If you’re a woman in the Dharavi area of Mumbai, India, you’re expected to be homebound — leaving the house only to do chores and ferry children to and from school. Through recipes and personal stories, The Indecisive Chicken, a book by art historian Prajna Desai, celebrates the contributions women make to Indian art and society by preparing food for their families.
What was it that compelled you to engage these women, their food, and their stories?
To begin at the start is to start with the Biennale. My project was one of over 30 in the Biennale, which installed its projects during an exhibition called Alley Galli Biennale in Dharavi from February 15th – March 7th, 2015. A number of women came in and out of the workshops. It was agreed at the start that anyone who wanted to be in the book would have to commit to attending every single session, contributing recipes, and cooking them in front of the group.
Those who were most inspired to share their stories and their food, those who were most intrigued by the idea of workshops in which they were being asked to play the lead, rather than the usual format of being taught, were the ones who ended up being in the book.
The Indecisive Chicken is an intriguing book title. What’s the story behind it?
The phrase popped out of the blue, at the very start of the project. It was the orientation day of the Dharavi Food Project in June, 2014. About thirty women were assembled.
To break the ice, I started with introductions. I asked the women about their food preferences. Why did they cook what they did at home?
It was at this point that one woman piped up. She said she didn’t cook chicken because her husband didn’t eat it. Why? Apparently he thinks the chicken is a stupid bird. They’re indecisive. You can tell by the way they run around madly when they’re set free in a yard. That’s what she said he said. No one seemed to believe her — that this was why her husband didn’t eat chicken. Yet she insisted on it, until she was no longer able to.
The truth was that her husband simply didn’t like the taste of chicken.
I was struck by her thinking. To be honest, I found it remarkable. On a poetic level, I thought of it as an allegory of the way certain people justify why they eat certain foods and avoid others.
Her words continued to haunt me (in a good way), and I decided they would make the most apt and witty title for the book.
You talk of the influence women have over culture via the production of food — tell me more about this seemingly quiet yet powerful influence.
Women are supposed to cook because they are female. That’s generally how housewifery plays out in India, even for professional women with a full-time job.
But most of all, what would happen to Indian society if women like the ones in my workshop simply packed up and went on strike one day?
Whereas I started on this project thinking of something more conventional, along the lines of an ethnographic culinary history of Dharavi, the project developed into something far more challenging. Everywhere during the workshops — whether while the women were cooking, and especially when they were struggling to record their recipes, which some found it incredibly hard to do because their daily work is extremely internalized to the extent they don’t think about it as work but as something they must do because they are female — I was always seeking to demolish the stereotype of women as cooks.
How do you take the life history or story that someone has shared and tell a history about labor and beauty through it? How do you read and approach personal recipes as modes of living, or as a personal philosophy? But most of all, what would happen to Indian society if women like the ones in my workshop simply packed up and went on strike one day? India is no country of packed, readymade foods. Everything, and I mean everything, in most Indian kitchens is made from scratch.
Cooking for no pay is not just an art and a beautiful thing. It’s hard labor and work with value.
In a culture such as this, would society begin to take the women who put food on the table seriously if they decided to turn their backs on their apparently God-given role to serve men and the family as kitchen drudges? The book asks these questions and answers them by the rhetorical implications of the questions. Cooking for no pay is not just an art and a beautiful thing. It’s hard labor and work with value. It keeps families together at the cost of what women might otherwise want. But it also nurtures a respect for humble ingredients, local produce, the seasonal, and for preserving complexity within minimum means. It’s a model of how imagination functions, where women perform multiple roles, as chemist, economist, historian, nutritionist, and manager all through this single act of cooking.
At the same time, the complexity of ethnic and cultural differences compacted with such intensity as they are in Dharavi is undeniably unique. There are about 700,000 people speaking more than a dozen languages all within 0.6 square miles — many of whom are from far-flung parts of the country. Dharavi is in the heart of Mumbai interwoven with desperate poverty mixed with 100 percent working class-conditions.
What did you learn from the women featured in The Indecisive Chicken? What about their stories did you find most compelling?
The question of what I learned from the women is a tricky one. I say this because we live in a world of TED talks which have prepped us to be awed and open to be inspired. We’re meant to say that we learned this, that, or the other from certain experiences. This is especially so in a project such as mine, which has an inequality element built into it — a nonprofit organizing a Biennale for people in India’s purportedly biggest slum. People from the outside are understood to go into it to learn something, or discover themselves. The women are understood to emerge from the project “empowered.” I find those dynamics shaky and only interesting if one subscribes to the idea of inequality.
This was a project involving complete strangers who cared to commit their time and effort to produce something most of them (by this, I mean the women) did not imagine would turn out as it did. “The Book” was a clear goal from the start, but when the book was finally out, there was an element of disbelief on their part. For me, that was a revealing moment. If I learned something, it was that people don’t get their hopes up. And maybe that’s because what they frequently want doesn’t turn out the way they want it to be. But they still keep coming back, either because they’re bored, or intrigued, or because they want to be witnessed.
What did the participants get out of the experience?
For most of the women in the Dharavi Food Project, the workshops gave them a good reason to leave the home, homes they are expected to leave only for chores or to drop off and fetch their kids from school. That they made something amazing out of this “excuse” to leave the home is what’s worth talking about.
That they made something amazing out of this ‘excuse’ to leave the home is the fact, as it were, that’s worth talking about.
Their complete confusion at the start stunned me for a while. Most were initially suspicious of someone featuring them in a book. They were also confused that someone would find their recipes interesting enough to include in a publication. I think this says something about the notion of the self and the work that one produces everyday.
Curious women came up to me to say that they weren’t certain that what they do at home, how they cook, what they make, or what they think about the world was anywhere close to being interesting enough to be shared, let alone written about.
Despite these uncertainties, no matter how strong their scepticism, no matter how apprehensive they often were about incurring the displeasure of their husbands who expect them to be homebound, there is also a hunger for art (for making it and having it being witnessed) that trumps everything. This is the richest lesson to be learned from these women in Dharavi. That you don’t have to bear the label of an artist or have that label presented to you by a certain economy of art to know what it means and what it takes to be one.