Arivu 2014. Theme: Rice

The learning methodology at Vidya Vanam is shaped each term around a theme: this time, it was rice. Throughout the term, all subject areas explore this decided theme, culminating in Project Day, a showcase of the community’s learning.

Theme-based learning

Click on this to view the album:

As you browse through the album there is a progression of the theme from one subject area to another. For example, in Math there is lots of measurement and statistics around rice; Science explores Biology and Agriculture; English, Hindi and Tamil has stories and poems, and the languages are used as vehicles of documentation and expression.

As you also go through pictures also of recipes, art work, intricate models meticulous crafts, you see that academic subjects are but one part of the learning.

Working with just the head, to the exclusion of the hands and the heart, could never lead to such cohesion in these students’ doing, and being. What is holistic understanding? The learners, they hear about the history of rice, and its related economics, and its price today, how they grow it in their farms and families, what their school garden looks like and how Gopi is the jester and Manav the resource-box, the dance that Archana and Kalpana choreographed, the different parts of rice that work well in craft — hay, husk, puffed rice — oh, hay rhymes with lay!, we could make a poem out of this… turns out there have been songs on rice for years immemorial! What are their memories, and those of their grandparents’? Bt cotton has reduced a community to a commodity, surely we need to understand and debate this… and so on. It all simply grows on them. Organically. Everything is part of a whole and they are wholly a part of it.

No wonder then, when P Sainath, the Chief Guest of the event, with great generosity and without haste, took time to say these words at the close of Project Day (accompanied by Tamil translation by the Director, Prema Rangachary):

P Sainath speaks to the Vidya Vanam community

First of all, thank you for inviting me here. It has been a fantastic experience. Well, on the way here from the airport, I requested that before I speak, I should see your project and exhibition. And I’m very glad I insisted on that because otherwise I would really have made a fool of myself.

Everything that I have seen today was of such high quality. I want say that — in the order of which I saw it — the singing, which was beautiful, the dance which was so good, the debate I heard here today on GM crops — it was so good. Both for and against, the speakers were of extremely high quality, the arguments were of extremely high quality. I can tell you that the level of the debate that I saw here was more sophisticated than what I find in the media, the TV channels and newspapers. There were real questions asked, and real questions were addressed. You could disagree with one side or the other, but it was a high quality debate far more sophisticated than what I see on television.

I had many things to say which I will not say now, because you have said it all in your exhibition.

Today as your are celebrating the theme of rice, all over the country, similar festivals are going on. In Bengal, Nobano, the new rice festival is being celebrated. In Tripura, Mayunamma, the goddess of rice is being worshipped this week. It is happening all over the country — it is so central to our existence as a society, as a nation. And for more than half the population of the world, as your exhibition shows us, this is the staple crop. So it is the number one crop in the world in that sense.

In the discussion that you had on whether GM is good, or Bt is good, what methods of production we must use, you know, on the one hand, the product we call rice is such an important, such a beautiful thing. On the other hand, the condition of the rice growers is not good at all, because of the prices they get. The actual producer makes very little income; people above him or her, they take much of the income — the big companies, the merchants, the money-lenders, they make the money from the rice.

That is also the story worldwide. Mostly rice is grown in Asian countries; the profits in rice are made outside of these countries. In fact, almost a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore, the first winner of the Nobel Prize outside of European, he said in one line: “Food is a source of great prosperity. But the production of food is a source of great misery.” — because the producer makes very little.

Some of the most ancient sources of cultivation of rice are in Eastern India. In fact, we know that there is evidence of grain in the Indus Valley civilisation, which was almost 2,000 years ago. However, there are even older sites of cultivation of rice in India. In Orissa, there are two districts called Koraput and Malkangiri. There is evidence that rice was domesticated in these places 8,000 years ago, second only to China. Even now, who grows it is very interesting. It is grown by very poor tribals and adivasis, by the Garabas, the Parajas, and the Khons. They have been growing rice for thousands of years, and they are the holders of some of the greatest knowledge of rice. So though many adivasi groups and tribes are not rice eaters, even then, those tribes that are, from the Koraput region, they are the custodians of the historical legacy of rice in this country.

There is a reason why some of the ancient tribes are also so good at rice, and it has something to do with the character of rice itself. Just like you have done so many projects here, there has been a very big project in the world recently, comparing the social structures of rice and wheat. And the difference is this: that rice-growing is much more a community activity, a collective effort. It brings people together and they work in greater synchronisation and harmony. Wheat-growing, according to the studies that have been coming out in the last 2-3 years, is much more an individual product. You set your crop and you wait for the rain. But in rice-growing, it’s very complex. Lots of people have to work together — for the transplantations, for seeding, for irrigation, for the watering of the plants. It requires a large scale collective effort of coordination and synchronisation. Rice-growing communities are more closely knit than wheat-growing communities.

Also, the role of women’s labour is greater in rice, in paddy, than in most other crops.

The food security of a nation and the security of a nation is very largely dependent, and going to be more dependent, on the production of food grain, especially rice. In your exhibition, you had mentioned MSSRF, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, and the founder of MSSRF, Dr.M.S.Swaminathan himself said about 2-3 years ago, “Today the world is ruled by those nations that control the guns. In ten years’ time, the world will be dominated by those who control the grains, and not the guns.”

Rice is already the biggest crop in India, bigger than wheat. But as Tagore said, those who produce and those who exploit the product called rice, have different benefits. Indeed, half a dozen companies control the rice price of the world in the markets and commodity exchanges. It is not the farmers who control it, it is not the women who do the paddy transplantation — she has no say in the price of rice, in the profits — but just half a dozen companies which control the product made by the labour of millions of others.

Everywhere in this country where rice is consumed, there is a goddess, a deity of rice: Annapoorna, Dhanyaalakshmi, Mayunamma. Even as you travel to homes in the east, there is a sacred space in every house where rice of the previous year is stored. And then, when the new rice is harvested, it is replaced, and continued to be worshipped. In spite of all this, though our total production is growing, little by little each year, the situation of how much rice we need to grow and how much we are growing is not good. And, the varieties of rice that we have are reducing very fast. So we need to be giving a lot more attention to rice cultivation, to rice cultivators, and to the women farmers who are the basis of rice production in this country.

Lastly, I want to answer the question that was put to me from the stage. Again, the debate on the GM crops was of extremely high quality, the points were very clear, the arguments of both the sides were excellent. As a journalist, as a reporter, as a writer, I cover agriculture. One last word that was said by a young man here. He said, “Okay, you’re saying that we have no evidence now. Maybe 35 years from now there will be evidence.” That has happened in many products. For hundred years, we refused to accept the existence of evidence that tobacco causes cancer. Today we know, after millions of deaths.

My answer to the question is this: We must do the research You can do genetic engineering research, or any other type of research. But it has to be subject to three or four conditions. One, you don’t have science for the sake of science. You have it to address an issue — how does it address the livelihoods of people. That is one condition.

Second is — Also, I heard in the debate, it was Bt versus Hybrid. In India, Bt is also a Hybrid. It is not a straight variety. The Bt cotton introduced in India is a genetically modified crop, of a hybrid variety. What’s used in the US is a straight variety. So in India, even Bt cotton is a hybrid cotton.

Also, we need to worry about the loss of varieties. Where Bt cotton has come, ancient Indian traditional cotton has been wiped off. But apart from Bt, and apart from hybrid, there were also cottons that were neither Bt nor hybrid but from the Indian soil. Those were the cheapest to grow, they did not need pesticides because they are native. They require very little water, they grow in Rajasthan. We destroyed all those varieties of cotton. And cotton, today, is the sector that takes the most amount of pesticides where earlier, cottons from India, China and Egypt were famous. Today, even the manufacturers of Bt have admitted that other pests are affecting even their cotton. That’s why they are changing from Bolgart 1 to Bogart 2. Officially they have admitted that the first Bt cotton they bought, the pests are immune to them.

So think about livelihoods, usefulness, cost… It is about 200-300% more costly to grow these present varieties of cotton, than it was 15 years ago.

And lastly I wanted to say, all the projects that I saw, I was deeply impressed by your method of learning. I congratulate both the students and the teachers who have done such a good job. Even a simple project like the Butterfly project, the Frog project, it was a different kind of learning which I’m sure will take you in a better direction than the kind of education and schooling that I had.

I think I know quite a bit about rice, but I did not know that
Nakasone means “middle root”, and Toyota means “bountiful paddy field”. I had no idea of this till I came here. I congratulate all of you, I think this a great effort, a brilliant, brilliant exhibition. The debate was terrific, your songs were great. And I think this method of learning will educate you better than the method of learning which we understood, where everything that came from outside the country was better.

Thank you very much.

A voice recording of the speech (with Tamil translation by Prema Paati) is available here

– – – – – – – –

With the first performances of the day taking place in the field, I slipped under the proverbial red ribbon, yet uncut, into the exhibition hall. The camera, detailed projects and an early visitor can make for an exquisite, intimate experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking at the exhibits, and documenting them in silence. In the album there are also interspersed pictures with children manning their exhibits, explaining their ware, and sharing each others’ projects; these were taken later. A deep gratitude for Aarooran, his camera, the photography he taught me and the photographer that he is.

A tribute to the Anaikatti camp and all things beautiful.

Anaikatti.The word rings with a familiar sweetness, spreads a reminiscent
fragrance… A little gulmohar, lot of open spaces and fresh air, and
maybe I smell some magic too.
Listen and smell but also look into my words to find what I want to
show you – A beautiful place and community, locked in a beautiful

The Annual summer camp of our dance school brought with it a fresh
intensity and renewed magic. For 10 days I thought that “living” dance
meant the rigourous three-hours dance and theory session but there was
more in store. This sank in after I soared through those three days at
Vidya Vanam – good times fly, but through better ones I soar.

To give a box type time table or a minute to minute schedule would be
to rob you of the (over)flowing beauty of our sojourn. The essence of
it was a certain flow of instincts that were given space to lilt with
the beauty that upheld the atmosphere – whether it was in the form of
a gentle poetry appreciation session or an enthusiastic, charged adavu
session. No doubt this entailed freedom of mind and space for
everybody. A freedom that should not be mistaken for confused chaos –
instead, it was like the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi said, “Right
freedom is always accompanied by order”. There was no need for
imposing discipline or motivating by rewards – order came from within.
This beautiful space was what Akka and Paati pictured when they saw
through their collaborated vision.

A lot of these naturally nice things were a result of the little
community that had formed. Senior students were supposed to take care
of the little ones but sweetly enough, it was the little ones who had
more love to give. Living with teachers in a space outside dance class
and while eating, doing yoga and laughing did a great deal in building
a student-teacher rapport that blurred fear and distance and sprinkled
some love onto the relationship.

But perhaps our greatest mistake, and joy, was in dancing with the
Anaikatti students. First, we wrongly prided ourselves in being able
to give 10 talented students of Vidya Vanam School the opportunities
availed by the students of Coimbatore – but instead, we were humbled
by how much we had to learn from them. The world may shake their heads
and pitifully call them the lesser fortunate – but, the irony! We, who
claim to be advanced and blessed, have not an ounce of the spirit for
life that those beautiful children possess. In the end it was us
thanking God for being able to learn from them.

Rukmini Athai had this to say: “I feel that the divine spirit that is behind all these arts is one. You cannot say that music is an art that should be heard only at a concert, nor is dancing an art that is meant only for the stage. All these arts cannot be real unless they become part of Life.” A unified and holistic approach of bringing ‘living the arts’ that Athai speaks of was experienced at the dance camp – not
only in the aforementioned abstract ways but also in the activities that took place – from yoga in the morning, nature treks and biosphere visits, salangai and garland making, ‘abhinaya’ dumbsharades, new (and swift!) dance-piece learning sessions.. to washing plates after eating, sitting on the floor and doing everything as a united community.

We cannot be grateful enough to Paati for giving us such an
opportunity. If she sees this, she’d only smile her big smile and say
“I’d love to have you over, anytime!” and then laugh her big laugh.
Through all the hospitality and help from her part come the waves of
strength present in her vision for Vidya Vanam school and her love not
only for the children of Anaikatti, but for the children of humanity.
Paati, if you’re reading this, thank you so much. Again and again.

Finally, I suppose our only regret is that we did not have more time
at Vidya Vanam. But with the little time we had, a lot of memories
were created to be carried back with us. (In addition to photographs
and memoirs by hidden inspired writers from amongst us 😉 ) Now, back
in class, I see a renewed intensity and a fresh beauty that wasn’t
there before; also the instincts swaying towards the beauty and
quietly asking, “Which  beautiful experience next?”


This article, with more corrections, is going to be published in Sruti magazine sometime soon!


All photographs by Aarooran Ramaswamy. Use it if you want, but please let us know.