“He’s hoping that he’ll be able to conquer his inhibitions and get under the skin of people and cultures around the world.” These were some of the opening words of this show and were spoken of Stefan Gates who, for this episode, travelled to India to witness the feasts associated with a traditional Hindu wedding and the celebration of Onam, and both were extraordinary events to watch.
As a Westerner and therefore someone to whom these hugely extravagant ceremonies and celebrations are totally alien, this programme really was very interesting and Stefan Gates brought a pleasant, relaxed, sit-back-and-enjoy feel to the show. He didn’t attempt to be overly serious about the whole thing but he also wasn’t at all disrespectful to the cultural and religious sensitivities of the people he visited and spent time with in India.
As the title intimated, this was largely about the feasts associated with the two celebrations he witnessed and took part in, and it was astounding to see how vital and integral a role food plays in these events. However, I suppose in a country where poverty sits often side by side with extreme wealth, the preparation and eating of food – often to massive excess – is understandable. Those who don’t have much of it value it, and those who can afford lots of it like to exhibit that fact. An abundance of food is as much a status symbol as an expensive car might be to Europeans, and that was especially evident during the Hindu wedding between Cambridge University graduate Nidi and bridegroom Rahul.
This huge event took place over three days during which thousands of dishes were prepared and eaten by the bride and groom’s families and guests. There was even a kitchen to prepare food for those who were preparing food for the wedding party, such was the enormity and sheer number of people working to produce banquet after banquet.
The marriage – though a ‘love’ match – should traditionally have been an arranged marriage, and as Stefan observed, among the guests there were some “stony faced elderly ladies” for whom even a hint of the upcoming marriage being based on love rather than a practical amalgamation of two wealthy families was unthinkable. Therefore, the fact that Nidi and Rahul met and fell in love while in England studying was kept on the down low. One high point of the show for me was when Stefan did a highly believable impression of those old ladies; put him in Sari and he could’ve been one of them!
Stefan’s a very personable and good humoured guy and he didn’t intrude upon the ceremony in any way but at the same time, he managed to be at the heart of it, and in fact, everyone he met seemed to take to him immediately, and as he fearlessly flung himself into eating things he’d never heard of and empathised with exhausted kitchen staff, one could see why.
The wedding celebrations were astonishing in their complexity, extravagance and sheer quantity of different elements which must’ve cost the bride’s father a small fortune. It all ended with the groom’s family being literally hand-fed in an exotic marquee by the bride’s family in what we were told was an act of “humility” on their part and marked the “handing over” of the bride to the groom’s family.
I have to say it conjured for me images of the same happening here; for those of you who are Peter Kay fans, you’ll undoubtedly have seen his stand-up routine in which he describes “Uncle Knobhead” who’s always at a family wedding. Well, picture him stuffing vol au vents and chicken legs into the new mother-in-law’s mouth… brilliant.
However, it was then time for Stefan to move on to Keralan for the ten day long celebration called Onam which is a pretty much non-stop feast and dance celebration where everyone – regardless of religion, caste or social status – shares in the event that is to show the fabled/godlike King Mahabali – who in his day was apparently banished to the underworld – that his people are united and still “in paradise”.
Here again, as with the wedding, food in massive quantities and varieties was central to the whole affair with the majority of it being supplied free of charge from locals for other locals to enjoy.
The highlight of the programme for me was watching as Stefan had to have all his body hair shaved in order to be painted as a tiger and subsequently take part in the ‘competition’ known as Pulikali, or tiger dance. There were no luxuries like shaving gel or even soap and water as one of the locals used a dangerous looking razor with frightening speed to depilate the intrepid Stefan while locals looked on with amusement.
Then came the painting using household type gloss or emulsion, I’m not sure which, but the fumes from it were making his eyes water and the sting on his newly razored skin made the poor man go pale. But, that done, he tried to make his belly a tad more inflated so that his ‘tiger’ would move better while being shown how to do the dance required of him. His presence had attracted a lot of interest from the local media and dozens of cameras and news crews watched as he went from being a “weedy white boy” to fearsome tiger.
Several hours of dancing and street parading later, he wanted the paint off, badly, but there was a hitch. The man who could do the paint removal was drunk and refused to do it so, being very helpful, several local men used kerosene and their bare fingers to rub Stefan’s paint off which took hours and clearly stung like a bitch. I didn’t envy him that one bit, especially as people observing this odd spectacle didn’t seem to pay any mind to the kerosene and lazily drew on cigarettes while they watched the intriguing display.
The show ended with scenes from the final day of Onam where dozens of boats with dozens of rowers entered a fun and entirely relaxed ‘race’ – which actually, in the end, they tried to make a dead heat in order to further demonstrate community unity – and Stefan remarked how very different the two ceremonies he’d attended for this episode were. The wedding clearly spelled out and demonstrated class-divides purposely whereas Onam did the exact opposite and unified the community, irrespective of their social status.
And in the meantime, Stefan had become something of a legend in Keralan, and justifiably so. He did a great job of making this a light-hearted watch while at the same time, pointing out that poverty exists in much of India as do cultural divides but in places like Keralan, the sharing of a feast and a celebration can put all that aside and allow these people carefree, almost childlike fun which takes them out of their often relentlessly hard and arduous lives.
Oh, and his attempts at driving a rickshaw were pretty funny too!
If you missed it, you can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.