CHENNAI: Celebratory cries of Pongalo Pongal, rustic mud pots oozing with the ghee-laden sweet, cattle decked in anklets and turmeric paste, fresh yield from farms turned into a scrumptious feast... Four urban farmers talk to Kannalmozhi Kabilan and Vaishali Vijaykumar about their plans to celebrate the harvest festival amid sun, soil and merry-making.
NOT JUST ANOTHER ANIMAL FARM
It has been five years since Ezhilarasi bought her farm in the village of Vellanthi in Ranipet district. For five years now, she has celebrated Pongal in her land, among her animals, and she would not have it any other way. She does not call it a celebration; it is much more — a thanksgiving. “Pongal is when you offer thanks — to the land that gave you the yield, to the animals that worked alongside, to the rain that blessed you at the right times, to the people who stood by you. They are the farmer’s gods,” she says.
Staying true to traditions
In this way, her Thai maasam festivities stay truer to the traditions of yore. And it is a season of great delight, she says. Employed as a teacher in a government school, she doesn't get to stay at the farm every day (her standard of ideal). But she jumps at the chance to get away from the city every time she doesn't have to show up at school. Vidumurai vivasayi*, she calls herself. Pongal is the most important vidumurai (holiday) of all. “The village comes alive during the festival. The rice would have been harvested. The vegetables would be ripe for the picking. Come Bhogi day, all the farmers come together to set up the sandhai; it is not just trade that draws them there. Families reunite; people return from the cities. Even if it is a simple cotton sari, there are new clothes to be worn. Even the highways look festive with so many people boarding buses or riding pillion to get home” she narrates.
A haven for animals
In her part of paradise, Pongal is spent caring for the animals. Cows and bulls have a special capacity for love, says Ezhil, tellingus about her eight full-grown ones. They all have Tamizh names, a tradition followed in her family for every newborn. She recently had the calf Kothai join her family. It’s these animals that make staying away from the farm much more difficult and the return even sweeter. But the animals have their ways of letting you know how much they care, she says. She recalls the time Komban was injured on the leg. Despite bleeding profusely and being in immense pain, he stood stoically and let her attend to him without difficulty, she says. Then there is Tamizh the bull. “Rescued from the butcher’s block when he was just a year-and-a-half-old, he still has vestiges of that trauma. Every time he meets someone new, his first reaction is that of terror. Once he gets past that, he turns babylike! There’s a tale of a bull which says he found his way back home even after being let go in Kasi after the family was faced with poverty. This is no Kasi, but my bulls always find their way home,” she says affectionately. It is only natural that Pongal should centre around them. One day is set aside to sit down with the farmworkers and share the bounty. “The way we do it, Pongal is celebrated with the family. We meet on Maattu Pongal day to attend to our animals and share a meal,” she says.
Slice of life
Amid these satisfying rituals, it’s the inclusion of like-minded strangers in the festivities that she looks forward to year after year. “People in the city have a great amount of interest in living the farm-life. Perhaps through social media, or word of mouth, I’ve had visitors for the season from my first year in the farm. They come out here, stay a day or two, all to experience this way of life. It brings me such joy to be able to provide them with this chance,” she gushes. This year will be no different. The harvest has been slightly delayed but will be ready in time for the big day. Despite the poorer-thanusual yield, organic way of farming has given her much more returns that one can expect. Come Maattu Pongal day, she will be at the farm, celebrating and worshipping her animals. As usual, a few enthusiasts have planned to join her. With all this in place, it is going to be a Happy Pongal indeed. *Contrary to the popular urban weekend farmer, Ezhil sets off to her farm every holiday she gets at her day job. Hence, the name.
EMBRACING THE WAY OF THE VILLAGE
For Parthasarathy VM, agriculture is the way of life. Though his parents had sent him off to the city to study and find work, he had stayed connected to the village — returning home every chance he got. And Pongal had been the biggest homecoming of the year. Several years, a marriage and a child later, the festival has become a more integral part of life. With him holding a job in Chennai, it continues to carry a small ‘homecoming’ part too.
“We have been farming in the village of Pandeswaram, 30 kilometres outside of Chennai, since 2009. I took a break from work for a few years to manage our farm. When I returned to work, my wife Rekha quit her job to focus on marketing organic farm produce. Between the two of us and the collective we work with, we do organic farming in 30 acres of land but have managed to convert 110 acres of farms into chemical-free farming,” he explains. While this work brings Parthasarathy to the village every weekend, Rekha stays there longer. Her role there has only increased after she was elected as panchayat president. For the entire family, his eight-year-old son included, Pongal is a high-profile affair. The harvest is scheduled for a couple of weeks before Pongal. This year, the work has been delayed — a late monsoon had set back the sowing time and this is the consequence. They barely have a day to prepare and process the produce. Yet, with many families dependent on this yield, they will find ways to deliver, he says.
Work and play
But Pongal is not just work, there is plenty of play too. A thiruvizha (village festival) is being organised for the occasion, which will include a cricket tournament. Yet, he is a little disappointed that the festival no longer has the traditional games he was familiar with as a child. “Back then, there was uriyadi, aadu puli aatam and eruthu virattu. You do not have that anymore,” he notes. Parthasarathy strongly believes that it takes a village to raise a child. “The values it builds is mindblowing. Unfortunately, what education has taught us is to be selfish and greedy. But the village breaks all this. You may have people who might not have food for the next meal but would still give everything away because there are visitors at the door. These are values that our kid has learned here,” he explains. He would much rather move to the village permanently, but his son Bharathi studies in the city. But with their frequent visits to the village, Bharathi gets to experience this side of life. He cares if his friends have eaten, he worries for all the pups and chicken in the village, Parthasarathy narrates fondly. “He belongs here! We feed him and send him out and we’d probably only see him in the night. Somebody in the village will make sure he is safe; if he is up to some prank, somebody will put him in his place. The entire village will take the liberty of instilling the right attitude in him and that is something I do not have to worry about,” he says.
Farming, too, seems to agree with Bharathi. He loves helping around, feeding the dogs and running after the chicken. Bharathi has managed to introduce this way of life to his citybred friends. “He has also been obsessed about climate change. So he has been talking about planting more trees in the farm,” Parthasarathy recounts. It is this way of life that he hopes to hold on to. Perhaps, the family might move and find a permanent home in this piece of paradise and the forthcoming Pongals may not involve homecoming anymore.
BIG DREAMS FOR BETTER FARMING
A whole pumpkin, a bagful of natural compost, newly painted terracotta pots, and sacks of grains occupy different corners of K Malar Kodi’s house in Anna Nagar. Amid the stock, she sits and peacefully cuts fresh vegetables harvested from her brother’s integrated farm on an aruvamanai or boti (long curved blade attached to a log of wood). A plateful of kodo millet paste is left on the table to dry. “It will later be used to prepare vadam,” she says.
Farmer by choice
Malar has been tirelessly planning for Pongal celebrations in her village — Uthiramerur, where she owns a sevenacre land. She cultivates rice and sugarcane on her land and has employed an agrarian family of five to care for it. The 58-year-old, a first-generation organic farmer has been ploughing her way to a better life for almost a decade. She holds a degree in Farm Technology from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. “The course has taught me natural farming processes and techniques. With education, I’m confident that I can transform even a barren land into something fertile. My fellow farmers and family members have been supportive and I have never faced any gender barriers,” says Malar who conducts gardening and agriculture-based workshops along with her elder brother.
Harvest from the heart
Today she will be celebrating Pongal in her village. “This is a good break from the routine. The harvested crops are collected in a sack and worshipped. We take a pumpkin and carve a hole in the centre. It’s stuffed with chana dal, cowpeas, urad dal, moong dal, and groundnuts. The pumpkin is placed on a wooden stove and burnt in fire. This makes for a healthy snack for kids,” says Malar. In her village, during Bhogi, only leaves and twigs will be burned; the ash will be sprinkled on the farm as natural manure; the horns of cows will be painted with lime paste instead of artificial dyes, and lunch will be served on banana leaves. There’s no space for plastic. “The entrance of our house is adorned with thoran made of mango leaves, neem leaves, avaram and pana flowers. New dresses are gifted to the farmers. We all sit together and eat our meals, share our happiness and play traditional games. There’s no difference between people. Everybody is treated equal,” says Malar, who feels that agriculture has transformed her life.
Nature versus nurture
“I have a small house in the village. Since our house is only 10 km away from Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, migratory birds often visit and drop seeds over the fields. It’s common to see fireflies in the night. Pongal for me is about respecting your farm by letting things happen the natural way and living in harmony with other organisms. Be it a milkweed bug, mosquitoes or termites — you will notice that every creature is created for a purpose. It’s a cycle. Let things be, and do not disturb the balance by using chemicals and pest control.” Malar wants to use the resources provided by the government, and her education to spread awareness among the farmers on marketing strategies and money-making. “Our ancestors might not have had formal education about crops and techniques but they practised it ethically. But today, it has become a necessity to have a formal education. Most of the bigger corporates rely on agriculture and farmers. For instance, I grow sugarcane which is a cash crop. If I sell it as palm sugar, I get paid more than selling it in the raw form. These are things that farmers need to know. Though there are risks involved, there are also experienced people to guide youngsters if they decide to join. It’s high time for the next generation to step up and bring about an agricultural revolution with their IT knowledge,” she shares. Malar, along with fellow farmers, is working on setting up a Farmer’s Producers Company where they will have healthy discussions regarding schemes in National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. They hope to address the financial problems, and make agriculture a better place for the community, and the next generation.
HARVEST OF MEMORIES
A 100-year-old ancestral house, an eightacre farm with rice varieties, bullock cart race, and a potful of jaggery Pongal — for 60-year-old Selvaraj Kumar, the mention of Pongal conjures up such vivid celebratory images. From his younger days to his silver years, the sexagenarian hasn’t missed out on a single Pongal celebration in his village Chengattur, around 110 km from Chennai.
A special place
“My father Selvaraj CA moved to Chennai in 1952 for employment soon after I was born. My brothers and I would be sent to our paternal grandparents’ house for all festivals and holidays. Pongal held a special place in our hearts. My grandfather K Adhikesava Mudaliyar and grandmother Jayalakshmi Ammal owned a piece of land. They taught us everything about farming, cultivation and traditional affairs,” says Kumar who grows rice varieties at Chengattur, and visits his village three days a week. Despite plenty of advancements in technology and the changing ways of celebrating this festival, certain rituals stay deeprooted in his memories. “My grandmother would gather old leaves and twigs from the farm and burn it on Bhogi to ward off evil. We owned several cows too. The cow dung was mixed in water and sprinkled around the house to start a new beginning. A sikku kolam would adorn the entrance of our house. On the big day, Pongal would be prepared in eight mud pots on wooden fire. We had a large, open space at the centre of our house and that's where the food preparation would take place. Our kitchen was huge and the whole family would gather under one roof to relish a delectable spread prepared from the year’s harvest. The whole village would shout Pongalo Pongal at noon when the sun is at its peak,” reminisces Kumar.
His grandfather Adhikesava Mudaliyar would distribute clothes and four annas to the farmers. The pongal prepared used to be given to the poor. On Maattu Pongal, the horns of cows were generally painted in bright colours and anklets would be tied to the legs. The kids would be taken in bullock carts around the village while the professionals raced. On the last day — Kaanum Pongal, families would pack lunch and go to nearby places within the village. “We used to have folk performances, dramas and dance round-the-clock. Unfortunately, with time, people don't celebrate it that way anymore. The smell of red soil, the taste of healthy vegetables and growing up by the lush green farms...sometimes I wonder if kids of this generation will ever get to experience those simple pleasures,” he shares. Kumar ensures to take his daughters every year to the village. They continue to prepare Pongal in smaller pots, have lunch with family, and come back to the city on the same day. “I have six people working on the farm. Many have moved to cities in search of alternative employment. The next generation should step up to take farming to another level. The spite of farmers in our country is terrible and we often forget that they’re the backbone of our country. I want my children to carry forward the legacy of our village celebrations,” he shares.
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