The magical fieldscapes of Uttara Kannada
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.
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.
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.