Saturday, February 23, 2013

Social Imaginations of Parottas Through Tattukadas

(photo by Abul Kalam Azad)

Once, in my To My Children Series I wrote about the handwriting of revolution. There I observed, ‘revolution has only one hand writing; that of letters written by unknown hands, using coconut stem as brush and cheap red ink on newsprint paper. These posters appear all of a sudden on public walls. They announce that the revolution is round the corner, so wake up and join. The arrival of flex boards and digital printing has changed the handwriting of revolution also. Now, revolution has readymade templates and innumerable font choices from a Microsoft word format. But the food and taste of revolution has not yet changed, especially in the context of Kerala. A photography series by Abul Kalam Azad reiterates my belief. Revolutionaries in Kerala still eat from Tattukadas, makeshift eateries that become active by evening and do brisk business late into the night.

(Tattukada by Abul Kalam Azad)

How do you say that all those people who eat from these Tattukadas are revolutionaries? To find an answer one should enquire about those people who eat from these makeshift and cheap food joints. For the sake of understanding let me categorize them in a pyramidic structure. Starting from the base: Manual laborers who go back to their camps after a day’s hard works, 2. Students living in hostel or paying guest accommodations, 3. People who happen to come to the place at odd times by bus or train and have not enough money to eat from a decent hotel, 4. Political activists who choose to work at night, 5. People who wait to catch a late night bus or train, 6. Those attendants of ill people who are admitted in hospitals, 7. Those people come after seeing a first or second show of films, 8. Policemen who are on night duty, 9. Outstation office employees living in lodges, 10. People who do not have a place to stay, 11. People who live in hotels but do not have enough to spare on costly food, 12. People coming out of bars and liquor shops, 13. Sex workers, 14. Local thugs, 15. Young people who just want to enjoy a different taste. 16. Journalists, 17. Editors, 18. Members of Legislative Assembly, 19. Professionals like Doctors, Engineers, IT Executives and so on, 20. Those people who come to collect food for the people mentioned in 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20 points. Artists, film makers, film workers, poets and writers could be included in any of those early categories.

(Making of Tattudosa- by Abul Kalam Azad)

These Tattukadas provide you with cheap and taste food. The early incarnations of Tattukada were simple in format. They used to serve dosas, masala dosas, idlis, chutney and sambar. They sold only these items because they could sell them in the cheapest of prices as most of the patrons were from working class. They did some value additions as time progressed; they added a few varieties of vadas and omelets. Dosas got the name Tattudosas because they were small in size therefore affordable in price. A really hungry one could eat four to six dosas according to their pocket. Then came the greatest revolution in the Tattukadas. Poultry farms were set up in different parts of Kerala and chicken corners were started. Tattukadas started selling chicken in various forms. Beef as a staple non vegetarian food of Keralites, gave enough competition to chicken. And to supplement it Parotta came into the picture. Before I go into the story of parottas, let me tell you how these Tattukadas are revolutionary in nature. Except the ones who come to eat from these joints rest of the patrons are always disgruntled people. They are made to eat from there because of certain social imbalances though it catered to a different sort of economy and financial stability to those poor families who run these shops. A person with a sense of social imbalance and his victimhood, naturally thinks about revolutionary ideas at least when he digs his fingers into these tattudosas and parottas.

(Parottas - photograph by Abul Kalam Azad)

Parotta had a religious identity and Tattukadas in a great way transcended it. Parotta was a food item mostly made, sold and eaten by Muslim communities in Northern Kerala. Tattukadas made it popular amongst the non-Muslim communities. There are certain sociological reasons for adopting parotta as the ‘coolest’ food item at least by the youngsters in Kerala. The story starts somewhere in mid 1980s. Kerala’s film heroes were basically chocolate heroes. They loved and fought. Their fights were a comical relief (when seen in retrospect) in the main narrative of the film than really convincing fight of today’s films. A few macho actors were there in the mainstream Kerala films but they too were subsumed by the majoritarian aesthetics of their times (Satyan, Madhu, Sudheer). Jayan’s arrival as an angry young man was pivotal. An ex-Merchant Navy officer, Jayan ruled Malayalm film industry for almost ten years changing the physical topography of the viewers’ imagination about their own bodies. Most of the Malayalis were mal-nourished with no muscled bodies to boast off. The upper class/caste male symbols were Pot Belly, Bullet mark and hair on the body (Ref.Vengayil Kunjiraman Nayanar). But the general feel about macho male was romantic, dreamy and slightly effeminate who became ‘male’ only when his love interest was attacked by the brutal forces (interestingly as exemplified the people with upper class/caste marks).

(Chocolate hero of yester years in Malayalam film industry- Prem Nazir)

Jayan came as a working class hero (Sarapanjaram and Angadi), who could speak English. He had an exercised body with toned muscles. One shot from Sarapanjaram shows him massaging a horse. The camera zooms in and gives a tight shot of his wing and pectoral muscles moving. The camera, interestingly shows the gaze of the upper class/caste woman who desires him. The gaze ends up in their sexual union. Jayan changed the mindset of the cinema going youth. They started doing exercises. Gyms started springing up all over. But with no staple diet in place, the youth were on a look out for appropriate supplementary food. The sudden eruption of poultry farms and chicken centers in Kerala should be seen in this context. To go with beef and chicken, Parotta was the right kind of food item. Parotta, a flattened layered and tawa fried bread made out of maida flour became a rage. It started in small restaurants and travelled into the menu of Tattukadas. So for the Tattukadas, it was a necessary reinvention of their own business pattern and they were forced to sell chicken, beef, fish and parotta in a subsidized price than the price of the small restaurants and hotels. Simultaneously omelet centers also sprang up in Kerala.

(the angry young man of 1970s early 80s of Malayalm film - Jayan)

(Making of Parottas- by Abul Kalam Azad)

Today Parotta is on a spot. Parotta is made out of maida which is the finest residue of wheat flour, which has no nutritional value. I quote from Wikipedia: Maida is a finely milled and refined and bleached (using chemical bleach) wheat flour, closely resembling cake flour, and used extensively in making Indian fast food, bakery products such as pastries and bread, varieties of sweets and sometimes in making traditional Indian breads such as Parath and naan. It is made from the endosperm (starchy white part) of the grain, while the fibrous bran is removed in the mill. Originally yellowish in colour, maida is popular in a white colour, bleached with benzoyl peroxide, which is banned in China and the European Union including the UK.

Sociologists, health experts and nutritionists say that the rising diabetics rate in Kerala is caused by the over use of maida flour. However, parotta still rules the menus of both restaurants and tattukadas. The post Jayan generation of Malayalis faced an identity crisis regarding their physical appearance when the Mohanlal-Mammotty rose into prominence by late 1980s. While Mammootty represented the macho male body by playing die hard Police officers’ roles (Yavanika, Oru CBI Dairykurippu, Aavanaazhy), tough hunters and jail birds (Mrugaya, Yathra, Nirakkoottu) and popular mythical characters like Chanthu (Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha), Mohan Lal played the young man who was almost an underdog, a trickster, unjustifiably accused, a broken heart, a singer, a dancer and a fun loving person. Mohan Lal came to the scene with a plump body, a total anti-thesis to Jayan, but showed tremendous flexibility in acting and dancing. Tailor made roles of a loser made him dear to the youngsters of 1980s and 1990s. Rajavinte Makan of late 1980s made him a superstar. But the plump body remained. Mohan Lal never tried to enhance his body by excessive body building regime. Instead the myth was spread that he was an accomplished Kalari practitioner (traditional martial arts from Kerala). Kalari does not give emphasis to the shape of the body, instead it gives emphasis to flexibility. Mohan Lal had that. Besides, his body showed another social aspiration of climbing the social ladders; from lower economic position to a higher one and also from the lower caste/class position to a higher one. Mohan Lal had pot belly, a scar (the emphasis on his skin scar on the back in Panchagni by Hariharan) and bodily hair.

(Mohan Lal)

Let us look at the iconography of Mohan Lal as a cultural figure. His name is Mohan Lal, which is absolutely a Gujarati sounding name. This name itself was desirous amongst the Sunils, Sureshs, Kumars and so on that constituted the cinema going public. Mammootty is a derivative of Muhammad Kutty (which is a pet name as well as Islamic therefore undesirable). No young woman or man would like to have a name like Mammootty had there been no Mammootty as a super star. Imagine a Dr.Mammootty, a marathon runner Mammootty, a Nobel Prize winning writer Mammootty- it just does not gel. In a dominant Hindu society, Mohan Lal and his fair complexion was quite attractive irrespective of caste and class. Mohan Lal has puffed up cheeks, an adorable moustache which almost saying ‘I am sorry’ (later in his macho roles he turns it upwards), a pot belly and a languorous walking style which is often seen amongst the fat people. Once Mohan Lal’s iconographic features became equal to his cinematic success and histrionic abilities, generations of young people wanted to have similar physical features; pot belly, puffed up cheek and languorous walk.

(Thattukada- Abul Kalam Azad)

Parotta played a great role in converting the former Jayans to contemporary Mohan Lals. People started eating parotta and beef not as supplement but as mediums to put on weight. If you see the actors who followed Mohan Lal and became successful like Suresh Gopi, Jayaram, Dileep, Kalabhavan Mani, Kunchakko Boban, Siddique and innumerable television serial actors and mimicry artists, one could see how putting on weight ‘like’ Mohan Lal became a craze in Kerala. Parotta was the way to achieve the Mohan Lal-ness. Tattukadas played a major role in providing the youngsters with their desired food item. Today wherever Malayalis have gone, irrespective of the star category, one could see Malabar Parotta has become an unavoidable item in the food menu. Though a new generation of actors after Prithiviraj, has made efforts to bring a toned body back, the Mohan Lal influence still persists in Kerala society. Tattukadas play a major role in it. In this sense Tattukadas are the places where people create their identities in a revolutionary way; at times this revolution could be against the ills of state or against the ‘ills’ of a healthy regime. Abul Kalam Azad’s photographs have captured the essence of these Tattukadas in his series of photographs without exactly portraying the patrons who throng there by evening to mid night. These photographs capture what constitutes a social desire but in its lowliest forms of culinary experimentations. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These images were taken in Munnar, Kerala. Actually, Ekalokam was conceived during that time - Ekalokam team had met to discuss the possibility of the new venture and ideas were brainstormed... And as the decision to float the new company was made, the team proceeded to create the vision plan... late in the night, whilst we were in the mid of the interesting discussion, we found Abul missing...

The next day when we asked where he had been - he smiled and said 'oh.. I was just here and there...'. this is so much like Abul - suddenly and silently, as if driven by an invisible force, he will vanish and later, will reappear with his new set of images... Hardly do we see him with his camera... the common question asked by those who travel with him is 'hey when did u click that... I was walking with you right?'

'Thattukadas' is the result of one of his 'night trips' and to Ekalokam team it is one of the 'milestone' moment to be remembered.

Thanks Johny ML.