Atchama Chetty

FOOD, WOMEN AND POWER SERIES: By Chrisantha Chetty

This is the beginning of a series of blogs about the powerful women that have influenced and inspired me throughout my life. It is a compilation of short biographies, anecdotes and related recipes. The reason for this is my keen interest in food and how it’s histories relate to the intertwining socio-economic and cultural situations of the past, present and future.

BACKGROUND

I have been extremely lucky to encounter so many incredible women during my life. I find myself continuously surrounded by strong feminine energies that are contributing to positive change in their families, communities and societies. One of these women is Mariapaola McGurk, the big boss at The Coloured Cube, who is encouraging me to blog and develop my written voice. I strongly believe these women deserve to be praised for the support they afford so many. Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal society that often turns a blind eye to such successful women.

I grew up in a family over flowing with women. I have so many grandmothers, aunties and mothers that I easily lose count. This excludes all the grannies and aunties that aren’t strictly related to me. I stress this as the people that know me well know that I call most women close to my mother’s age or older by aunty or “ma” (meaning granny). This is a sign of respect practiced within the Indian community which I grew up in – something my mother drilled into me whilst growing up.

THE MATRIARCH

Atchama Chetty

I would like to begin this series with my paternal grandmother: Atchama Chetty (Ma), the matriarch of my family. She lived in the same house as me until her passing and I have many fond memories with her. Atchama was an orphan without a birth certificate who married my grandfather when she was quite young. This would have been an arranged marriage due to the Indian customs practiced during her youth. She bore twelve children, three of which passed away very young. Her husband died when her youngest, my father, was only eleven years old. Atchama or Ma as I called her, died in 2003 after a long and difficult life. This blog is a tribute to her strength in overcoming the many challenges she faced during her life.

Ma was illiterate as she did not have access to education due to the systems of colonialism and apartheid. She worked as a maid and dressmaker to support herself and her family. Although extremely poor she made sure her children never felt impoverished. She brought them up to believe in themselves and their capabilities. Atchama is who I think of when I read The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by Jaques Ranciere, because she taught so many what she herself did not know. Ranciere’s theory is based on all people being born with the same capabilities, excluding those with classified/known disabilities such as blindness, deafness, etc. He goes on to explain that the master-student relationship enforces power hierarchies that perpetuate the false assumption that the student is incapable of learning or succeeding without being taught by a master. Ma encouraged her children to learn how to read and write through believing in them and showing them that they were capable. She brought them up to accomplish things she herself could never have dreamt of doing. Her legacy will live on through her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

RELATION TO FOOD

Ma and food

My grandmother was known as a feeder and mother to anyone she came in to contact with. My most common memory of her that I share with many of my siblings and cousins is of her cooking, gardening and feeding. She would continuously ask me if I had eaten, until she herself had seen me eat. Food was extremely important to her and how she related to people. She showed her love and care through her food, something I have inherited from her over time. Although she was so poor she still fed anyone that was around during meal time. She taught me to never deny someone food or water and to always cook extra in case someone stops by unannounced. She has been a huge influence on my relationship to food and people. I am happy to see some of her qualities in myself and I think of her often whilst cooking. I remember coming home from school to the amazing smells of freshly cooked curries and rice. She could cook a curry in minimum time and feed so many people with very little money. Atchama was a very wise and skilful woman with so much knowledge to share.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately I did not learn how to cook directly from my grandmother. I was fifteen when she died, and I was strongly opposed to gender roles at the time. I saw cooking as an oppressive practice forced on to women. I have grown wiser through my research and see now how food was and can be a creative and empowering practice. My older sister, Colleen, was much closer to my granny and managed to learn some of her cooking methods and recipes. She has generously shared one of these recipes with me to share with you. So I hope this blog was thought provoking and if not than at the very least you got a delicious recipe from an amazing cook- my late Ma: Atchama Chetty.

Ma and me

Butternut Curry

Ingredients:

1 x skinned medium size butternut cut in cubes
Oil
Red dried chillies
Curry leaves
1 small onion sliced
2 medium potatoes cut in cubes
1/2 medium tomato sliced.
Cinnamon sticks
Jeera seeds
Mustard seeds
Salt
Turmeric powder

Method:

Heat a little oil on medium heat.
Sauté onions, add 1/2 levelled teaspoon turmeric.
Add curry leaves, cinnamon sticks and a sprinkle of jeera.
Add 1/2 teaspoon crushed/chopped garlic.
Add dry chilies and sauté.
Add butternut cubes, stir and allow to cook on low- medium heat.
Add salt to taste- 1 teaspoon levelled minimum.
When butternut is half cooked, add tomatoes slices and potato cubes.
Continue to cook on low heat.
When butternut and potatoes are cooked, remove off heat.
Butternut and potatoes must NOT be mashed, must be whole.
Sprinkle dhania and serve with rice or roti or as side dish.

 

THE BLOGGER

Chrisantha ChettyChrisantha Chetty was born in 1988, and raised in Durban, South Africa. She is an interdisciplinary multimedia artist, art collector, architect, activist, blogger, performer, dancer, theorist, philosopher, curator, song writer, novelist, film maker, cook, designer, craftsman, tailor, photographer, journalist, human rights advocate, entrepreneur and perpetual student.

Chetty graduated with an Honours degree in Fine Art from the Wits School of Arts in 2014 and completed her Masters in Art in the Public Spheres at Ecole Cantonale d’Art du Valais in 2017. She is currently interning at The Coloured Cube.

To check out more of her work visit: www.chrisanthachetty.com

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