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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The magical fieldscapes of Uttara Kannada

with 5 comments

This is the green western edge of the Deccan plateau of India, the gigantic highland of peninsular India that slopes gradually from west to east. They say that the western ‘ghats’, the range of hills (some say mountains, but the real mountains are the Himalaya and Hindu Kush, far to the north, while the Ghats rise about 1,500 metres above the continent in some of their southern spurs), that run for about 1,600 kilometres dissuade the south-west monsoon from bringing rain inland, but this is not quite true, for districts along the western edge of the plateau are well-watered in a good monsoon.

This magical landscape is found about 10 kilometres east of the the small town of Yellapur, in the district of Uttara Kannada, in the state of Karnataka. The land is gently rolling, and by mid-November early mornings bathe the landscape in a soft golden light. Mornings at this time are chilly, below 10 Celsius, and you can see the farmers here stride down the dusty pathways between fields, their worn sweaters keeping the chill away, their omnipresent cotton shawls – faded after months in the sun – wrapped that much tighter around their necks. In the distance, the taller peaks loom blue-grey in the distance, the skies above are cobalt with clarity.

Standing four to five metres tall, the larger of the cylindrical haystacks are minor engineering marvels and take shape organically thanks to the communal work of the farming household, neighbours, sharecroppers and of course youngsters with more enthusiasm than skill.

Dotting every cultivated hectare are the haystacks, the hayricks and the crop residue bales. These are gathered, tied, carried, lifted, piled, arranged and stacked by hand, and so the shapes they assume are organic, cones and rough domes that mimic the primal hut-shape, but dense with biomass. We are used to saying and hearing words like ‘crop residue’ and ‘agricultural biomass’, but the shapes that emerge at the end of a hectic harvest are made of material that goes by many local names. Often, these haystacks formed from rice straw, sugarcane tops, stalks of ‘jowar’ or ‘bajra’ (millets, or what the agricultural establishment demeaningly calls coarse grains).

Making the haystacks is a communal activity, inspiring for the ease with which the work gets done, and inspiring for the artistry that surrounds their fieldcraft. There are two men who stand atop a partially-formed haystack, and when they are up there you can judge the size of the pile and appreciate better how much ‘residue’ it must contain.

Crisp air enlivened with the scents of field and jungle, the sounds of a district that contentedly stewards forest and land

Women and men in the nearby fields arrange and tie the bales of gathered stalks and stems, their children help, their cattle continue to graze alongside, the ever-present companions to the good-natured ruminants, the cattle egrets, wait patiently or circle aloft impatiently, dogs snooze and the elderly offer quiet advice. The men atop the growing stack bark their instructions, from further up the fields, a group of women in bright sweaters but barefoot – tough and hardy – chat and chuckle as they work. This is district India, so alive with community spirit, secure in its fertility, in the stewardship of land and water, of stem and stalk.

5 Responses

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  1. Loved it to bits, poetry as much as passion and fact. The images so well captures the narrative. Whilst there is a in good faith belief that there is a community and therefore cooperation is a given, though we know the stratified rural society and its own eternal struggle for land and food is. But I will make an exception and embrace the energy, positivism and sense of ideal that so well captured in this essay. I also want to applaud the careful selection of images and the placing of them with such fine eye for the detail. All in all it made me want to go back to that place I travelled decades ago on my mobike.

    Pushpanath Krishnamurthy

    November 21, 2012 at 15:38

    • Thanks you for your kind words Pushpanath. From the ‘arid littoral’ of the western Deccan to the coastal foothills, these are some of the loveliest landscapes of India. No doubt the new economics of India has intruded, but still not so much here, which is why the link – to my eyes – between cultivators and their land was so vibrant.

      makanaka

      November 21, 2012 at 21:11

  2. The effortlessness with which you have captured the essence of the complex interaction between humans and their natural environment in such succinct and delightful prose is truly breath taking. Absolutely loved the “Stem and stalk, Leaf and Bark” title, a fitting moniker for what the content describes. And, I must totally concur, they are indeed magical fieldscapes.

    Shyam Pushpanath

    November 21, 2012 at 20:00

    • Thank you Shyam, the lyrics come easy in those parts!

      makanaka

      November 24, 2012 at 16:53

      • Lyrics coming easily could be a given as you say, but it takes talent to articulate the lyrics that do come as beautifully and effortlessly as you’ve done. I have only just discovered this blog through my father and I’m looking forward to combing through it in detail!

        Shyam Pushpanath

        November 26, 2012 at 20:50


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