Now Reading
Hand to Mouth: Pushpamala N’s (In)edible Nationalisms and Corporeal Performance – An Excerpt

Hand to Mouth: Pushpamala N’s (In)edible Nationalisms and Corporeal Performance – An Excerpt

Motherland: Pushpamala N.’s Woman And Nation is an interdisciplinary scholarly catalogue that examines Motherland, an important series of photo-performances by the acclaimed artist Pushpamala N. on the Indian nation personified as woman, mother, and goddess. The series shows Pushpamala taking on Mother India’s myriad personifications: nubile beauty and saintly renunciant; militant goddess wearing a garland of skulls or receiving the ultimate sacrifice of a warrior’s head; the mothersurgeon activating the birth of model citizens; and destitute widow, bent from years of abject labor. As she does so, she reveals that nations are invented, as are national embodiments. The artist’s burden is to reveal the ingredients of such inventions. Given below is an excerpt from the essay ‘Hand to Mouth: Pushpamala N’s (In)edible Nationalisms and Corporeal Performance’ by Sharanya.

‘Yet rather than remain out of sight and
contained within the domestic realm, Mother
India is all too visible and conspicuous as the
artistic labours of visual patriotism render her
as a public woman for all to behold and revere.’
—Sumathi Ramaswamy1

Mother India, Bharat Mata, stands glittering behind a kitchen counter in an outdoor space. She wears round glasses, a golden crown, and a garland of pink flowers. It is January 2018, and the Hyderabad Literary Festival is ongoing. The stove is lit, every ingredient is in its place, with all four of Bharat Mata’s arms engaged in work, simultaneously domestic and national in nature. Two of her (papier-mâché) arms hold a small Indian flag each, while her other two (human) arms adjust the food processor and stir a pot on the stove.2 A crowd of onlookers gathers and watches her cook, alert, although I am not present myself. For 45 minutes, she prepares food with the professional calm of a cooking show pedagogue; she uses the mixie, the gas stove, the pressure cooker. The oil sputters, the spices crackle, the labour of cooking is hypervisible. She is making saaru, a coconut-based rasam. Its deep red matches the colour of her sari, and the gas cylinder next to her. Mother India’s hands stay busy, immersed in the red of labour and blood—when she isn’t making saaru, she is on a stage, knitting something red, as in the Motherland performance (2010). But not just any saaru, she is making Gauri Lankesh’s urgent saaru. When the saaru is ready, it is served out, with cutlery, in leaf cups to the crowd, who dig in (Fig. 8.1/feature image – Fig 8.1 Pushpamala N. Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru Live cooking performance at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2018, in memory of the assassinated journalist; Photographer: Akil Photo Credit: Hyderabad Literary Festival 2018).

Fig. 8.2 Pushpamala N. From Motherland: A Performance by Pushpamala N. and Mamta Sagar 2012; Khojlive Performance Festival, Blue Frog, Delhi; Courtesy Khoj

Mother India is one of many personae comprising the repertoire of Pushpamala N. (Fig. 8.2). The recipe for the hilariously titled dish “urgent saaru” was passed on to the visual and performance artist by her friend Gauri Lankesh, the late Bangalore-based journalist who was a strident voice opposing majoritarian Hindutva violence. In realizing the recipe for an audience of strangers, Pushpamala is in part responding to the right-wing rhetoric that labelled Lankesh “anti-national” for her political writing, and she is also materializing the affect of memory, and remembrance, for national consumption. The gesture is, all at once, tender and ironic. The saaru is urgent in the way that an Indian snack is urgent, quick, ready at hand, but it is also urgent in its indexing of a democratic crisis in contemporary India by invoking the journalist who recognized this. “Food, and all that is associated with it, is already larger than life. It is already highly charged with meaning and affect,” notes Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “It is already performative and theatrical. An art of the concrete, food, like performance, is alive, ‘fugitive’ and sensory.”3 The term “fugitive” is potent here, in the situation where Mother India performs her sovereign duties to Indian citizens by feeding a crowd of them, evoking a Benjaminian notion of material justice.4 She feeds them urgent saaru, created from the recipe of a woman who was a target of assassins, fugitive now in the memory of her recipe and its performed evocations, in a way she was not while alive.

This playful elision of presence/absence, tangible/temporary, mimesis/archetype and other such binary dimensions is a constant feature in Pushpamala N.’s work. It also translates to form as Pushpamala is a poignant practitioner of the photo-performance format, which collapses the stasis of photography into a dynamic, corporeal exploration of images (see also Editors’ Introduction in this volume). Even where she creates live art, the performance resonates as image, as the embodiment of a personality: when we think of Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru, we remember Mother India dishing up a meal. Her four hands feed mouths where feeding is a matter of urgency in the subcontinent. In the 2010 performance Motherland with poet Mamta Sagar centred on the work and life of the Kannadiga writer and nationalist, Nanjangud Thirumalamba, Pushpamala essayed the role of a now-familiar industrious Bharat Mata, knitting something red, seated on a chair, in front of a grand painted backdrop, invoking the French tricoteuse, who underscores how militancy is inveigled with an otherwise feminized act of care.5 In 2014, Pushpamala performed a live art piece for the Nirankusha Fearless Speak Festival, Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, where a man bandaged her from head to toe, as she stood in front of an audience, turning into a mummy-like figure.

In all of these instances of performance art, Pushpamala inscribes the political body as one that is labouring and belaboured, by foregrounding the inscription of politics through—and as—gendered corporeality (see also Ramaswamy in this volume). Even in her fictitious interviews as her alter-ego N. Rajyalakshmi, who interviews either Pushpamala the artist, or her other persona Phantom Lady, the interview is both embodied performance and its documented trace. The gendered movement between a still image and the liveliness of the artist body that is subsequently imaged, is inhabited in the silent, hardworking performance personae that Pushpamala manifests, such as a knitting Bharat Mata, or Bharat Mata as a working chef, or a silenced, mummified woman. Her physical embodiment of Bharat Mata is, much like her ethnographic images and other photo-performances, a stilting of expectations: she does not play any character “straight”, always skewing the illusion of seamless representation of the Other, or, in the case of her alter-ego, even the self, or even, as Marta Jakimowicz identifies as an interest of Pushpamala’s, “the self as subject and object of art seen layering on it of other identities—true and pretended.”6 Her Bharat Mata holds herself in a dignified, intentional way, entering any scene with a slow walk, but engaging herself in work that is quirky and humorous, jesting in tone and execution. Demonstrating a task to the public as Mother India does require levity, after all, the figure seems to imply, behind her glasses.

Destroyed too, to great effect as a result, is the apparition of invisible labour. Pushpamala’s personae are women who work, and visibly so; they work to cook, they commemorate, they knit, they protest as their bodies are (literally) tied up. In the Urgent Saaru event, performed by Bharat Mata in her savarna corporeality, we are provoked to think that the kitchen is a macrocosm of the nation, hued with all its cultural tensions, regulations and erasures (Fig. 8.3).

Fig. 8.3 Pushpamala N. Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru Live cooking performance at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2018 in memory of the assassinated journalist; Photographer: Akil; Photo Credit: Hyderabad Literary Festival 2018

In the Bharat Mata performances, there is evidence of nationally-charged material, commodity or indeed detritus from the corporeal work afterwards, as saaru (that is ingested), or the red knitted mass (that Bharat Mata takes with her, and continues to add to, knitting “the history of India”).7 Mother India may take a break from her work, but she leaves behind tangible reminders of the work of the nation-state project long after the performances are completed. These rem(a)inders are powerful, ask their own questions from disappearance and digestion. Whose flesh and blood are sacrificed to keep the mythical boundaries of the nation-state intact? Which hands etch the memory of such a sacrifice on to our daily plates? How many citizens are knitted in and out of nation-making projects without their consent, and how many others participate willingly, mouths ajar? Who is allowed to be a visible representative of the nation-as-kitchen?


1 Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 75.
2 I use the terms “work” and “labour” in this essay as related but distinct, after Marx: work is a stage of the labour process, but labour itself transforms material into commodity through work, and can be waged or unwaged. I use labour in this essay particularly to draw attention to gendered and frequently exploitative forms of unpaid labour, such as household cooking and reproduction, often done by women who are underclassed and caste-oppressed, working as domestic help.
3 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium,” Performance Research 4, no. 1 (1999): 1.
4 “For it is only in company that eating is done justice; food must be divided and distributed if it is to be well received. No matter by whom: formerly a beggar at the table enriched each banquet. The splitting up and giving are all-important, not sociable conversation,” writes Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 2006 [1997]), p. 91.
5 My gratitude to Monica Juneja for illuminating this.
6 Marta Jakimowicz, “The Self Versus the Self-Images and the Cliché,” Pushpamala N: Indian Lady (Bose Pacia: New York, 2004).
7 Pushpamala shares the knitting of Indian history detail in our email exchange on 26 July 2020, adding that “knitting image reminded [her] of those stories of the women knitting the names of the guillotined aristocrats in the French Revolution. The red brings up that bloody image.”

See Also

ISBN: 9789392130113

Format: Hardback

Publisher: Roli Books

Year of Publishing: 2022

Price: INR 1495

What's Your Reaction?
In Love with this Piece
Makes me think!
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2021 Articulate. All Rights Reserved.

Scroll To Top