Monday, July 12, 2004

Finer grain redefines culture

A report for Hindustan Times that I wrote on how changing food habits in Rajasthan over the years has harmed the culture associated with the traditional food:

Here is some food for thought. Changing food habits, like your switch from coarse millet to leavened bread, has caused irreparable damage to Rajasthan’s cultural fabric. Many folk songs and proverbs associated with endemic food habits of the state are now lost for good because of its changing food platter.

An ongoing study being conducted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is presently trying to document the cultural loss. “Rajasthan has traditionally been a coarse grain, such as millets and barley, consumer and that has been reflected in its history,” said Varsha Joshi, an IDS associate fellow. “But since the 1970s, intervention from the Centre propped up wheat cultivation that brought about a drastic shift in the food pattern,” she added.

Rice and wheat, Joshi informed, has been documented as a “privileged” commodity in many folk songs and proverbs. “We have songs that mention how a sweet porridge of wheat and jaggery is cooked only on special occasions like when a married lady returns to her brother,” said Joshi. “Now because of the changing food habits, for most of the youngsters these songs are a bygone. It is only the aged who remember them,” she added.

The study has also archived some samples of some folk songs for further reference. Though not easy to quantify, Joshi said that the loss was “immense”. “They were folk songs with a focus on food, ones that were sung at festivals. If you sit with three generations, the loss will show,” she added.

The thrust on cultivating wheat has also led to a decline in the “common resource property”. “At one point of time sangri was abundant. Today it is sold at Rs 100 for a kilogram,” said Joshi. Also phog, a rye-like seed, that was consumed with curd for its cooling properties. “Few in the urban areas have any idea of it,” she added.

Not only this. The changing food platter has also affected our health. “Because we no longer consume coarse grains but a fine variety of wheat, the level of micronutrients and fibre has gone down. Heart disorders, diabetes and gall bladder stones are becoming increasingly common,” said Joshi. “Now the doctors advise us to have a more fibrous diet,” she added.

Presently, work is on to document how certain food items were consumed because of its health benefits. Like rotis made out of millet that were always consumed with clarified butter and buttermilk to ease digestion. “What I am hinting at is that those in the centre framing policies must keep the region-specific contexts in mind,” said Joshi.

Here is an example of a folk song where a lady returns to her home on Holi and is treated to wheat porridge by her brother and to millet porridge by her mother:

Holi ke din chaar
Bai ey begi ajaey pavani
Mharo veer ranthavey bai ke lapsi
Mhari bhavaj bajrio ko kheech raey

A sample of a proverb that states wheat is consumed by the merchant community and coarse grains by the farmers:

Kurra karsa khai, ghaun jimaey bania.”


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