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Rice and the inheritance of loss

Rice museums are not just about reviving heritage varieties. They tell stories of the industrialisation of agriculture

A display at the Nel Thiruvizha festival in Tamil Nadu.
A display at the Nel Thiruvizha festival in Tamil Nadu. (Deepa S. Reddy)

The revival of heritage rice varieties in India seems to have fostered the emergence of a small but notable crop of displays and exhibits describing themselves as “rice museums”. Informational exhibits at research institutes and paddy breeding centres are in themselves nothing new—the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, Odisha, for example, has had an Oryza museum since 2008. But a parallel focus on collecting and exhibiting specifically “folk” or “heritage” rice varieties as reminders of what we once grew and how we once ate was becoming evident. These heritage rice displays are responses to the environmental and cultural losses precipitated by industrialised agriculture: not merely collections of artefacts but themselves evidence of the work of revival and reclamation.

In 2006 and 2009, respectively, two farmers-turned-conservators in Karnataka’s Mandya district, Syed Ghani Khan and Bhattada “Paddy” Bore Gowda, established rice museums in their homes—reflecting the larger farmer-driven revival of rice under way in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, under the auspices of the “Save our Rice” campaign, started in 2004 by Thanal, a group working in Kerala. Khan would eventually expand his into a full-fledged “Rice Diversity Centre” showcasing varieties extensively displaced by high-yielding varieties (HYVs) during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. In 2017, the All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal announced the construction of a folk rice museum at the Agricultural Training Centre at Fulia, intending to showcase 450 varieties. Assam’s Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park, which opened in 2019, to include an extensive heritage rice exhibit. In Kerala, the Aluva State Seed Farm now thinks of itself as a “museum of indigenous rice varieties” and there have recently been announcements of a Pokkali rice cultivation museum in Kottuvally to showcase the region’s unique saline-tolerant varietals, deep water cultivation and aquaculture integrations.

Also read: Could climate adaptive, saline water-resistant Pokkali be the rice of the future?

Impermanent displays are common, too, at community and farmer events: Mysuru’s annual Desi Akki Mela and the annual Tamil Nadu Nel Thiruvizha or paddy exchange festival held in Thiruduraipoondi have each housed visually striking paddy displays that serve as both ornamentation and full-fledged rice showcases.

Such shows of paddy are not always “museums” in the most conventional sense, though they too tell stories of loss, remembrance, and heritage preservation. The key artefacts are the varieties themselves, displayed in iconic, tied-together panicle bunches that immediately call to mind the golden paddy fields from which they must have been scythed plentifully at harvest time. There are also labelled glass jars with seeds and milled samples. Clustered around are tales of rice-worlds and rice-ways: accompanying explanatory text or (as in Bore Gowda’s museum) artefacts like large cow dung-smeared woven bins for storing large quantities of rice, old cultivation tools, implements for processing rice, and a painted scene of small-town agrarian life. The Nel Thiruvizha had cow dung balls with paddy embedded within both as propitiation and a display of traditional seed-storing methods.

A step away at Nel Thiruvizha are allied exhibitions: for instance, a table abundantly laden with traditional food samples that use both heritage rices and millets as well as wild and once common native ingredients like the icchampazham (Phoenix sylvestris, the wild date palm), panampazham (Borassus flabellifer, toddy palm) and the flour of its sprouts (odiyal maavu) turned into sweets.

Together, these objects present a picture of loss: rice, food, lifeways and tastes so fast being displaced by modern ways, they represent a prior age even while they are still extant.

Paddy names are an impressive array, both familiar and entirely new on the tongue: in Thiruduraipoondi, sivan samba, kaivara samba, kattu kuthalam, devarani; in Kaziranga, jengoni sali, buruli baw, jhum dhan, nogoba. There is a certain intimate nature to these listings, the sense of calling out things that are ancestrally our own. Pokkali is not just a type of rice, it’s an entire way of integrating agriculture and aquaculture in ecologically fragile coastal wetlands. Vadan samba is not another drought-resistant red rice, but one of a hundred-odd sen-nel or unique rices apparently mentioned in the 1528 Pazhani Cheppu Pattayam (Palani copper inscriptions) in which Pandia, Chera and Chola representatives discuss cultivation techniques, water management, harvesting methods, and the construction of a common place for free food supply. In these ways, the old rice names tell of the way we were, and of how legacies of industrialised agriculture contain an inheritances of loss with which we are only now coming to terms.

This implicit sentiment is only reinforced when a few select children come on stage (as in the Nel Thiruvizha) to recite from memory the 100-odd names of rice varieties conserved in Tamil Nadu—a demonstration of accomplishment and prowess, and an underscoring of the (also fading) importance of oral traditions. High-pitched and mantra-like, it is as though young voices calling out the names of so many rice varieties would will them back into widespread existence, against the odds, for these very next generations.

Rice on display at the Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park Rice Museum.
Rice on display at the Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park Rice Museum. (Naveen Jamal)

Not ‘For Display Only’

The willing back of rice varieties into widespread existence is not just poetic projection, but also entails field action—literally. So, the second story that the museums tell is of revival. Museum creators are frequently participants in the very rice cultivation heritage systems to which they pay deep homage. They are community liaisons or farmers themselves; seed savers, custodians of local rice varieties or state officials partnering in revival initiatives. It is no coincidence that the very rice fields dedicated to conserving heritage varieties are at times themselves on exhibit, making each a “living museum”, as Khan tellingly dubs his own. The core artefacts are alive, seeds are viable, though the display pieces themselves may be stored for convenience.

The “living museum” also affirms that in-situ conservation matters and encompasses a great deal more than the ex-situ conservation that has been a cornerstone of state-led rice research. While the latter has amassed accessions to national germplasm pools, the former allows varieties to continue evolving naturally, in response to environmental realities. With climate change effects becoming increasingly tangible, the need for in-situ conservation only grows stronger.

Rice museum initiatives express a twofold response: remembrance and reclamation, and the displays of panicle bunches straddle the divide. As much as they recall agrarian idylls, they are equally celebratory flourishes: evidence of restorative work done, the varieties that have been revived. To this end, rice varieties are named in numbers with impressive rings: 30 varieties single-handedly revived in one Wayanad farmer’s field, over 200 in Bore Gowda’s repository, 337 in Kaziranga, 450 collected to display at Fulia, 1,000 in Khan’s exhibit. Such numbers naturally become milestones, markers of progress and pride.

Also read: The project to revive Goa's aromatic short-grain rice giresal

Heritage in the making

Yet, the point is also to establish the unquantifiable abundance of native seeds. Rice festival displays almost never limit themselves to just rice, but capitalise on the wide interest in local plants, indigenous produce, and the medicinal and nutritional possibilities inherent in all these. Many small farmer-producer collectives have stalls at such events, present parallel displays of native vegetable, pulse and oil seeds. They introduce interested visitors to several curious fruits, roots and Ayurvedic herbs—for instance, the murukku thippili (Helicteres isora), used in treating gastro-intestinal ailments.

Things get slippery from time to time. Koogai kizhangu, or arrowroot (Maranta Arundinacea), is now often presented as part of a traditional repertoire but was introduced to India from the Caribbean only in the latter half of the 19th century as a starch source. Likewise, kichili samba, widely regarded as a heritage grain, is sometimes traced to GEB 24, a variety selected from spontaneous mutation and released by the Coimbatore Paddy Breeding Station in 1921, or might have already existed in pockets of Tamil Nadu prior to this release. Cases like these suggest that “heritage” may be a term on the move, as much modern as traditional.

Nonetheless, standing amidst so many rice displays, never far from farm or field, it is hard not to marvel at the paddy treasures now being recovered and shown to us like so many chelva kalanjiams (precious treasure boxes) of the old Subramania Bharati song. It is harder still not to be awed by the almost limitless range that is indigenous crop biodiversity, the depth and complexity of local knowledge-systems, and all the possibilities that a resurrection of these might yet open up.

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and the convenor of Shalikuta, a documentation project on Indian heritage rice. Anjana Ramkumar is a PhD candidate in development sociology at Cornell University. She studies agroecology, development and the cultural politics of the agriculture in Tamil Nadu.

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