The controversy in Kerala over the menu of the annual School Youth Festival, or Kalolsavam, took a new turn as chef Pazhayidam Mohanan Namboothiri on Sunday, 8 January, said he would not be taking part in the gala in the coming years.
Pazhayidam Mohanan Namboothiri — popularly referred to simply as Pazhayidam — is considered one of the best chefs in Kerala and has been preparing and serving dishes to thousands of people every day at the food pavilions of the Kerala school youth festival for years.
The controversy over the exclusion of non-vegetarian dishes at the youth festival had earlier died down after state General Education Minister V Sivankutty said the government would try to serve both types of food from the next youth festival.
However, Namboothiri told news channels today that the “unnecessary controversy” over not serving non-vegetarian dishes had hurt him a lot.
“This time we did not allow anyone to enter our kitchen after this controversy. Normally, that’s not the situation. I was quite worried this time. The trend has changed and I am worried about it and have decided not to take part in the youth festivals anymore,” Namboothiri told TV channels.
‘No need to make it communal’
He said it was the government which had decided to serve vegetarian dishes to the students and there was no need to make it communal.
“The government could have easily made a decision to serve non-vegetarian dishes, but some people decided to taint my image. Some people tried to bring in caste and religion.
“If there is any complaint regarding the food served, we can understand; but it was disappointing that the discussion was diverted to other unnecessary topics,” Namboothiri said.
He said non-vegetarian dishes can be served only if there is an assurance that only a definite number of people will be there to consume the food.
The state school youth festival is known for its huge participation, ranging from 30,000 to 40,000 every day.
For decades, lip-smacking vegetarian delicacies have been served among participating children, their teachers and parents at the food pavilions of the annual gala, avidly watched across the state.
The recently concluded festival has seen a record number of people — 26,500 — being served lunch on the fourth day. Food was served four times every day during the event.
Questions arise regarding vegetarian food
However, some netizens had questioned the years-long practice of serving only vegetarian items during the festival, triggering an intense exchange of views on and outside social media platforms.
The controversy began with a Facebook by a professor of political science and former television anchor, Arun Kumar. He questioned why vegetarian fare was being served on banana leaves at the Kalolsavam.
“Caste works through purity-impurity convictions. Sometimes it comes disguised as safe vegetarian food,” he posted.
A Facebook user charged that the “vegetarian only” menu in the festival was part of “vegetarian fundamentalism” and a “reflection of caste belief”.
Another person, in his Facebook post, lamented that the presence of Brahmins in the kitchens of art festivals was the commemoration of the “surrender of renaissance and democratic values at the feet of Brahmanism”.
However, after Pazhayidam issued his statement on Sunday, Arun Kumar wrote on Facebook that he wants to see the chef keep continuing his work at the Kalolsavam venues, adding that his statement was against the fascist norm of always associating arts with vegetarian food.
No non-vegetarian food due to practical difficulties
Meanwhile, Sivankutty had on Saturday, during the closing ceremony of the five-day art, music and dance extravaganza, assured that the government will consider introducing non-vegetarian dishes next year.
At the same time, BJP state chief K Surendran on Sunday attacked the Left government saying the CPI(M) tried to divide the people along communal lines.
“Some people tried to divide people and used the food served in this regard to do the same. The ruling CPI(M) was behind this. This controversy was not there in this state for the past many years. They tried to create communal issues in the name of food,” Surendran said.
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 caste 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,” he pointed out.
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 question why a Brahmin is cooking the meals. They call it an imposition of vegetarianism. But even if someone replaces him, that 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.
Kozhikode district bagged the top spot to become the champions of the 61st Kerala State School Youth Festival which concluded on Saturday.
(With inputs from PTI)