with the ugly shades of caste discrimination and, subsequently, shame, violence and a sense of othering. This manifests in everyday life via aggressive suppression and relegation: Dalits are refused access to places of worship; they aren’t allowed to use water from the community well; they are paid in leftovers; and in schools in villages, Dalit children are compelled to eat their mid-day meals separately.
While in school, Goody did not have any Dalit classmates; the classroom wasn’t a space where discussions around caste were had. However, having been brought up by parents who are social workers, conversations in this vein did take place at home.
“I grew up in a fairly regular, happy household. At school, my equation with the other children was fine; we would eat together and share our food. Later on, as I began to [do my] research, I realised there were certain ways of living that were more particular to my community,” Goody recollects. The food her family ate was primarily vegetarian.
“I remember being force-fed methi, though I quite enjoy it now. Weekends would be spent at my grandmother’s house, where we would eat chicken or mutton sometimes. Any mention of beef or pork was brushed under the carpet. I presumed it was perhaps because of our religion. As Ambedkarite Buddhists, many of us choose to be vegetarian, and others consume relatively less meat. Only when I grew older did I begin to understand the implicit influence of caste in our food habits and choices,” she adds.
While Goody has stated on multiple occasions that she had a fairly comfortable childhood despite her community’s struggle—something she acknowledges and doesn’t take for granted—and is far from seeing herself a representative voice of the Dalit community, it was crucial for her to bring to the fore everyday violence inflicted upon Dalit people through the tyranny of the caste system.
One of the foremost influences on Goody when it came to the visceral link between food and identity was an academic text titled Isn’t This Plate Indian?—Dalit Histories and Memories of Food (2009), by the University of Pune’s Gender Studies class. “It spoke so much about access to food and literacy—both so fundamental yet out of reach for marginalised communities. Once we were able to educate ourselves, Dalit literature emerged as a huge, important genre. I was reading several autobiographies of those belonging to the community, around 2016. They speak of the acts of making food, of eating food, of having to wait outside wedding venues in the hope of laying their hands on some leftovers. There are also anecdotes where their upper-caste friends would invite them to dinner, and out of shame, they have had to conceal their identity when mingling with other guests,” she says.
In an attempt to trace Dalit writers’ memories of and experiences with food—or the lack thereof—Goody selects lines or pages of text from their written works and breaks them up into short, fragmentary, second-person accounts, almost instructional in nature, to create ‘recipe booklets’. They aren’t recipes in the real sense of the word; “the Dalit experience of eating, can’t necessarily be replicated,” says Goody.
“[Marathi writer and activist] Laxman Gaikwad’s work is very special, and so are those of Urmila Pawar, Namdeo Nimgade, Omprakash Valmiki and Sharankumar Limbaye. Their writings are filled with metaphors—both in Marathi and [translated into] English,” she says, mentioning that it was Gaikwad’s autobiographical novel Uchalaya (1987) that led her to put together her first booklet, Is Hunger Gnawing at Your Belly? (2017) as part of an ongoing series.
“I am also reading other writers—G. Kalyana Rao’s book Untouchable Spring [Antarani Vasantham in Telugu] was what I recently read. It involves learning so much; for instance, Rao’s book centers Dalit Christians and their experiences.. No matter where these writers are based, they’ve had similar yet different experiences—there is no single, homogenous experience,” says Goody.
Through her series of booklets, Goody acknowledges a lineage of literary works that already exist but are either disregarded or were never brought to light. While India boasts of a vast culinary heritage, there is a wide, glaring gap in the documentation—or even mention—of food from the marginalised communities. She incorporates these booklets within the spaces where her works are exhibited. The condensed, adapted verses are, at times, structured such that they make the reader uncomfortable, laden with discomfiture and guilt too, at their own ignorance of a community’s harsh reality.
“The responses from visitors [at exhibitions] have been largely positive. I let them make what they want of the recipes, so that they also do a bit of the work, and put in some effort. I mainly do this for myself and learn about my own history in the process. I am also careful to not make it too much about food; I have to be restrained, to not end up exoticising or fetishising the food or foodways,” says Goody.
While putting the booklets together, it was important for Goody to stay as true as possible to the writers’ experiences. “The conventional style of writing a recipe in a cookbook would involve a pleasant, happy ending, so to speak—something like ‘enjoy’ or ‘best enjoyed with’. But what if you are hungry and desperately looking for food in a forest and someone comes and beats you up?” she asks. Do so-called culinary pursuits, then, seem frivolous in the face of persisting inequalities? Restaurants around the world pat themselves on the back for incorporating nose-to-tail dining on their menus, using every part of an animal in order to minimise kitchen ‘waste’. Waiting at the butcher’s shop to collect goat’s blood—what would otherwise be discarded—to prepare blood fry or using the animal’s intestinal skin for a dish has been an age-old norm for many minority communities.
Moreover, for most of us, cookbooks are typically prized as cultural artefacts; they are objects that merit heirloom status, documenting a cornucopia of recipes that may have been passed down over generations. Most cookbooks make the association between food and memory with a dollop of nostalgia; for Goody and those from the Dalit community, however, it is seen through a lens of discrimination and injustice. “As a community, we were denied literacy for hundreds of years, so how can you expect us to have a written documentation of recipes? We couldn’t even read or write, so where does the question of having cookbooks arise? For us, access to education was largely opened up only in the 20th century,” says Goody, raising a pertinent question.
There are certain assumptions about people coming together through food, but that isn’t always the case. “In India, it is dangerous to suppose this as it actually sets certain groups of people or communities apart. If a Dalit person touches food meant for someone from another caste in many parts of the country, it is immediately considered polluted, and the upper castes no longer consume that food,” says Goody.
One would usually imagine the kitchen as inviting and warm, a space that engenders bonds through shared banter or listening to stories about how a recipe came about. For Goody, however, this wasn’t so. “My mother’s family had quite a happy existence, even though economically they were not too well off. The conversations around recipes weren’t that common. They were mainly limited to ‘okay, this is what we used to eat when we had nothing else to eat.’ It was not a matter of decadence or indulgence. And the process of cooking wasn’t always an enjoyable one—it has been forced upon women for generations. Among Dalit communities, women have had to work as well as manage the household and kitchen, so that amounts to double the labour; that women had to cook and clean was a given. Some of my aunts cooked amazingly but it doesn’t mean that they always enjoyed it. At times, they were simply too exhausted,” shares Goody.
Dissecting her memories of food while growing up, Goody recalls eating ‘ukadala’—or heating up the previous day’s leftovers—for breakfast. It was only later that she learnt, upon reading Babytai Kamble’s book The Prisons We Broke (2009), the term alludes to a particular Dalit preparation wherein the scraps collected in one’s begging bowl, or the leftovers scoured from a village feast, are mixed together, heated up, and consumed.
“Because of the practice of untouchability, many Dalit people have not been able to own land so how can they grow their own crops? The practice of ‘Balut’ has been in existence for thousands of years: What Dalit people received in exchange for working in the fields was either a very rudimentary meal or a meagre share of the crop—and this is the part of the crop that would be of the worst quality, essentially what is rejected,” explains Goody.
Her work Ukadala comprises an installation of several ceramic pieces laid out on the floor, each resembling a food item, highlighting how the Dalits have had to struggle to put food on their plates, often resorting to leftovers or even spoilt food. The installation is complemented with hard-hitting text adapted from Kamble’s verse, almost instructive in nature, perhaps an iteration of the recipes the community never had.
[an excerpt from Ukadala]:
…Put all the rotting food/ into your big clay pot/ along with the pieces/ of dry roti. Collect twigs and sticks/ from the garbage heap/ to light the chulha./ Bring the mixture to the boil…
When systemic social discrimination that is so deeply ingrained makes access to food and sustenance itself a struggle, the question of an archive, or the documentation of recipes, simply cannot arise. “Consider our relationship with the bhakri (or bhaakar), made out of millets. Wheat, being expensive, has been out of reach for us, so the question here, again, is that of access. If you’re paid in leftover food, even if those leftovers are actually from ‘Brahmin food,’ they are still leftovers, and then do they become ‘Dalit food’?” asks Goody.
Another booklet Goody created features a ‘recipe’ for Milo Gruel, incorporating an extract from Gaikwad’s Uchalya, translated into English as The Branded. The term ‘Uchalya’ refers to the name of a nomadic tribe, christened by the British and translating into ‘pilferers’, a group of people no doubt pushed to the fringes. “Gaikwad writes about how, while growing up, his family would obtain the spoilt bits of the milo crop [grain sorghum, usually mixed into animal feed], rotting with insects or worms, from the farmer and yet, how he enjoyed eating it because there was nothing else to eat,” she says.
Symbolic of the power and control the caste system holds, Goody learnt that the term ‘joothan’ doesn’t simply mean ‘leftovers’ but a disturbingly vicious practice that makes stark the gross excess—and hence mindless wastage—of food by one section of society versus another’s compulsive struggle to access even morsels for mere survival.
“Reading Dalit author Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan: An Untouchable’s Life (2003) made me realise how deep-seated the practice is. Valmiki writes about his experience of having to queue up outside weddings hosted by upper-caste families, holding empty baskets for the guests to discard their leaf plates in. Valmiki and his family members would then take the waste home, segregating the scraps of food in order to salvage whatever they could. These leftovers would be dried and eaten over a period of weeks or months,” says Goody. According to her, there is no singular Dalit food culture. “In fact, hunger as an everyday discrimination is so deeply rooted, so recurring over the years, that it is a significant part of what our ‘food culture’ entails,” she adds.
From among the multiple belligerent fault lines that cleave through the country’s social fabric, perhaps none cut deeper than beef and beef-eating. Long before the enforcement of the prohibition of cow slaughter, and the sale and consumption of beef in Maharashtra and several other states in India, some Dalit communities clandestinely used the term ‘lal bhaaji’—the reference garbed as the red leaves of the amaranth bhaaji—when eating beef, so as to not let the members of the oppressor castes know that they are consuming it.
This code word, so to speak, prompted the title of Goody’s installation work Lal Bhaaji (2019), where ceramic pieces resembling meat and bones, in worn-out shades of red and pink, are stuffed with the paper pulp of the Manusmriti and scattered on the floor, appearing as something that has been outright rejected. Here, the pages of the Manusmriti are the key ingredient, as a means of resistance against the archaic ancient Sanskrit text that describes the caste system in ways that are distorted, inhuman and divisive, an anathema to what is laid out in the Constitution of India.
For Goody, shredding and pulping the pages, and thus erasing all traces of the original text—that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had publicly set fire to on 25 December 1927—then becomes symbolic of the obliteration of power and hierarchy. The idea was further explored through a performance titled Power and Pulp, where the audience was invited to partake in the pulping of the Manusmriti and shaping it to form roundels resembling laddoos.
“Growing up, I was aware of the caste system—the fact that it existed and the way it operated. My mother did not receive a good education, and so she pushed me hard to get one. We have always been very proud of our identity. It was going to be a part of my life, whether I made [art] works around it or not. And with time, the more I accessed art circles and studied further, I began to realise it was necessary to talk about my background, where I come from,” shares Goody.
Meanwhile, with Bhaakar (2017), Goody attempts to highlight frugality—that oftentimes, all that Dalits could sustain on was a square meal of bhakri with dried red chillies. The ceramic installation is accompanied by text from Sharankumar Limbale’s book The Outcaste (2003), wherein the prospect of being able to eat is so infrequent, it is cherished and elevated by describing the bhaakar as “as vast as the sky, and bright like the sun”.
In the wake of rampant food vigilantism in India, Goody’s practice has only become increasingly relevant. “I’m not talking about something that doesn’t exist, right? Most of my work is accessible, so it is up to you to seek it, and up to me to push myself and see how to put it out there. Being an artist and being able to talk about this subject is a huge deal,” she says emphatically.
That there is inadequate representation of the Dalit community in mainstream media as well as the publishing and art circles is a well-known fact. Meanwhile, the depiction that does exist largely paints a picture of dismay and distress. In her attempt to create a narrative that was detached from the dominant discourse of such representation, Goody introduced a seismic shift within her practice, the denouement of which is seen in the form of Eat With Great Delight (2018), a series of photographs from her family albums, taken between 1984 and 2004 on a point-and-shoot camera.
These photographs document the day-to-day lives of Goody’s family members and extended community. “My family first got a camera in 1984, around the time of my parents’ wedding. Our stories and lived experiences were allowed to come out in the open only much later, and so the camera became a tool to document our history. Both my parents enjoyed taking photos when I was young,” shares Goody.
The dissemination of positive scenarios became important for Goody. While looking through her own family albums, she came across photographs that captured people coming together over food, highlighting the act of eating, relishing and celebrating, all bound by a sense of camaraderie.
“I had to share these photos through my work as I thought that being in a position of privilege, it is my responsibility to do so. Of course, there are complex issues of the trauma, hardship and violence that the community has borne, and continues to—which are equally important—but I did not want to dehumanise us through just victimhood,” she shares. The work derives its title from Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan, which underscores the rather paradoxical experiences of hunger and shame along with celebration, of lining up outside wedding venues to gather leftover food.
The series includes a snapshot of a chocolate cake with “Happy Birthday Ashok” inscribed on it, another where a widely grinning woman in a blue sari is enjoying a bite of her food, and yet another where numerous paper plates filled with portions of cake and potato wafers are lined up, presumably for a birthday get-together. While these visuals are far from the indignity and humiliation that many Dalit people continue to endure, for Goody, they denote an imagery that hinges on the shared memories of home, of simply being able to exist.
When caste politics is entrenched so deeply in ways of eating that it is conspicuous yet invisible, the discourse around sustained allyship from privileged, oppressor-caste individuals entails a self-examination on our part—of not taking up space, giving opportunities to those who have been denied by the system, or to stop flaunting a ‘woke’ label on our sleeves.
When it comes to the oppressor castes co-opting certain foods, Goody states: “Dalits have been eating millets all along, and continue to do so. Even if millets become trendy or gain sudden traction among the upper castes, I think their place in a community’s history and foodways should be acknowledged. Sure, please eat more bhakri but also maybe read a book about caste inequality [to educate yourself]. Sometimes, appropriation may lead to harmony? I don’t know, I can’t really be certain.”
In the quest to create and articulate a language denied by the caste system, a proliferation of writings by Dalit authors working in multiple vernaculars was produced over the years. However, in India, the acknowledgement and hence, availability, of these texts by mainstream publishers is still gradual. “There are several independent publishing houses releasing Dalit literature, and the model of self-publishing is also quite strong,” says Goody.
Meanwhile, the big players in Indian publishing are only just warming up to include Dalit writers on their rosters, notwithstanding the extant Anglophone writings about the caste system. “Perhaps the average upper-caste individual feels they need to be spoon-fed—just make an effort to seek out and read these books by Dalit authors. Most of the literature was written 30-40 years ago and is available to read, some as translated texts too. So, there is no reason why one shouldn’t be privy to it,” she adds.
For Goody, the art industry in India—long criticised for being standoffish and exclusive—has been more welcoming and supportive of those from marginalised communities in recent times. “Maybe because some of us artists formed our own collectives and communities. We fought our way to be able to gain certain access, so we have taken it. We are trying to make the most of the access we now have to put ourselves out there. Eventually we have to keep doing the work, keep making our art, regardless of external support or not.”
Khorshed Deboo is an independent writer and text editor based out of Bombay. She writes on art and culture and enjoys making photographs. Her work has featured in Himal Southasian, Scroll, The Caravan, and Design Reviewed London among other publications.
THE LOCAVORE CHAMPIONS
To learn to do good through food, we also turn to others for inspiration. The Locavore Champions is our way of gathering stories of people who create meaningful change in the Indian food system.