the lede

Sweet Ache

An artist tests the limits of consumption

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 1 May 2012

ON A RECENT FRIDAY EVENING, Zachary Becker sat statue-like in a grey T-shirt, his mouth coated in sugary syrup. Flanked by framed prints of two large photographs hanging in Delhi’s Ojas Art Gallery, one of a spotlit barfi and the other of a single gulab jamun, Becker could have been mistaken for a piece of art himself—which was not far from the truth.
Nearly 12 feet in front of him, behind an elegant white podium, stood Shakeb, a meticulously dressed young man, holding a steel bowl filled with gulab jamuns.

“Would you like to sweeten the artist’s mouth?” Shakeb asked onlookers. Gallery attendees approached in ones and twos, but many moments passed when no one but Shakeb was watching—or feeding—the artist. Instead, the crowd stood outside cradling wine glasses beneath a huge banyan tree, surrounded by a fleet off vintage Mercedes.

Inside, Shakeb kept his focus. He picked up a gulab jamun and tossed it, not from the wrist but from the arm, in the direction of Becker’s mouth. It was a measured yet confident lob, one clearly acquired from a fair amount of practice. The ounce of sweet arched across the room, and Becker, anticipating its path, swiftly moved his entire frame left, with his mouth wide open. It was a lovely catch. The sequence lasted all of 1.5 seconds.

In the three hours he sat pivoting his body in the direction of the airborne jamuns, 23-year-old Zachary Becker gulped down 104 pieces of the sweet, all of them thrown by Shakeb.

“The act of sweetening someone’s mouth,” said Becker, an artist who has lived in India for more than a year, “whether it’s in a religious context, at a public function, in someone’s home—it’s a consumptive act that is as much symbolic as it’s physical.”

Becker ate his first gulab jamun in 2010, when he was on an airplane en route to India. Previously a student of music in the US, he had landed in Delhi for what he says was “no good reason”. He ended up leading an art programme at Tihar jail, where he taught inmates how to draw a human eye.

Since then he has found himself drawn to performance art. A couple of months ago you might have found him roaming the crowded lanes of Old Delhi, stepping into the shoes of rickshawalas or cart-pullers, imitating their postures and body language. “I just put myself in that role and get photographed,” he said, “There is an element of painfulness.”

Pain is something he’s attuned to. To prepare for the gastro-challenge, Becker began a daily regime of drinking large amounts of water and eating plenty of cabbage. And when he indulged in large meals, he made sure to flush them down with an additional two litres of H20. “You feel your stomach is enlarging—you feel a little bit of pain,” he recalled.

Shakeb’s training was of a different order. The day before the exhibition, the two met to practice the routine. They had agreed on a silent code: If Becker’s hands were on his knees, it meant he was ready for the toss; if his hands were limp at his sides, he needed more time; and if he had just one hand on his knee, he was signalling to Shakeb that the throws were coming in at the wrong angle.

Overall, their arrangement was a success. Becker, his eyes fixed on his performance partner, missed only 10 throws.

But by the 30th gulab jamun he swallowed, the nature of the performance had changed. People could see Becker struggling to keep them down; many refused to sweeten the artist’s mouth. It was “a moment where people could relate to the artist”, Becker said. As he crossed the 50th successful swallow, though, he felt no more pain, but his throat stopped resisting the excessive sweetness, which meant that it became more difficult to swallow the syrupy globes.

Despite the discomfort, Becker was pleased with the reaction. Many, he could tell, “were looking and thinking it is an excessive act”. One man in a long beige kurta chortled: “I hope his diabetes is under control.”

Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.

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