Two museums in Mandya are saving native paddy grains from extinction

By R. Krishna KumaronNov. 27, 2018in Food and Water

Bhattada Boregowda in his rice museum in Shivahalli village.   | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

A farmer’s house in the nondescript Kirugavalu village is the country’s largest private rice museum

A serpentine road from Mysuru cuts through lush green fields and leads to an obscure village dotted with run-down houses and petty shops with thatched roofs.

Sidestepping a passing herd of sheep, I enter a narrow lane and reach a 75-year-old house with a row of pillars.

It is this house, in the nondescript Kirugavalu village in Karnataka’s Mandya district, that is the country’s largest private museum of different varieties of paddy.

It’s the culmination of 20 years of hard work by Syed Ghani Khan, a farmer, who is also a conservationist at heart. Armed with a degree in archaeology and museology, Khan always wanted to be a museum curator, but had to take up his family’s farming vocation after his father fell ill. A few years into farming, the chemical pesticides began to take a toll on Khan’s health. “This was the turning point; I decided to switch to organic farming,” he says.

One day, Khan received sacks containing 40 strains of paddy from his uncle. He was supposed to cultivate them, but he realised he knew nothing about them. As he asked around, he found that the scientists he interacted with also knew only about hybrid laboratory paddy, and not about indigenous strains.

Syed Ghani Khan in his paddy demo plot in Kirugavalu.   | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

“I was shaken that so much agricultural heritage was disappearing, and overcome by a strong desire to conserve it,” recalls Khan. He soon began to travel across the country as part of the ‘Save Our Rice’ campaign. Khan began to collect several varieties on the brink of extinction, and his repository soon grew from 40 varieties two decades ago to more than 960 today.

Two rooms on the first floor of his house were converted into a temporary museum, drawing farmers from across the country. At the other end of the field, a new structure is taking shape. This, I am told, will house the training centre for agro diversity. The museum will shift here too. The museum and the training centre have both been crowdfunded.

Aromatic and medicinal

Within Khan’s 15-acre farm is a one-acre plot that is distinct from the bright green fields around it. Here, the stalks swaying in the wind are black, grey and purple. This is where the nearly 1,000 indigenous varieties are growing. These crops need much less water than the 5,000 to 6,000 litres needed to cultivate a kilo of hybrid rice, Khan tells me. “This purple one is Nazar Battha from Maharashtra and the black one is Kaala Nouni from Assam; it is aromatic and has medicinal properties. And this here is Rajabhog, a favourite of the kings,” he says, walking me through the field.

Setting aside land was a big decision; it has reduced his annual income by at least ₹40,000. But Khan says: “This is a small price to pay to conserve a slice of our agricultural heritage.”

At the other end of the district, in Shivahalli village, where thatched huts and concrete houses, bikes and bovines co-exist, Bhattada Boregowda or Paddy Boregowda has his own museum. In fact, his was the first ever rice museum set up by a farmer.

Paddy varieties at Bhattada Boregowda’s rice museum in Shivahalli village.   | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

Boregowda’s house is adorned with certificates of recognition showered on him by the farming community.

“Native varieties are what I find interesting as they are suitable for local conditions,” says Boregowda, who has over the years accumulated 210 varieties of indigenous rice from across the country. He set up his museum in 2009 in a sprawling hall in his brother’s house.

Here, both paddy grains and paintings of traditional agricultural systems are displayed. He supplies farmers with seeds and Sidda Sanna, bred by Boregowda through a selection method, and named after his father Siddappa and mother Sannamma, is a bestseller, along with Salem Sanna and Kempu Sanna. Boregowda and Ghani Khan have together supplied indigenous rice seeds to over 7,000 farmers; and these varieties are today cultivated on nearly 1800 acres of land across Karnataka.

The low cost of cultivation of these native seeds, the absence of patents, and their comparatively lower water consumption levels may well be the solution to the debts and insecurity that plague farmers today. Native is the new rice.

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First published bu The Hindu on 10 Nov. 2018

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