THROUGH KARNATAKA IN SEARCH OF RICE SEEDS, FOOD AND FARMERS

By Sreedevi Lekshmikutty on 14th May, 2019

We began our journey, Usha from Trivandrum and me joining her in Coimbatore, on the 19th of October with a detailed itinerary provided by Seema of Save Our Rice campaign, Karnataka. The first stop in the journey was appropriately enough at Seema and Krishna Prasad’s house, in Mysore, where we arrived at lunch time to be served the delicious Rajamudi rice, the famed rice that has derived its name because of its popularity with the erstwhile kings of Mysore. Later while visiting the local outlet of Sahaja Samrudha , in Mysore we saw the display of various traditional rices from different parts of Karnataka, tempting us.

 However we restrained ourselves and were amply rewarded during the rest of our travels: picking up various traditional rices from different farmers, tasting our way through delicious rice preparations of different regions, all made from traditional rices, watching paddy fields with different hues of greens and having intense conversations on rice enriched our journey . It was a paddy rice feast, a journey that began to meet rice farmers and seed savers also turned into a feast for the senses, convincing us more than ever that rice conservation can happen only if and when traditional rices are appreciated by rice –eaters for healthful properties , taste and tradition! Early the next morning we started from Mysore, after some last minute problems that resulted in a change of driver, towards a small town, Kirugavulu, mandya District, 50 kms from the elegant Mysore city, which is where Syed Ghani Khan ( called Ghani)farms his 18 acres of land, conserves around 800 varieties of paddy and takes care of 140 mango trees inherited from the times of Tipu Sultan.

When we landed there, behind schedule, we found a bunch of high school children enthusiastically wading through the slush and mud of the paddy fields. These children along with their two enthusiastic teachers from a local school in Mysore have been visiting Ghani’s farm as part of a project to do one season of paddy farming . From varied backgrounds the youngsters seemed to enjoy the slush, mud and infected with Ghani’s enthusiasm While being shown around the paddy seed diversity blocks, the patches creatively delineated with a rare paddy variety with red leaves, thereby forming a natural visible boundary to demarcate the different varieties, and the little cement rings within which the rarest varieties (varieties for which Ghani had less than a handful of seeds ) were being grown out, we walked around observing the paddy growing amidst the majestic trunks and branches of the mango trees reputed to be over 200 years old.

Next on the agenda was a simple lunch of vegetable biriyani made from an assortment of rices, a result of Ghani’s large variety of paddies. By the time we reached the small grove to partake of the lunch in large leaves , the teens had hungrily wolfed down their lunch ( what a diff from young people who are normally supposed to be fussy over food ) post their morning exertions. Lunch and post lunch session was enlivened by conversations with seed saver farmers who had come from nearby: Rechanna and Srinivas. Each of them had an inspiring story leaving us humbled with their commitment to traditional rices and their struggle to keep it going. From Kirigavulu we drove to Sivalli Taluk , in Mandya District, to the home, museum, and the farm of Bore Gowda , the farmer who released Siddha Sanna variety.

Since it was getting dark by the time we reached Bore Gowda’s village , where we were directed to his home by the villagers , we walked around the beautiful rice museum he has created on the top floor of his family home . With a large wall mural depicting the village , farming and farming activities forming a colourful backdrop, the museum has rices and millets seeds displayed on tables and hanging from the ceiling Then we walked across to his new-old home, a beautiful traditional structure with pillars around a central courtyard with a small attic, Seema (who knows Bore Gowda and family since many years) was pleasantly surprised with the new addition to the family , a new born who arrived just a few weeks before our visit. The family insisted on serving us dinner , which began with what is called kashayam ( a concoction made with milk and assorted herbs , which are mixed and stored). After that we were served ragi mudde (ragi is finger millet, ragi mudde is cooked ragi flour balls ) with sambar.

This was followed by Siddha Sanna rice. Earlier in our conversation with Bore Gowda he told us about how he found a particular distinctive variety of rice in his field, selected , cultivated and refined it further and this led to the farmer bred variety , now popularly known as Siddha Sanna. He named it after his father Siddhappa and mother Sannamma. Currently, this fine rice variety, easy to cook, tasty, is the flavour among many traditional rice farmers. They find it high yielding and it has a ready market. An interesting thing we observed in his house was the cattle shed which was positioned in the main house with a door from outside, just behind the main bedroom; obviously the cows are an integral part of the family.

This was quite a surprise for me; I always thought that cow sheds were never part of the main house. After settling down at the famous Adi Chinchigiri mutt guest house for the night , we set out the next morning towards Shimoga through Tiptur, Kadur and Bhadravati. Seema left us to go back to Mysore and Shanta Kumar (who was formerly the state coordinator of SOR Karnataka and now in-charge of the organic village project, for the villages allocated to Sahaja Samruddha, under the Organic Village project of the Karnataka State government). Satish, the veteran driver who came to ferry us through the rest of the journey, turned out to be not only an expert driver but also a stubborn time keeper, herding us from one meeting to another and making it possible not to be insanely behind schedule.

TUNGA & BHADRA

As this was my first trip through interior Karnataka I was fascinated by the fields we passed and the vegetation. Tiptur, a major coconut exporting district offered us un-interrupted views of coconut trees, for both of us from the Kerala, the land of coconuts this was a familiar sight. The other feature we noticed was the new crop of modern India - Engineering colleges. Then we crossed Arsikere, a dry , dusty town and to Kadur through roads lined with beautiful lantana plants with multi hued flowers. ( I was thinking about my meeting in Mysore with Murali and his project of creating handicrafts made with Lantana ).

 As we drove along, the dry areas began to give way to lush paddy and sugar cane fields as we approached Bhadravathi, on the banks of the river Bhadra. River Bhadra meets the River Tunga , together to form the Tungabhadra. Bhadravathi is famous for its paper mills. Incidentally, two days later we came near the Varada river, one of the tributaries of the bountiful Tungabadra river which meanders through much of Karnataka. Jyoti Prakash, a seed saver paddy farmer, was waiting for us with his full family (wife and two children) along with other seed savers of the area and a sumptuous lunch.

We walked through his verdant green paddy fields where he showed us his three and half acres with Siddha Sanna, Karigalu Sanna and HMT, looking green and healthy. By then lunch was being served, this was the most sumptuous lunch during our whole journey bringing home to us the tastes of rice varieties, the delicious dishes that can be prepared and the inextricable link between rice farmers and rice eaters. Rice conservers need rice lovers and vice versa. However, without this breed of desi rice seed savers and indefatigable rice farmers, none of us who are experimenting and falling in love with desi rice varieties would have had the opportunity to do so.

But these farmer- seed savers need the rice lovers to keep conserving varieties. This understanding has been dawning on us since sometime and that is the primary reason why the SOR campaign, which originated with seed saving and paddy land protection, is moving inexorably towards creating sustainable, vibrant markets for traditional rices. This was reflected in the conversations of the farmers there who were battling to hold on their rice paddies in the face of converting the lands to more lucrative arecanut groves or leasing the land for ginger cultivation ( with very high usage of fungicides) for a huge remuneration. The delicious aromas from the food brought me out of these musings.

The lunch was a collective effort each farmer gathered there brought one dish and I can’t but share the menu here. It was served in leaf plates under the arecanut orchard alongside the glistening green paddies. We began with a spicy sweet rasam like drink and then moved to Puliyogarahe rice made of Siddha Sanna rice, with Sambar Budhi made from the Karigajavalli ( the name reminded me of a fragrant flower), with pappadam , believe it or not made from Siddha Sanna rice , curd rice made from the incomparable chittika rice, and delicious rice payasam made from Karigajavalli. Usha and I couldn’t believe the amount we ate and then followed it up with buttermilk to facilitate digestion.

 The conversation during lunch and post lunch went from food to health to markets. We heard anecdotes about Rajesh, one of the farmers in the group, who has had a speech deficiency since birth and has seen tremendous improvement after eaing the medicinal njavara rice regularly. Jyoti Prakahs’s wife shared her experience of eating traditional varieties while carrying her second child , who she feels is in better health that her elder one. All these farmers eat the traditional rice varieties they grow, which is not the practice with conventional farmers who sell their crop in full and buy rice from the market.

Farmers expressed that they need better prices to make a comparable livelihood near a city and economic pressures on them are tremendous with their village being so close to the city. Mallikarjun who runs and organic store in Shimoga was very vehement that the SOR campaign should have some plans to keep these paddy farmers from converting to arecanut, which is irreversible and extermly damaging.

 He also suggested that marketing and awareness creation is required in smaller towns to grow the organic market and market for traditional rices. After the lunch and delayed for our next appointment we were briskly ferried by Satish to the farm agriculture research institute at …which has collected seeds from the campaign and is growing it out. From the farm to the Organic farming research Station, Navelle in where the scientists showed us around their seed diversity block of 180 seeds , many of them procured from SOR farmers.

From there to Mallikarjun’s organic shop was another short ride across the river. Located in the heart of Shimoga city, the shop is an attempt by Mallikarjun, formerly a staff of Sahaja Samruddha, along with a friend, to introduce organic food and traditional rices in a small town. It is a daunting and challenging task with people being wary of the higher prices and not being fully convinced of the merits of organic, desi etc… We bought some lovely brown Sidda Sanna rice from there.