Shaktichakra, the wheel of energies

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Sons of the Indian soil, 1941

with 3 comments

The Gavara ryot of Madras (left) and the Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat (right)

The Gavara ryot of Madras (left) and the Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat (right)

To present the cultivator as a person and not as an economic unit. This was the object of a delightful and, in its own way, philosophical volume on the Indian cultivator, published more than threescore and ten years ago in 1941.

‘Sons Of The Soil, Studies Of The Indian Cultivator’ was edited by W J Burns, at the time an Agricultural Commissioner with the Government of India, and the book was printed at the Government Of India Press (at 8 Hastings Street, Calcutta).

The Gavara ryot of Madras, by B Ramaiah Garu – Age-long experience has taught him to adjust the details of his operations in such a way that he and the other members of his family are kept engaged throughout the year and employ as little outside labour as possible. He looks after his cattle well and often makes money by purchasing young calves or buffaloes, rearing them and selling them after working them in his own fields for a season or two.
The Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat, By B S Patel – He is fairly hardy and is inured to the toil and hardship associated with farming. He is sober, quiet, industrious, enterprising and frugal, except on special occasions such as marriage and death ceremonies, when he spends rather beyond his means, vying with his richer brethren. He is very  hospitable, frank by nature, simple in his habits and is a good husband and father. His dress consists of a piece of white cloth wrapped round his head by way of turban, a bandi (a coat up to the waist) and a dhoti covering his legs.

I have here very cursorily extracted the text from six of the 25 captivating sketches of these sons of the soil (the regions included four that were in British India but are not in the Republic of India). These sketches, the treatment by their authors of the cultivator as a many-sided personality, shaped by his region and culture, are of a quality that has scarcely in my view been matched in recent years.

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak (left) and the Bengal cultivator (right).

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak (left) and the Bengal cultivator (right).

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak, by Rao Bahadur S S Salimath – His diet is very simple. It consists mainly of jowar bread, nucchu (broken and boiled jowar grain), boiled pulses, & small quantity of any vegetable that may be available and some rice if he can afford it. His holiday dish is either Imggi (whole wheat grain boiled with some gur) or malidi (boiled wheat dried, pounded and mixed with some gur). The latter is preferred for journeys and in camps.
The Bengal cultivator, By K McLean – The cultivator has a long day. Dawn finds the cultivator up and about on the way to the field. His breakfast, consisting of reheated boiled rice, is brought to him in the field and he carries on till midday when he returns to the homestead for the big meal of the day. This consists of rice and curry which may be made of vegetables only or include fish according to the season.

The many volumes of the last score of years that describe the growing of food and the lives of the growers of food usually fall into two categories – the first of the political economy and agrarian relations kind, which are loaded with sociological cant and dense with agro-economic punditry, or they are the ‘market’ kind and erase to a featureless nothingness the cultivating household in favour of advocating various solutions to the problems of yield, or credit, of cooperation or of finding ways to get produce to market.

Both approaches have for the most part lost sight of the cultivator, his habits, his dislikes, his preferred repasts, his entertainment and his eccentricities.

The Kurmi cultivator (left) and the Bihar cultivator (right).

The Kurmi cultivator (left) and the Bihar cultivator (right).

Hence the clear foreword of ‘Sons Of The Soil’ (for clarity was easier then, when needs were fewer and the distance between town and village shorter, both on the road and in the mind), which said of the cultivator: “He is India outside of the towns. He is mentioned in speeches, leaders, lectures and poems usually more as a type than a person. The object of the following sketches is to give some clear outlines in place of this vagueness, and especially to show the variety of individuals and classes who cultivate the soil of this great country.”

The Kurmi cultivator, By M Mohiuddin Ahmad – It is rather creditable to the Kurmi cultivator that, working against heavy odds, he manages to produce excellent crops on his fields and very successfully competes with more advantageously placed cultivators. Every Kurmi cultivator commits to memory a large number of sayings on different agricultural subjects, such as preparation of seed-bed, time of sowing, manuring, weather forecasts, livestock, and so on.
The Bihar cultivator, By D R Sethi – Simple in habits, thrifty to a degree and a master in the art of market-gardening, the Koer is amongst the best of the tillers of the soil to be found anywhere in India. He rarely hires labour but makes all members of his family, including his womenfolk, work in the fields. The Koer does not indulge in expensive social ceremonies and spends less on marriages than other cultivating classes. He is religious and as a rule avoids intoxicants.

“There is,” Burns had written all those years ago, “a family resemblance between these cultivator types, a resemblance that grows as one reads the life-story and daily routine of one son of the soil after another. There is the same plainness of life, the same wrestling with uncertainties of climate (except in favoured areas), the same love of simple games, sport and songs, the same religious background, the same neighbourly helpfulness, and the same financial indebtedness.”

3 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. Research methods are acquiring a very utilitarian tilt. But that said, one has to acknowledge that the British favoured these thick descriptive works (you can also see long times written on travels, birds, livestock to example) keeping in mind their value in understanding the Indian people better and hence perhaps the use of these works in exploitation, no?


    September 15, 2013 at 12:15

    • Dear Prashanth, thank you for the criticism about the intentions of the colonial mind. This deserves a longer reply (perhaps a separate post). But I will point out that the intent to understand in order to exploit was mitigated to a degree by those with a finer sense of justice and who were not afraid to articulate this sense. In fact, Lala Lajpat Rai in his book ‘England’s Debt To India’ (1917) favours in his dedication those Englishmen and women whose testimonials provided his reference material. There are to be found, over the last century or so, numerous instances of such an approach to examining the reasons for the labours of the colonial establishment. Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray has referred to it in ‘Call of the Charkha’ (1923) and so has J K Bajaj in ‘Green Revolution: A Historical Perspective’ (PPST Bulletin, 1982), two give but two examples. We find in the ‘Collected Writings’ of Dharampal, that extraordinary and tireless recorder of the colonial project to debase Bharat’s science and values, many more such instances.
      Consider also the famous (at one time, though scarcely recalled nowadays) the ‘Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture’ by John Augustus Voelcker, the Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England, who was deputed by the British Government to make enquiries on Indian agriculture. Voelcker toured India extensively during 1889 to 1891 and amongst his observations was this one: “On one point there can be no question, viz., that the ideas generally entertained in England, and often given expression to even in India, that Indian agriculture is, as a whole primitive and backward, and that little has been done to try and remedy it, are altogether erroneous.”
      But also consider what independent India under the command of western-oriented administrators sowed very early. In 1959, the Agricultural Production Team of the Ford Foundation recommended the intensive approach which was a new Intensive Agricultural District Programme (1ADP) launched in the closing years of the Second Five-Year Plan. That was the harbinger of the Green Revolution. And the rest is (rather recent) history.


      September 17, 2013 at 11:33

  2. Appreciate your response very much. Thank you. I too have something to say in the matter, especially from the perspective of their contributions to natural history. In that area, perhaps analyising their contributions could be a bit more objective, considering that the immediate benefits to their “society” were relatively lesser from natural history descriptions than anthropological/human ecology work. But, that makes perhaps for a separate post on the topic and will alert you on that.

    Thanks again for a very informative post and detailed response.


    September 17, 2013 at 12:55

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