CHENNAI: In photography, negative space (or white space) and fill the frame are two important concepts for composing an image. The former is the space surrounding the subject, and acts as a breathing space for the eyes and has a meaning of its own while the latter, is where you fill the frame with the subject,” begins A Raja Chidambaram, a national award-winning photojournalist-turned-farmer. Over the last year, he has been treating his ancestral farmland in Telungu Palayam, Coimbatore, as his frame, composing it with healthy agricultural practices, and creating his sustainable green world.
“I am the sixth generation in my family to take up agriculture. However, I had no idea about the nuances of the practice until a few years ago. Before that, my vision for the future was aligned differently,” he informs. Wanting to make a mark in photojournalism, his focus was documenting the social issues plaguing Kashmir and tracing the state of the Rohingya refugees in the country.
“I was marching in this direction until I was introduced to the tenets of agricultural scientist and environmental activist Nammazhvar in 2012. My attention turned towards nature. Soon, this question, ‘Are we living a meaningful life?’, simmered in my mind and I was constantly drawn towards the environment. During this time, I attended agriculturalist Subhash Palekar’s 10-day Zero Budget Natural Farming workshop. That process realigned my goals,” he says.
Earlier last year, after a 13-year stint as a photojournalist, the former employee of The New Indian Express, decided to bid adieu to the camera to wield the spade and sickle. “Though I grew up in an agrarian family, knowledge about farming practices came purely through observation and not because of training. As a child, I used to play amid the lush farms and remember watching my father till the land. But he often used to tell me how farming was not lucrative. So when I decided to step into the field full-time, I took it up with passion and as a challenge — to turn agriculture into a profitable and sustainable profession,” he shares.
In this journey, Raja has been tapping on technological offerings in the form of multi-functional machines, turning his farm into a self-sustaining turf, where the agricultural process is less labour, time and cost-intensive and more efficient. “The pandemic taught me a lot. I’ve had people visiting our farm seeking vegetables, fruits, eggs, and milk for their children when they had restricted access to it during the lockdown. This made me cognizant of the role of a farmer. Even if the world is locked down, the operations of a farm and the farmer don’t cease. And without a farmer making the essentials, how will the production cycle prosper? Despite being in an important position, why is agriculture not considered a lucrative profession? Why are farmlands dwindling? Why is the role of a farmer sidelined?” he asks.
With well-defined plans for the future, Raja is currently working towards integrating his farm with cattle and poultry; cultivating bananas in a coconut farm (inter-cultivation), and allocating a piece of land to harvest produce including myriad fruits and vegetables.
“Leaving a job that provided me with a stable income led me to find ways through which I could earn almost the same through agriculture. I wanted to ensure I reaped what I sowed, and was self-sufficient. So, the work was to turn the harvest into profitable commodities. Besides, if I can make this a successful business model, more people will realise the potential in farming and step into it,” he shares.
At a time when mass migration for employment seems to be the norm, developing such a sustainable model in farming will boost local employment opportunities and the economy, he points out. “People in rural areas will not have to leave their families behind and travel to cities in search of a job. There will be less dependency, equitable distribution of resources, people will live closer to their roots, be self-sufficient, and perhaps even lead a healthier life,” he shares, reflecting on his life.
Stepping out of the world of erratic assignments, Raja has now learned to breathe and soak in the goodness of slowing down. “I sleep on time, I eat healthily, my screen time is less than three hours and I ensure to turn the WiFi off after 6 pm. I am also in the process of building a farmhouse here and moving into it. Another goal is to make this place accessible to people who want to experience this lifestyle…a homestay of sorts. I already have had journalist friends visit the farm, spend time in this space and tell me they felt relaxed and more productive!” he shares.
Adopt a farmer
Raja’s ideas for the future are holistic and he seems confident that this will be a defining year in his journey. “I want to plant saplings of native trees including neem, illupai, pungai and poovarasan maram, to control the temperature; focus on integrating more yellow flowers in the farm to attract more honey bees which will in turn increase production, set up beehive boxes, plant timber wood trees, which will not only maintain the temperature but the leaves it sheds during spring can also be used as manure for the land. So, everything in my farm — from the animals, the produce to the waste — is designed according to the zero waste agriculture methods,” he details.
From fruits, vegetables, meat, banana leaves, areca nut, milk to eggs, Raja’s farm will be shaped to cater to different needs, making it a thriving bio cradle. “I also want to flag a weekend market in the farm, where people from in and around can visit and purchase fresh produce,” he shares. Raja also urges people to look beyond social media activism when it comes to supporting farmers. “Of late, I have been noticing people change their social media profile with a picture which reads ‘I stand with farmers’, in support of the country-wide protests.
While social media activism is good, I urge apartment associations, welfare groups, working professionals, and anyone who has the intention of helping the country’s agrarian population to come together and adopt a farmer in supporting their livelihood needs. Even if five people chip in Rs 500 a month, it can be directed towards helping farmers purchase basic needs like tools, feed for the cattle or manure. Farmers can also be invited to apartments and the residents can purchase products from them directly. They can be offered help in their farmlands too. These are small steps that we as a society can take to green the economy with agriculture. After all, it’s what feeds the entire population, right?” he says, giving us sage advice.
Farm fresh produce
From fruits, vegetables, meat, banana leaves, areca nut, milk to eggs, Raja’s farm will be shaped to cater to different needs, making it a thriving bio cradle. “I also want to flag a weekend market in the farm, where people from in and around can visit and purchase fresh produce,” Raja shares.