“Is Starvation a Performing Art?” – Shoma A. CHATTERJI

The Citizen, India, 21 April, 2022

Hunger wears many faces and the variety and versatility of hunger is as incredible as it is voluminous. The word “hunger” immediately links us to biological and physical hunger for food which is a real problem for millions of people across the world. But there is a strong emotional meaning attached to the word “hunger.” It ranges from “hunger for fame”, “hunger for sex”, “hunger for power”, “hunger for money and wealth” to its many variants. But hunger as an art form according to some ‘artists’ whose metabolism enables them to remain entirely without food for many days is very different. It may be a tragic irony and a bad joke among the impoverished made to starve.

Versatile actor-filmmaker Kamaleswar Mukherjee who does not stick to any rigid genres has made a film called The Hunger Artist. How can hunger be a form of art? It was at one time. History informs us that Hunger Artists were performers, common in Europe and America in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century who starved themselves for extended periods of time for the amusement of a paying audience. The phenomenon is first recorded in the 17th century and saw its heyday in the 1880s. Hunger artists were almost always male, travelled from city to city and performed widely advertised fasts of up to 40 days. Several hunger artists were found to have cheated during their performances.

Inspired by this strange form of “performing art” noted author Franz Kafka wrote a short story named The Hunger Artist in 1922. Kafka himself emphasized that the hunger artist’s alienation was largely by his own design, because he began fasting not for artistic purposes but because he couldn’t find anything he liked to eat. He gleaned details for his story from the obscure real-life phenomenon of professional fasting, a popular form of entertainment in his time.

“I was strongly inspired to make a film on The Hunger Artist by Kafka many years ago. But it took time to materialise and now I have managed to make a film on it,” informs Kamaleswar, adding, “The story is universal, satirical and metaphorical and today, has a reference to the lives of modern-day artistes surviving in today’s market economy. The film is a critique of the put-on cultural milieu set by the exploitative market.” Rather than exploring the politics of hunger, the film tries to establish a link between hunger and art, the two blending to become an expression within the same man who is convinced that he is a “hunger artist.”

The film opens with a voice-over by Ghana, an impresario who introduces the protagonist of the film Bhuto with a plethora of information of his fasting for any and every publicly announced, “cause” that sparks his anger. Bhuto’s ability to withdraw completely from food for indeterminate spans of time for global, manmade disasters such as fasting for two days when Israel bombed Palestine, or, for five days when Boko Haram attacked Nigerians, or, for seven days when NATO invaded Libya which, Ghana suggests, underscores that Bhuto is born with a metabolic miracle that gives him the capacity for remaining without food for any number of days… [+]