History of the world through the flavours and tang of spices

History of the world through the flavours and tang of spices

By Bhumika Khatri | | 6 January, 2018
Puppeteer Varun Narain at his Delhi show.

The increasing importance of spices in Indian cuisine, and their medicinal properties are subjects of many academic studies. But Varun Narain has made spices of India feature, possibly for the first time ever, in a serious artistic project. Narain is a puppeteer, and through his new show, he aims to educate and acquaint people with the mystery and magic of spices. 

The show, hosted earlier this week in the national capital, traces the history of human life on earth, from the fixed perspective of plants. Guardian 20 had a chat with Narain this performance and the idea behind it. “I come from a family that loves cooking“, Narain said. “And my mother, Priti Narain, has written a book called The Essential Delhi Cook Book. I imbibed many stories about spices from her.” To “highlight the magic of the plant kingdom” is, according to Narain, the real objective of his puppet show. 

Before doing his postgrad from the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia University, Narain studied botany at Delhi’s Hansraj College, and that may be where his interest in the plant kingdom, as well as the spice kingdom, first developed. 

India’s spices have been associated not just with cuisine, but also with emotions, health, trade and commerce. The lure of spices made the subcontinent one of the most sought after regions in the world, leading historically to trade with the Portuguese and Persian empires, and even with the Dutch and, of course, the British. Every spice that we consume has a history. And Narain’s show, entitled The Conference of the Spices, presents this narrative. The action revolves around life-size puppets, portrayed as spices, that interact with the audiences and recount their stories through dialogue dance and music. These interactions have been scripted—spiced up—to include the unique aspects of particular spices, and are built around tales that are as historical as they are legendary. 

The star of the play is a a puppet named Dr Hara, who is a scientist blessed with the ability to talk to plants. The play has three lead characters/spices, namely garlic, cardamom (a.k.a. Queen of Spices)  and pepper (King of Spices).  Others, like saffron, red chilli, clove, cumin etc. are also part of the main action. The drama draws upon real scientific experiments recorded in a 1973 book entitled The Secret Life of Plants. 

About the theme of the play, Narain said, “It is a fantasy story with facts. It goes into the history of cuisine. Red chilli appears to be very Indian, however it came from South America, then went to Spain, and it came to India only when Vasco da Gama reached Goa. Spices have had interesting journeys, which tell us a lot about human history, too. Pepper has been traditionally used in the West, but there was a point when pepper was only grown in India. In the same way, cumin is indigenous to Greece, but is used a lot more in India now. We usually believe what controls history is man’s greed for power, but it is essentially is man’s greed for flavour. The play looks at these stories in an amusing way and comments on them.”

Besides all this, the play is about science, philosophy and the love of good food in an interconnected world of cross-pollinating cuisines. The show also has a political message, having to do with the contemporary world, marked by anger and ignorance, and weighed down by toxic waste and our ever-expanding carbon footprint. 

At one point in the show, Garlic tells Dr. Hara about how mistaken the human race has been about life in the first place. We think our lives are inside our bodies—but from a plant’s perspective, life is one large ocean which envelopes several different forms including plants and animals, and a change in one aspect directly affects the other. Garlic further goes on to explain about how s/he is actually many genders all in one—similar to many other life forms. Cardamom, on the other hand, has different stories to tell, about the East India Company’s arrival on the Malabar Coast, a journey that was to forever alter the history of the subcontinent. 

“Spices have always lured the human race. The East India Company turned India into one of its colonies and our history tells the rest of that story. Silently watching the trials and tribulations of the human race, spices have many other stories to tell,” said Narain. Each of these stories brings us closer to understanding Garlic’s great lesson—that we are not separate entities, but inter-connected and inter-dependent.  

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