There are those who choose their battles depending on what exclusively affects them or not, and then there are those who fight everything that is unjust, everything that violates someone out there. TheBigFatBao is the latter. Popularly known by her IG username, TheBigFatBao documents the lives of women across marginalised communities — depicting them not only in their wave nature but also in their particle nature, their every act of resistance, elucidating upon every action of violence inflicted on them from both inside as well as outside the community.
She illustrates the anti-caste leaders with dignity and colour instead of creating a one-dimensional aura of them and uses her creativity to question every act of daily barbarity as well as to raise funds for the education of women from the SC, ST and OBC communities.
Her series on ‘Caste and Food’ has brought out what has been always been kept hidden by the so-called upper caste communities — the multitudinous ways in which caste and gender affect what one eats. Every time she names an ingredient for the recipe and follows it up with “if it is available”, it strikes us that the structurally marginalised communities of the country cook like this, that most of the country looks like this.
On social media, men from the marginalised communities have hitherto dominated the anti-caste conversation and relegated women to the margins and almost never has food formed a part of their conversations, evidence of their own sexist biases. Most of these men never speak about the domestic violence, sexual harassment, and dowry brutalities exhibited by men from oppressed communities. However, TheBigFatBao does. She also articulates the ways in which women from the marginalised communities have it tougher in the context of food — serving everyone and eating the remnants of food at last.
Born into an inter-caste conjugal union, TheBigFatBao has experienced life at sites of conflict and confabulations, and her art confronts while creating and yet manages to create in emancipation.
Currently, she is pursuing her second Master’s degree — an M.Sc in Design Research from Bauhaus, Dessau (Germany), and also works as a freelance artist.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
Ankita: Food illustrations and writing in India have hitherto been gatekept by the upper-caste, upper-class aesthetics and characterisations where even opening a recipe book makes individuals from the SC, ST, OBC communities feel alienated. Your enlightening Dalit food series has initiated and established a discussion on the food culture of the oppressed. What was your thought process behind commencing it?
TheBigFatBao: I pushed myself to consciously make notes of trends, patterns and aesthetics of social media visuals during the first lockdown. This was the time when Instagram was flooded with food content consisting of fancy cakes and dishes that upper-caste people were uploading almost on a daily basis. It suddenly seemed like UC Indians realised that food is an integral part of their lives. Every UC urban Instagram user began emphasising on “Ma/didi ke haath ka khana” (didi here referring to domestic worker/cook). However, the didi’s caste is never spoken about.
Truth be told, the minimalist, sparkly clean aesthetics have always been a part of cooking videos and cookbooks. Personally, for me, the sense of feeling lost was overwhelming in all this. While the whole world experimented with cakes and pasta, I was trying to simply cook regular food that I grew up eating. And while doing so, the knowledge that my mother passed on to me involved anecdotes and essential cooking lessons which are not a part of cookbooks and shows. Illustrating these foods came much later on during the second wave when I thought I should keep a visual record of these foods in addition to my notes and journal entries. They are a reminder of how messy and chaotic the entire process of cooking actually is.
Ankita: The recipe books written by upper caste individuals list down pages inundated with ingredients with the pre-conceived notion that everything is available and in abundance. Your captions name the ingredient and follow it up with — “if it is available”. What do you believe upper castes need to reflect on when they read this?
TheBigFatBao: This is a very important question. The fact that our food habits come from a place of necessity more than aesthetics and nutrition cannot be ignored. Listing down numerous ingredients only reflects that the person who created the dish comes from a highly privileged position in society where they have easy access to these ingredients. It ignores social and ecological aspects entirely. In fact, there are some people who go on to say that if you can’t afford to cook, then you should probably starve. Oftentimes, the list of ingredients is really long and the items listed are extremely expensive. Some of these ingredients have to travel the world before they reach the kitchen (eg. avocados or pine nuts). The capitalist approach to cooking and nutrition should be critically analysed and I think it is high time the focus of chefs and cooks shifts towards ecology, community nutrition, and well-being: ‘Namak swad anusaar, aur privilege Jaat anusaar’ (salt as per taste and privilege as per caste).
Ankita: Your writings have derived their strength and self-analysis from the revolutionary works of female Shudra and Dalit writers such as Savitribai Phule, Urmila Pawar and Baby Kamble. In their works, especially those of the 20th century, there are extensive experiences related to food. How do you think this guided you to envision your series and re-reflect on your past and your present?
TheBigFatBao: I grew up reading books like Majhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha and Anthaspot. I have seen my mother and Ajji (maternal grandmother) say the exact same things and experience untouchability at the site of food that Babytai or Urmila Pawar talk about in their books. These are shared lived experiences of women from oppressed communities.
My brain cannot process that my mother has now become a vegetarian after so many years. When I was a child, she used to thoroughly enjoy crab curry with rice and raw onion. How and why did this change happen? The answer is brahminical patriarchy. All I had to do was trace back events and instances that shook me (and in all likelihood traumatised my mother) and connect the dots. These books and my experiences are a reflection of how the world has consistently ignored food as an essential site of oppression and shame. These women were immensely brave to have written down their experiences and consequently face a lot of backlash for it as well.
Ankita: The experiences with regard to food within the same community vary considerably between men and women with most communities and families in India still having the patriarchal practice of women having to arrange and cook the food and of men eating first and eating the best of whatever is available and women eating at last and eating the leftovers. While the marginalised communities have always had scant resources, women have had it more gruesome throughout. How do you think this changes the way you look at, as well as eat and experience food?
TheBigFatBao: For me, food and the spaces it interacts with are always personal and political. I too have witnessed this patriarchy where my mother and aunts would work all the time in the kitchen during family gatherings and make sure the men and children eat first and belly-full. It angered me then, it angers me even now. Food has always been used as a weapon to control and oppress people. I don’t think of food as a unifying factor or a love language at all. If anything, it is a site of discrimination. It is very easy for people to talk about ingredients and recipes without even thinking for a second if things are affordable and available or not. The burden of cooking, feeding, and providing as much nutrition as possible almost always falls on women. This is coupled with the problem of domestic violence. Food or the lack of it reflects on the black and blue scars that many women are adept at hiding because their husband/father comes home drunk and expects food to be served and well-prepared.
Ankita: To date, artists from the upper-caste communities across different Indian regions have erroneously projected their food culture as the default food identity. Why do you think that the strata of the country comprising only 15-20 per cent of the population considers themselves to be the default?
TheBigFatBao: This is a result of brahminical hegemony. There is no other explanation. In fact, when I newly moved to Germany, some people I spoke to were quite shocked when I told them that India is one of the biggest exporters of beef in the world and that we are not a homogenised population that eats only plant-based food. People abroad find the concept of labelling food as vegetarian and non-vegetarian strange because for them everything that is eaten is simply food. There is no concept of untouchability when it comes to food here. This 15-odd per cent of upper-caste people have, for years now, have mostly fabricated a different version of our homeland to the rest of the world. However, I pity them, because I honestly don’t think they realise it since their relationship with the earth itself comes from a place of wanting to own and exploit it.
Ankita: While cis men from the marginalised communities have gender privilege within the communities, that is lesser family pressure to marry, safety within the community, or an easy and supportive environment extended by in-laws, women have the more challenging ordeals to overcome. Devastating as it is to resist discrimination from both outside the community as well as inside the house, the art created by women and marginalised genders then has deeper manifestations and striking revelations. How do you think your gender alongside your caste identity has impacted your art?
TheBigFatBao: There is no acceptance. The people from within the community have very conveniently erased my caste identity because I am not a “pure Dalit”. A large part of me feels lost, unaccepted and isolated. However, since I’ve been rejected from both communities because of my mother’s caste and my birth as a girl child in an inter-caste family unit, I have reached a point in life where nothing else matters except work. I just want to draw all the women and people belonging to marginalised gender identities who may seem insignificant to others but for me, they mean a lot. I pay attention to the fact that these people are much more than the work that defines them. They were or are breathing, living, laughing people and in doing so they have challenged society. That is what inspires me to keep working.
Ankita: Amidst the pandemic, social media has emerged as a place where people are having debates and discussions across umpteen topics. You have added to the caste conversation on multiple levels. This also brings hate and controversies from within as well as outside the communities by individuals who have opposite and at times sexist opinions. How do you deal with the repercussions of the reactions given by others over the expression of your own emancipated self?
TheBigFatBao: It took a severe toll on my mental health. From insomnia to sleep panic attacks, the hatred has scarred me. I don’t think this projection of hatred will stop anytime soon because it’s like a cycle. Trauma passes on from one person to another until someone decides to consciously take a step back and reflect. I am dealing with all of this hatred by reading books by African and African-American women and people from marginalised gender identities in addition to reading books by DBA women writers. It is important for us to learn from other cultures and movements what’s best in order to help take the movement forward. Even Babasaheb believed that society is a reflection of how the women in it are treated.
Ankita: From school to college hostels, people from different upper-caste communities carry their own biases about food. How did this affect or help you reflect and resist your ideas and experience about food?
TheBigFatBao: I have always hated the fact that institutions across the country whether private or public, mostly serve vegetarian food. Memories of being shamed for cheap plastic tiffin boxes or “smelly” food still prick me sometimes. One aspect of food is shaming while the other is institutional casteism. The former is quick and traumatising while the latter is slow, steady, and works in sync with other institutions that are oppressive. I think that over the years, these biases, the shame and discrimination have made me more aware of my feelings and reactions/responses. Daily reflection helps me assert my food habits and overcome the feeling of shame.
Ankita: Revolutionary anti-caste reformers from the Shudra and Dalit communities like Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule, Mahatma Jotirao Phule, EVR Periyar and Dr Ambedkar have encouraged exogamy and inter-caste marriages and Shudra reformers like Savitribai Phule and Jotirao Phule celebrated Satyashodhak marriages. You grew up at the intersection of an inter-caste marriage where your mother exercised her individual agency to marry outside the societally imposed directions of endogamy. This position has given you the space to experience, observe and comprehend how caste confluences with food in the two communities as well as at the convergence of both of the communities. Consequently, are there any childhood memories that sparked this online series?
TheBigFatBao: Oh! This is a brilliant question. Before I answer it, I have a small message for all the children in inter-caste family units out there. If you are reading this, remember you are not alone. You have the right to pick the side that demands justice and the abolition of untouchability. Our ancestors fought for us and we have that right to choose which caste we want to belong to. We are the product of the dream that the Phule’s and Babasaheb envisioned. It is our responsibility to fight for justice.
There are so many memories that I have recounted and relived whenever I work on this series. (The Caste and Food series is ongoing) It was like a dormant volcano that suddenly erupted in the form of this series where all my emotions and memories related to food just burst. My father would always shame my mother and her whole family for eating meat and spicy food. Being the only upper-caste son-in-law in my mother’s family, he was treated with so much respect and love that the whole family would go to extra lengths just to prepare vegetarian meals, especially for him. I honestly think that this special treatment came not from a place of respect but from fear. Fear that he may cause harm to my mother or me afterwards.
Ankita: In the narratives written by the upper-caste pens, women from the SC community are either tied to victimhood or are pedestalised around their resistance. This narrative burdens the SC women to combat oppression instead of urging the oppressors to stop oppressing and further providing reparations. Meanwhile, your art has a humanised reflection of SC women. How do you look at your self-expression?
TheBigFatBao: We are humans and a minuscule part of nature. Drawing these wonderful people just as they are or were is more important for me than the romanticism that is built around them. We are all ordinary women with some connection to nature and in living every single day, we are challenging society. I think I’m still learning how to be expressive and articulate. Whenever I draw people from marginalised communities, my perspective is that of simplicity. I guess this comes from a place where the individual is more important to me than their achievements. For me capturing Kadubai in her element with her infectious smile or Divya wearing her watch with the blue dial is where the art is.
Ankita: The documentation done by caste writers, activists and social scientists tend to look at the food of the SC community through data, be it of malnutrition or of shorter lifespans — that is the gaze is from the outside and does not self-reflect on how upper-castes cause these effects on SC bodies. You bring stories from within SC kitchens and express them outward. Your experiences while unique to the audience might also be alienating for you at times; amidst the online spaces. Does this make you conscious or confident?
TheBigFatBao: I was very scared to talk online about the subject of caste, food, gender, kitchen and cooking firstly because I don’t have an academic background. I honestly didn’t have the courage to talk on a topic where I’m no food and nutrition expert. However, I don’t really have anything to lose by talking about my experiences and observations and somewhere I think that’s what pushed me to post the series on social media. As time passed and many people from within the community reached out to me saying how much they related to the posts, it did give me a tiny ray of hope.
Ankita: Even throughout anti-caste history, men have been documented extensively by men and the trials and achievements of women have been relegated to the margins, which means that a major chunk of our past is not present with us today. Do you feel that more women from the SC, ST and OBC communities need to document themselves and their history not only as archives but also as reminders to move forward and to not leave behind what brought us here?
TheBigFatBao: Yes. And we must do this documentation in all possible ways whether written, oral or visual. We must speak and every single one of us must speak. Not only will this serve the purpose of documentation, but it will also pose a significant challenge to academia where the perception that only written articulation matters. When more women and marginalized genders from SC, ST, and OBC communities will speak, and document their histories and life journeys, there will be a change in the way the world perceives education, learning, and documentation. In fact, this will challenge patriarchy in all fields. The fact that some voices are getting louder is perceived as a threat by men both from within the community and outside. But we must not stop raising our voices.
Ankita: While mainstream media, as well as men, tend to engage with SC houses only through data across myriad domains or through cis-het male narratives, you have explored SC kitchens through oneness and empathy, uncovering and contextualising every facet. Was this a conscious endeavour to engage with the all-encompassing identities of the kitchens or do you believe that as a woman you naturally look and interact with women from the community in a more complete manner?
TheBigFatBao: Food is as important for us as it is for any other species. However, it is only humans who assign discriminatory gender roles to food and nutrition. I think it comes naturally for me to look at things from a tender, loving, and holistic perspective. I may not be able to articulate most of the time, but then again I don’t see how articulation is more important than the emotional bonding I share with people from the community. We all know that everything in nature is interlinked and connected and we are a part of it. So even when it comes to the kitchen, our emotions, identity, environment, climate crisis, oppression, and health play an important role. Thinking in boxes and isolating any of these facets will not accomplish anything. That is a very Brahminical and Eurocentric way of learning and living life. I think we can truly experience happiness, health and love when food becomes a site of sharing, community building, and respect.
FII thanks TheBigFatBao for their time. You can follow them on Instagram.