Recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the big question of what art is. Was there a universal answer to this question? Was there one undeniable truth? Some say that art is not about truth, it’s about expression and beauty. To others, it’s a “source of calm in a chaotic world“. There is no shortage of elaborate opinion pieces written by highly educated people. However, many seem to come to the same conclusion that art should evoke an emotional response.
The reason for my random Google search was the feeling of admiration that I had while I was observing a group of cooks in a restaurant in Bangalore. They were executing their assigned tasks so swiftly and with such ease that I wasn’t able to take my eyes off of them. One person would pluck palm-sized pieces of dough from a big pile, roll them into little balls and neatly arrange them as though they were tiny terracotta statues. The next person would take the dough balls, flatten them and shove them into an oven where they would come out a minute later as crispy chapatis. Every task performed behind the kitchen counter had its own rhythm as if the employees were musicians in an orchestra, where no one would dare to interrupt the symphony. And I was completely and utterly mesmerized. I assume that someone would perhaps get a similar emotional response from a painting in an art gallery, a presentation of a play, or a recitation of a poem.
I consider these seemingly menial tasks as works of art and the ones behind the counter as artists; perhaps not art and artist in the traditional sense, but their very own kind of art and artist. It is a subtle kind of art form, indeed, but due to its subtlety one that often doesn’t get the attention and admiration it deserves. Cooking is, of course, a prestigious art form and highly skilled chefs are seen as masters of their art or, more fittingly, maestros. Yet, in my opinion, we shouldn’t take the “subtle artists” for granted, only because they are not as renowned and distinguished as Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey, for example.
But in all honesty, I also can’t shake this nagging feeling that I’m completely wrong about all of this. It is easy for me to romanticize the whole matter and call this person an artist or that person an artist, disregarding the fact that it may not even matter. Chances are he won’t be seeing himself as one anyway. Chances are it’s just a job for him; one that may not even satisfy him, but one that puts his family through a tough life. How can you think of something like art when your main concerns are all about bringing food to the table, putting a roof over your head and keeping everyone warm at night? Not everyone is fortunate enough to be in the position that I am in. One in which I can ponder for hours and lose myself in my own thoughts, all the while staying ignorant to the people who can’t afford this luxury. It is easy for me to say. It is easy for me to be in this position.
I’m aware that I sound a little all over the place here, which is why I’ve been holding back on publishing this post for many weeks. There was the aforementioned inner conflict between my naïve love for the arts and the harsh realities of life in places like India. I wanted to focus solely on the former, but couldn’t bear to ignore the latter. My helplessly optimistic nature is always hopeful that there are people out there, in India and everywhere else, who are able to deal with their difficult conditions with the help of a job that they truly love, regardless of the prestige that comes with it or not. The ones who can count themselves amongst the few who manage to earn a decent living off of their vocation.
When you can work together with the people you care about and share something of your work with friends and strangers alike – that’s happiness.