I had just returned home having finished my course in the Film Institute, with preoccupations of what is art, what is cinema, what is aesthetics and whole lot of jazz. Within a week of my return my parents had to go out of town. My mom was reluctant for she was not sure if her son can manage all alone. I said, “I can manage everything,” including cooking into everything. And yeah how many times I had heard about Mani Kaul being a good cook! So a wanna-be Mani better be good at cooking or at least know cooking, I thought!
My parents left leaving the responsibility of the house on me. My responsibility was also on myself which included cooking for myself. And thus began my experiments with cooking.
Chopping of vegetables, grating coconut, ensuring tears doesn’t roll down to the chopped onions- everything started appearing like an art. The whole cooking process I started viewing in three act structure on one day and the next day I started seeing it as three stages of production. Chopping of vegetables invoked theories of montage, metric editing being the aim! All of these interdisciplinary thoughts made cooking fun but not easy. Recreational ways don’t make creation a cake’s walk!
Every day is new in cooking. No matter what you learnt the previous day the experience counts but still it is a fresh start with fresh raw material. Every meal is a new project with new challenges and every time the canvas is blank! That is when I realized: Cooking is an art. In fact art of a high order because it feeds life. Manto in his essay, ‘Why I Write’ writes, “When I am starving- without food and water- I am unable to hold the pen. Though my brain and my mind do function even when I am going hungry I am in no position to hold the pen. If my hands tremble failing to lift the pen at least the voice should be able to take wings from my lips. It is a tragedy that without food and water all of man’s activities are paralyzed.” So yeah all art stands on its leg because there is art of cooking, I came to believe. So cooking is the highest art.
This realization made me extremely humble and come to believe that the greatest art is not cinema or poetry but cooking! I was humbled. I started respecting every person who had cooked for me, more than ever!
But the greatest realization during the experiments came slowly while being a part of the experiment. It was this: the true art in cooking is that one pinch of salt that we add. Yes that is true art! Highest of all arts!
Adding salt, a pinch of salt, cannot be mathematics. It can’t be based on your previous experiences or the accumulated knowledge on cooking. It is pure intuition and if the calculation of your intuition goes wrong then boss there goes your food phussss!! If it is less then it is without taste and if it is more then it is complete waste! One pinch of salt can make or ruin your food.
That is when my mind started thinking of the artistic qualities of salt and the similarities between salt and art. The first thing I remembered was Gandhi’s salt satyagraha. Dude, it was with handful of salt that Gandhi shook an entire empire! When you see how authority and power holders shiver because of some books some films some writers it becomes evident as to how art can shake figures of authority. Just like Gandhi shook an empire with a handful of salt. Gandhi’s salt satyagraha was a nonviolent protest. What is art after all but action without violence.
The choice of salt, by Gandhi for protest, was symbolic. It was because salt is used by nearly everyone in India. An item of daily use can unify and mobilize people from all classes of citizens than an abstract demand for greater political rights, he believed. The result was amazing! Why is it that the state/ authority always fears artists? Because the state/ authority believes that artists mix with every class of people in the society and hence are dangerous.
There was a phase in Kannada films where many films had this one scene of the female protagonist adding salt to tea when some guy would come to “see” her for marriage purposes. The first time I saw something like that I had enjoyed it. But repletion of it in every other film made is loose its taste! But now thinking of it they look like an act of resistance and protest. For many Indian women who enjoyed no liberty or power in public or in house the only place where she could be in control and exercise power was in kitchen. That is where she could show her power and it is through that space that she could rebel, resist and protest. Though in a very stupid way the films captured this! Art is also an exercise of power and a rebel, a resistance and a protest that poses a challenge to the world which has come to subsume all kinds of rebel and thus mend them into worldly ways!
The Danish author Karen Blixen who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen uttered something beautiful: “The cure for anything is salt water- tears, sweat or sea.” How true!! Especially melancholia. When melancholic either cry your gut out or indulge in labour to sweat completely or just go to the sea and listen to the waves! Trust me it has healing powers, like art does. But then the cure is a poetic cure. Plus art, like these salt water, is catharsis, labor, nature/ beauty/ aesthesis!
Life requires salt and also art, I realized in the process of my experiments with cooking. They add taste and without them life is tasteless. But something else is equally important. Love. Kahlil Gibran says that bread baked without love fills only half a man’s hunger. Similarly no art can happen without the involvement of heart. It would become mechanical reproduction! Love is essential. Well isn’t that why Gulzar sahib referred to love as salt in the song, “Namak Ishq Ka,” meaning life has become tasteful ever since I have added the salt of love to the cuisine of life!