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God comes to the hungry in the form of food.  – Mahatma Gandhi

The second installment of New York City-based Vikas Khanna’s Holy Kitchens documentary series – Karma to Nirvana – will premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 7.  In an exclusive interview to The Daily Kos, this rare combination of humanitarian and celebrity chef explained to me the symbiotic intersection of food and religion in his documentary series.

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At any given time, somewhere on earth, people are gathering to share food in the name of God.  This is spiritual sustenance, meant to bring us closer together and closer to the Creator.

Our aim is to make people aware of this commonality of the world’s religious traditions and to illuminate the differences in a way that will engender mutual tolerance and respect.

Taken together, these films are our offering to the dialog that is meant to create more peace and harmony in the world.  This is the story of Holy Kitchens.

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Vikas Khanna has come to know the world’s most powerful, such as Bill Clinton and The Dalai Lama, and the world’s most downtrodden.  His documentary takes us right into the soup kitchens of Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi’s ashram in Kerala, where Amma blesses thousands of people daily with motherly hugs and serves them meals with her own hands.  “We have to help the hungry as best we can,” says Amma.  “We have to see that feeding the hungry is no less than the worship of God.”

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Vikas Khanna with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Initiative. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

JL: What prompted you to begin exploring the relationship between religion and food through documentary films?

I was born and raised in Amritsar which is the spiritual home of Sikhism and I was always interested in food as part of our daily lives. S haring food is indoctrinated in us as children and stays with us our whole lives.  I didn’t realize there was anything special about Amritsar until I went away to culinary school.

When I saw how different it was in other places I began to understand what a special place Amritsar is.  I showed my home movies of a trip to Amritsar that I took after 9/11 to my friend and collaborator, Andrew Blackmore, and we began talking of how we could pay tribute to the great spirit of Sikhism as too many people didn’t know anything about them or their wonderful sense of community. We began to make a film and were lucky to find people who wanted to see it.

JL: Did the first documentary focus on Sikhism because you are from Amritsar and grew up surrounded by the Sikh religion?

Sikhism was naturally my first subject since I am familiar with it and because the story of Guru Nanak Dev Ji is so compelling. It is also a fairly simple and straightforward story to tell.  When we started talking about Hinduism and its many gods we spent a great deal of time thinking, planning and researching before we could arrive at something we could do in a reasonable space of time and still make it interesting.  We also try to avoid any sectarianism that is present in many religions that have been around a while.

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JL: In this new documentary, what is the message you want audiences to leave with?

Our message is simply that there is a lot of good news in the world and that people are doing wonderful things. We want people to see the good in all of the world’s religions. We have seen that the communities that make sharing food an integral part of their daily practice enjoy deep, rich spiritual lives and feel a strong sense of belonging.

JL: Given that future documentaries will be made on other religions and how they use food as a spiritual offering, what are you saying about the similarities between all of the world’s religions?

Sharing food and doing things for others builds and strengthens communities. In doing for others you also discover a purpose that is larger than yourself and a reason to feel optimism about how much good there is in the world. It takes no effort to find the bad and it is always with us but you must work together to build something good that you can believe in. This is a notion that we find present in all religions.

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JL: If you hosted a prayer service that he could cook for from start to finish, what would he serve to the disciples who came to worship?

I would cook what I know which means the food that my grandmother taught me.  I am more or less a home cook who rose much higher than he expected.  I am very grateful for what I have been blessed with and I try to pay tribute my grandmother whenever I cook for other people.  She was the one who taught me the importance of understanding that you are also feeding people of your spirit when you make food for them.

I imagine this meal would end up much like a Sikh langar with a vegetarian meal that included my grandmother’s lentils, roti, chickpeas, rice, assorted vegetable dishes and as many chutneys as possible.  I am obsessed with chutney right now as I am working on another book on the topic.

Vikas was raised in Amritsar, India, where he grew up surrounded by large family feasts, the seasonal produce fresh from the fields of Punjab, and of course, his grandmother’s traditional home cooking.  It was at his grandmother’s side that he began to learn the intricacies of Indian cuisine.  He started his own catering business at the age of 17.  Vikas has received rave reviews for his cooking in The New York Times and many other publications.

This restaurateur has authored several books including The Spice Story of India and Modern Indian Cooking.  His next book, Flavors First, will be published this year by Lake Isle Press. His following book is titled Return to the Rivers: A Culinary Pilgrimage Through the Himalayas, features a foreword by The Dalai Lama.  His current restaurant work includes Junoon Restaurant and the Café at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Vikas has also been a guest judge and chef on Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, and appeared on the Food Network and the Martha Stewart Show among others.  He is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and is also an honorary member of many foundations, including the World Peace Society.

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Karma to Nirvana, the second installment in the series which focuses specifically on Hinduism, Lord Krishna’s spiritual practices, and the principles of karma and nirvana as set forth in the Bhagavad-Gita, will premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival on Saturday, May 7, 2011, at 12:30 p.m. in Tribeca Cinemas’ Theater Two (54 Varick Street, NYC).  The New York Indian Film Festival is the longest-running, most prestigious Indian film festival in the U.S.

True Business, the first film in the Holy Kitchens series focused on the Sikh religion and how its temples provide free food through its kitchens to everyone who comes, regardless of their beliefs.  With commentary by Dr. Deepak Chopra, the film played to a sold-out audience at New York’s Sikh International Film Festival in fall 2010.  Next year’s film is titled The Moon of Eïd and will explore Ramadan in the Islamic faith from the Middle East to Europe and across the world.

The film features interviews with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Arun Gandhi, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Shaunaka Rishi Das, Lynn McGuire, Scott Carney, Anju Bhargava, and my friend Aroon Shivdasani.  It is written and narrated by Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn, directed by Anubhav Bhardwaj, and co-directed by Francisco Aguila.  Karma to Nirvana is a Junoon Hospitality presentation (TRT: 48 min).

For more information about the Holy Kitchens series, upcoming films, and screening schedules, please log on to the Holy Kitchens’ website.
See Stories by Jim Luce on:

Film   |   India   |   Islam   |   New York   |   Peace


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