Controversies are not new to Kerala State School Kalolsavam, dubbed as Asia’s biggest school-related cultural event, ever since its inception in 1956-57.
The controversies in the past were mostly over judges, lost points, discrimination, and lack of facilities.
The 61st edition of the School Kalolsavam — or art festival — began in Kozhikode on Tuesday, 3 December, after a two-year Covid-enforced hiatus. The five-day event will see 14,000 participants competing in 24 venues set up in the city.
A day after Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated the event saying “art is beyond any religion or caste”, the event got mired in controversy.
The stage for the fresh controversy was not included in the 24 competition venues. It was another venue, Chakkarapandal, set up on Malabar Christian College premises.
Chakkarapandal is the mess where food is served to participants, accompanying parents and teachers, officials and others. It could seat 20,000 people at a time in its 10 counters.
Seventy chefs led by master chef Pazhayidom Mohanan Namboothiri prepare the food that is served by 1,200 teachers working in three shifts from 7 am to 10 pm.
Namboothiri has been in charge of the Kalolsavam mess for more than 10 decades now. A renowned and revered chef in Kerala, he has never given a chance for complaints.
However, the ongoing Kalolsavam saw Namboothiri getting dragged into a controversy though he had no part in it.
Art and culture quietly took a backseat as Kerala furiously debated food.
The controversy began with a Facebook by a professor of political science and former television anchor, Arun Kumar. He questioned the vegetarian fare that is being served on banana leaves at the Kalolsavam.
“Caste works through purity-impurity convictions. Sometimes it comes disguised as safe vegetarian food,” he posted.
“When most children eat non-vegetarian food, the vegetarian fundamentalism in Kalolsavam is a reflection of caste beliefs. It is time to end this. Those children who are interested to have non-vegetarian food should be served the cuisine of Kozhikode,” he continued in the post.
Kumar’s post caused an uproar on social media. Netizens criticised the government for designating a person from Namboothiri (Brahmin) caste to serve vegetarian food in a state where most of the population eats non-vegetarian food.
Several members internet community members found the serving of vegetarian food “casteist” and stated that it promoted “vegetarian fundamentalism”.
Kumar’s post, which also carried a photograph of Namboothiri preparing food in large traditional cookware, stated that it is not renaissance if an upper caste man serves food to the public but renaissance occurs when a variety of flavours is celebrated and is not diluted based on ‘purity’.
Several people shared the post, which evoked a mixed reaction.
Congress leader and former MLA from Thrithala VT Balram echoed similar views as that of Kumar. He said providing vegetarian-only food cooked by a Brahmin defeats the state’s renaissance values.
He also said that people should recognise and correct these anti-renaissance acts, which are strongly present in the government’s official programmes.
Even as the controversy raged, Namboothiri and his team kept preparing and serving food to children and others.
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Government decides the menu
Responding to the criticism and the social media debate later, Namboothiri said the vegetarian fare was not his choice but he was acting as directed by the government.
“It is up to the government to decide whether non-vegetarian food should be included in the menu. I have a good team who are experts in preparing non-vegetarian delicacies. What I am doing is the overall monitoring of their work,” he said.
However, he said flagged several issues in preparing and serving non-vegetarian dishes at a huge event like the Kalolsavam, where the exact number of guests would not be known in advance.
Namboothiri said he had served non-vegetarian food at state sports festivals. “In sports festivals, there may not be much difference in the number of expected crowds. But in the case of cultural festivals, the number of people arriving at the food pavilion cannot be estimated in advance,” he said.
“Today, the number of participants as per the figures was around 9,000 but more than 20,000 people had food in the counters, Namboothiri explained.
When asked about the criticism of Brahmanical hegemony, he said those who quoted the lowest amount would get the contract for serving food at the festival.
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Non-veg from next year
Even as the criticism raged, Minister for General Education V Sivankutty stated on Facebook that the government would provide non-vegetarian food from next year.
“The State School Kalolsavam is a festival of diversity. The general education department will ensure steps to promote this diversity. So far, vegetarian dishes were only served during the Kalolsavam, it is assured that this will change,” he said.
Minister also stated that the government will also examine whether the menu could be changed this year. He welcomed a healthy social media debate while raising concerns over politicising the issue.
Meanwhile, P Sudhakaran, an independent writer and journalist who has reported several Kalolsavams, told South First that “terming it casteism stems from a shallow understanding of the issue”.
“Projecting it as a casteist issue diverts the attention from real casteist problems in Kerala, for instance, the issue of discrimination at KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts in Kottayam,” pointed out.
Sudhakaran said people have different preferences regarding food. “There are strict vegetarians. Including non-vegetarian food in the menu could create complications while serving a large crowd,” he further said.
“In Kerala, people are free to have any meat. I don’t see the issue merely as serving vegetarian or non-vegetarian food. I am also looking at the convenience of serving food to a large crowd,” he added.
Question of food safety
Sudhakaran also pointed to the recurring food-poisoning incidents reported from several parts of Kerala. “We have to ensure safe food, especially against the backdrop of the recurring incidents of food poisoning. Even if non-vegetarian food is included on the menu, there should be stringent measures to ensure safety.
“The issue here is not merely vegetarianism but the caste of Pazhayidom. Many of them who vouch for non-vegetarian food questions why a Brahmin, Pazhayidom Mohanan Namboothiri, is cooking the meals. They call it an imposition of vegetarianism. But even if someone replaces him the other person will be cooking the food according to the demands of the government.” Sudhakaran added.
A section of netizens also lamented the controversies like the food served in Kalolsavam being discussed more than the performances of students during the fest.