Labour is an intrinsic element of food. Environmentalist Ravi Agarwal recognises it to capture in his photographs
More than knowing culinary nuances of any fine gourmet dish, Ravi Agarwal is rather interested in the ecological and labour cycle a food item has gone through before ending up on a platter. This is expected of an environmentalist like Agarwal, many would say but even when he is examining a “deeply personal ecological relationship between himself and the city” via the medium of photography, the idea doesn't get lost.
Time and again, the issue has found itself on his lens. He has witnessed and at times captured vignettes of the journey, food grains undertake from the neighbouring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab to the biggest grain market of Delhi located in Fatehpuri Masjid, which finally satiates the appetite of this bustling metropolis.
“We forget that there is an element of labour in food when we see culinary food,” says Agarwal appreciating the tangy yet smoothing flavour of Solkadi, a beverage that has been derived from coccum, a berry of scarlet oak at Seven, the Pan-Indian restaurant in The Suryaa. The founder of Toxics Link, an NGO that takes up issues of ecology and waste, holds unawareness of the city's dwellers responsible for today's ecological crisis.
The activist adds, “The urban population doesn't know where the food is coming from. People in the U.S. people waste so much food because of this reason.” Agarwal has, in fact, showcased a few samples from his work on labourers at Labour Museum in Amsterdam.
Next on offer for the vegetarian is thupka with veg massu momos and tandoori bahar, cottage cheese rolls with malai broccoli, exotic vegetable and fig filled potato. “Usually you have a roll and that's the end of your meal because it's so heavy. It's not in this case. It's fluffy and light and I can taste the basic flavours,” says Agarwal.
The photographer hails from the town of Nawalgarh in Marwar, a region in Rajasthan which is known for its distinctive food tradition. “It's very simple and non-spicy. We have very few arid weather crops like bajra, kakdi etc. I remember visiting the town as a child and bajre ki roti, badi mirch ka achaar, fresh dahi used to be the staple food,” recalls Agarwal.
Seeing nature at such close quarters is also probably one of the reasons that made Agarwal sensitive to the environmental issues. He tells us how he keeps turning to some spaces that he relates to in the city. In the ongoing exhibition titled ‘Flux' showcasing more than 50 photographs and a video at Gallery Espace, Agarwal looks at the city experiencing rapid transformation through machines, flyovers, sewage ponds and forest spaces.
“I am interested in the relationship between self and the world. Photograph is not a document. It is a transitory moment and it is not an act outside,” expresses the lensman, who has also participated in the prestigious art show, Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany in 2002.
The river Yamuna, one of Agarwal's favourite spaces in the city, occurs in his pictures once more. The six photographs, called ‘After the Flood', show a dried up river bed. His pet subject of labour and industrial machines comes up yet again in ‘Tar Machines', which is an installation of 16 photographs whereas in ‘Sewage Pond' he has captured collected sewage coming from Vasant Kunj but looks like a beautiful forest swamp.
In the main course, though subz diwani handi, selected vegetables cooked in an enclosed vessel served with missi roti and pulyiogra, a spicy rice preparation with tamarind also manage to work their magic on the guest, Agarwal is particularly delighted with the unusual flavour of dhuli urad ki awadhi dal which he describes as “neither as bland as khichdi and nor as spicy as dal”. And as if saving the best for the last, Chef Devraj Halder serves up the divine rasmalai-mascarpone cheese cake leaving Agarwal spellbound.