Dalit artist Sri Vamsi Matta’s ‘Come Eat With Me’ show focusses on food practices in marginalised homes and the narratives behind them.
“Instead of using cashews for a creamy chicken curry, my mother used poppy seeds,” says Sri Vamsi Matta, as he talks about the new sharing space that he is creating in people’s homes through food, stories and performances. The show - replete with a script, sound elements, props, production design and food - aims to not only shed light on the cooking habits of Dalit households, but also explain how food for them is an identity marker.
A Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner, Vamsi is also a self-confessed foodie, who also loves to cook for others. Born in a Dalit family, he is curiously aware of the food practices in marginalised families, most of which he says “came out of their need for survival, nourishment, non-availability of resources and systemic oppression”. Through his endeavour, called ‘Come Eat With Me’, Vamsi is trying to start the conversation about caste, food and the stories that shape the culinary culture of the Dalit community. “Culinary traditions are intrinsically linked to the celebration of various cultures. But what happens to the history of food that carries with it generations of pain, longing and trauma; to the cuisines that are an outcome of centuries of oppression?” he asks.
As part of this show, he visits people’s homes and cooks for them, while there is also a storytelling session or some such performance. An act during Indian Ensemble’s theatre lab a few years ago got Vamsi interested in mealtime performances, where everyone on the dinner table is a guest performer. “Everybody loves to talk about food, culinary cultures and the different styles of cooking that are intrinsic to India’s diverse landscape. These trails and practices are also well-documented for anyone who would want to take a peek or delve deeper into it for research work. However, the same cannot be said about Dalit food, the practices that marginalised homes have adopted and the ingredients they use as an alternative to what ‘upper caste’ households use,” says the theatre artist.
Be it Lakuti, Kaat, Wajadi, Bhoplyacha Kees, Kakdiche Gharge, Randana Roti, Jowar Bhakri, Idiyirachi, Uppukandam or Red-Ant Chutney, how often do we get to hear or read about these dishes that are so integral to children’s memories of food in the community.
According to Vamsi, the only way to break casteist food practices is by bringing the hushed-up food topics into discourse, and what better way to do that than eating together as friends and family, sharing stories, experiences and anecdotes of food. “To remove the stigma, we need to talk more about what families on the fringes eat at home. What mothers do to fulfil their child’s nutritional requirements and to make the meals tastier. The menu at the recent ‘Come Eat With Me’ show in Bengaluru included Andhra-style chicken curry, cooked with poppy seeds paste as a way to thicken the gravy instead of cashew nut paste; Andhra-style curry cooked with potato, onion and tomato; and white rice.” These sessions also prompt many audience members to share cuisines made in similar ways in their families.
In the near future, Vamsi is planning to take this performance to more homes across the country and possibly performance arenas, where the audience can eat, engage and learn about Dalit food in greater detail, and also indulge in some music and dance. “I am hopeful that these conversations around Dalit kitchens will be compassionate, inclusive and without prejudice,” he sums up.