Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine

Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine 

By Ayesha Mukherjee, with original illustrations by Argha Manna 

This blog article is jointly published with the Untold Lives Blog, British Library

William Hunter and his family travel to Midnapur during the Orissa famine of 1866. Artist: © Argha Manna

In the suffocating heat and violent downpours of early August, 1866, Sir William Hunter, his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeyed to Midnapur, in Bengal, where Hunter had been appointed Inspector of Schools for the South-Western Division. They travelled by road in their victoria driven by Hunter himself. The carriage and horses were crammed on a ferry by which means they crossed the torrential river Damodar. The crossing took 14 hours, and Hunter drove on until the route was cut off by a chasm created by the floods. Horses unhitched, the carriage was dragged down the bank to the other side of the chasm. They reached a rest house which offered little provision. They travelled again, until, hungry and exhausted, they finally arrived at their destination. Hunter then left at once to survey the area as the government was anxious to learn about the effect of the Orissa famine on schools in neighbouring districts. To his horror, he found Bishnupur, the ancient capital of Birbhum, a city of paupers,” as he noted in his letter to the Director of Public Instruction. The famine relief operations were disrupted by a cholera outbreak. At his own expense, Hunter set up a temporary orphanage for starving children who roamed the streets, feeding on worms and snails (Skrine, pp. 113-15; Hunter, Annals, pp. 53-4).  

Portrait of Sir William Hunter. Artist: © Argha Manna

The author of The Annals of Bengal (1867, repr. 1868) – a text often mined for information on the notorious famines in Orissa (1866) and in Bengal (1769-70) – was not simply an excavator of archives. An aspect of his life not often told seems to be epitomised by this stark physical encounter with famine-affected areas, which officers like Hunter (and their families) could not avoid. For Hunter, writing the famous Annals was punctuated by such experiences, as he developed his comparative analytical methods, placing side by side archival findings which allowed him to reconstruct the 1770 Bengal famine, and his immediate knowledge of the Orissa famine a century later. These two famines are infamous events in the history of British administration of the Bengal Presidency. The first resulted in the loss of 10 million lives, and yet the East India Companys revenue increased in that famine year; during the second, 200 million pounds of rice were exported to Britain while a million starved to death in Orissa (Hunter, Annals, p.56; Naoroji, pp.627-8). Hunters analytical method relied on recovering local ecology, history, and demography, loosely modelled on the English annals of parishes. As Hunter wrote to Cecil Beadon in 1868, My business is with the people” – a rather risky remark perhaps in an epistle to the former lieutenant-governor of Bengal, recently deposed for his mishandling of the Orissa famine and scant attention to the suffering of the people. Moreover, Hunters approach was analogical, comparing not only past and present famines, but British and Indian models of record keeping; and, finally, it was predictive. Hunter believed that better administration and prevention of future famines were possible through historically informed reflection on current experience.  

Portrait of Sir George Campbell. Artist: © Argha Manna

Another figure, who has shaped interpretations of both the Orissa and Bengal famines, is Sir George Campbell. He presided over the 1866 Famine Commission and travelled through famineaffected districts of Orissa to gather information. His Memoir on the 1770 famine was published in 1867 as part of a Further Report” (part 4) on the famines of 1866 in Bengal and Orissa, and reprinted by J.G. Geddes in the selection of official documents published in 1874 because the original edition [was] scarce. In early 1867, the Commissions report was published in two large printed folio volumes, and Campbell, upon his return to England in the spring, was asked to examine the India Office records for information on former Indian famines and the lessons to be derived from them” (Campbell, Indian Memoirs, vol.2, p.130). The famine Memoir” was the supplementary report that resulted from this endeavour. Campbell, one of the Punjab school” of British Indian administrators, closely engaged with agrarian questions and the welfare of the masses, was a longtime campaigner for the protection of tenants’ rights. The main recommendations of his report – secure tenures for cultivators, more expenditure on irrigation, and improvement of transport and communications networks – were based on a three-way comparison of the famines of 1770 (Bengal), 1783 (North West Provinces, Oudh, Punjab), and 1866 (Orissa).    

It is worth noting that Hunter and Campbell were simultaneously active in compiling and analysing records of the 1770 Bengal famine at a time when the colonial government was engaged in controversial debates about its policies and practices of record keeping and publication. This brings a different perspective to the history of the famine, for their evolving approaches to famine records were closely tied to wider political arguments regarding archival preservation, and its relationship with power and governance. In the 1860s, after lengthy debates with the Records Committee (a newly formed advisory body) two opposing models of archival organisation emerged (Bhattacharya, pp.52-90). The government favoured the cheaper option of decentralised and departmentally governed preservation, proposed selective publication of records, with a policy of limited access based on bureaucratic privilege – a model designed to make archiving an utilitarian and instrumental endeavour for the purpose of governance. The other model (vigorously argued by Records Committee members like James Long and J.T. Wheeler) recommended the creation of a centralised muniments room to support permanent public access for the advancement of historical knowledge (Wheeler, 1862). This also raised the rather tricky question of selection – what records might be deemed valuable enough to preserve, while useless” records were destroyed? The answers remained nebulous in the debates, and the ambivalence is relevant for famine history.  

Selections of famine records in IOR: V/27/830/14. © British Library

Cover page of IOR: V/27/830/14. © British Library

 A slim, unassuming, and little-known official publication consciously drew the work of Hunter and Campbell together in 1868, precisely when debates about record keeping and publishing came to a head. The volume was published in Calcutta from the Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, a position newly formed in 1863 to oversee the transition to a Central Press for official publications (This marked an odd moment in government policy, when a decentralised model was preferred for record preservation, while printing practices were being actively centralised). What seems to be the only extant copy, considerably fragile, is held by the British Library (IOR: V/27/830/14). As the title page asserts, this is a collection of extracts from the India Office records on Famines in India, 1769-1788, compiled by George Campbell, probably for the purpose of writing his supplementary report after the Orissa famine. But to it is appended, Remarks on the Great Famine of 1769-70” by William Hunter. Although the compiled records overlap with the better known texts of the Annals and the Memoirs, this is a significant volume for a number of reasons. It brings out the subtly differentiated positions of Hunter and Campbell on the 1770 famine, and on the usefulness” of historical records. It demonstrates that the polemics of record selection and preservation impacted upon the interpretations of famine policy and history. It allows us to trace (and understand the value of tracing) a textual history of imperial records of famines through a specific case.  

Title page of Hunter’s Annals, 1868. Source: University of California Libraries, Internet Archive.

This calls for a more extensive academic study, but I will highlight here a few key points that come up if we compare Campbells selection of extracts published here with Hunters selection of sources appended to his Annals. Campbell confined himself to the India Office Records, prioritised extracts, and arranged them chronologically. Hunters combination of India Office and local records, on the other hand, were organised to show the different emphases of different types of record. Campbell admitted in his famine memoir, It has only been possible by completely sifting the general records to pick out here and there the passages that bear on the calamity [1770 Bengal famine]. The result is not to give us its history in any great detail, but I trust that enough has been gathered to put us in possession of its general character.” (Geddes, p.409) For Hunters purpose – which was not only to offer lessons” in governance – nuanced historical detail found in records in English, Bengali, and Persian, from a wide range of sources, proved valuable: the India Office in London; the Calcutta offices; revenue and judicial records from the courts and offices of Birbhum, Burdwan, and Bankura; domestic archives of rajahs and families in Birbhum and Bishnupur; tracts and newspapers in Joykrishna MukherjeeUttarpara collection; memorial reconstructions in interviews conducted by Hunter, and local legends gathered from tribes such as the Santhals. Hunters approach was rather more peripatetic than being confined to the London office! Working in remote district offices, he described the isolation of this labour which produced a work written in the jungle, eight thousand miles distant from European libraries.” (Hunter, History, p.1) He published a selection of varied sources in appendices to the Annals. The agenda of historical recovery was evidently wider than Campbells emphasis on discovering the cause” of the 1770 famine, which, Campbell urged, was drought, not inundation. On the subject of revenue remission during famine years, we often see Hunter and Campbell making almost identical selections from the India Office records; but in his additional annotations, Hunter critically examines claims in these records of the extent of remission. Their regional focus also differs. Hunters aim was to write a local history of Bengalwhile Campbell highlights the frequently ignored impact of the famine on Bihar.  

Hunter and Campbell compiling famine records. Artist: © Argha Manna

In 1874, Campbell took over as Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and the reprinting of his famine memoir in Geddes was partly designed, I think, to underline this change of governance. Although Campbell had a reputation of being a more radical figure than Hunter, who is considered to have defined a colonial agenda for historical research, the formers approach to record selection and analysis of the famine of 1769-70 appears far more aligned with the governments proposition that the ultimate end of record-keeping was colonial governance. This seems to be where the two men  subtly differed. While Hunters recommendations to the government in 1872 supported decentralised record-keeping in each department, with regard to selection and publication he was on a very different page. He proposed a careful system of central and local cross-checking before any records were destroyed and laid a balance of emphasis on Indian records as well as English ones. He recommended that selections should be made by a two-fold organisation, acting partly in England and partly here [India].” (Hunter to Howell, Nov. 1871, NAI) The British government, on the other hand, were entirely blunt in their assertion that “the publication of old records is a matter of political [rather than historical] importance. The selections, they hoped, would do much to prevent misconstruction of the policy and motives of Indian Government. (Govt. to Argyll, Dec. 1872, NAI) Ironically, many of the policies of governance they may have sought to defend were policies that Campbell the new lieutenant-governor, with his reputation for radical” politics and insistence on tenancy reforms, sought to change.  

Such complexities in the characters, motivations, and official functions or reputations of Campbell and Hunter, which shifted with movements in regional governance and colonial politics, show that neither figure quite fits the clichés of the colonial bureaucrat or the radical protester. Their analyses of famines transformed across time, and their texts bear these marks. The intertextuality of this writing, its political impulses, its investment in very particular processes (and policies) of compilation and archiving can shed new light on the famine histories these figures are known for recovering.   

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Further Reading 

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi (2019). Archiving the British Raj: History of the Archival Policy of the Government of India, with Selected Documents, 1858-1947. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.  

Campbell, George (1893). Memoirs of My Indian Career. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co. 

Campbell, George, and William Wilson Hunter (1868). Extracts from Records in the India Office Relating to Famines in India, 1769-1788, compiled by George Campbell, to which is appended Remarks on the Great Famine of 1769-1770, by W.W. Hunter. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing. British Library, IOR: V/27/830/14 .

Geddes, J.C. (Jan 1874). Administrative Experience Recorded in Former Famines. Calcutta: E Bengal Secretariat Press. 

Government of India to Argyll, 1872, Home Department, Public Branch, No.95, National Archives of India (NAI) .

Hunter, William Wilson (1867, second ed. 1868).  The Annals of Rural Bengal. London: Smith, Elder and Co. New York: Leypoldt and Holt.

Hunter, William Wilson (1899, 1900). A History of British India. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 

Hunter to Howell, 1871, Home Department, Public Branch, No.3771, 1872, NAI.

Naoroji, Dadabhai (1901). Poverty and Un-British Rule in India. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 

Shaw, Graham (1981). Printing in Calcutta to 1800: a description and checklist of printing in late 18th-century Calcutta. London: Bibliographical Society. 

Skrine, Francis Henry (1901). Life of Sir William Wilson Hunter. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 

Wheeler, J.T. (1862). “Memorandum on the Records of the Government of India”. Home Department, Public Branch, No.19, 1865, NAI.

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Acknowledgements: With grateful thanks to Dr Antonia Moon for drawing my attention to IOR: V/27/830/14 and permitting me to view it, and to Professor Swapan Chakravorty for directing me to valuable sources on colonial archiving policies in India.  

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Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Film, College of Humanities, University of Exeter, and the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800, and Famine Tales from India and Britain. 

Argha Manna is a graphic artist and journalist based in Calcutta, and is currently creating a graphic narrative of the 1770 Bengal famine for the Famine Tales from India and Britain project.  

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Ayesha Mukherjee

 

Quite unlike the ingenious culinary experiments undertaken by many during lockdown, I was hurriedly making my mundane mess of pasta last week, when I remembered the Elizabethan scientist Sir Hugh Platts recipes for macaroni. Ubiquitous, unremarkable, standardised and sold in convenient packaging though it may be in our time, pasta was a tantalising promise in early modern England.  

Hugh Platt’s famine remedies, written “vppon thoccasion of this present Dearth”. Copy at British Library, London.

Especially so in the 1590s, when the country faced one of its most acute food crises. The harvest failed repeatedly, the price of wheat soared, as did prices of barley, oats, and other food. The regions of the north and midlands were worst off, and the poor began to migrate London-wards. Hugh Platt experimented diligently to find what he called remedies against famine” – mostly, coping mechanisms, making things last, finding substitutes, recycling, waste-reductive measures, and so on. He published some of these in his manual Sundrie new and Artificiall remedies against Famine in 1596, which was the third successive year of harvest failure. Among other things, this book contained many experiments with bread substitutes and various staple foods. Ways were sought to eliminate the ranke and vnsauorie [unsavoury]” taste of peas, beans, beechmast, chestnuts, acorns, and vetches, so that these might be used instead of wheat flour. Bread was also made with pompions” [pumpkins], cakes with parsnips, measures were devised to prevent mills from wasting flour while grinding, and much more . 

What could one eat in such times that was affordable and easy to preserve, wondered Platt. In his astonishing collection of experiments and recipes called The Jewell House of Art and Nature, published in 1594, when the food shortages of the decade had just begun, he had tempted his readers with the promise of A wholesome, lasting, and fresh victual for the Nauie [Navy]. He pointed out, with characteristic pragmatism, that when corn sold for 20 shillings per quarter, 8 ounces of this new food could be had for a penny to make a competent meale for any reasonable stomach. It was magically cheap and lightweight, shaped like wafers, and could be dressed to serve both for bread and meat. In his current context of food shortage, Platt was keen for this food to be eaten in households, not just by seafarers. So he boldly served pasta (as we may now call it) at his own table. It appears to have gone down rather well. For he even designed a pasta machine and printed its illustration: an Engin for the making of this victual 

Macaroni machine illustrated in Hugh Platt, The Jewell house of Arte and Nature (1594), p.75.

Sir Hugh Platts manuscripts record his repeated experiments (some dated December 1595) before he got his pasta quite as perfect as he wanted it to be. He tried to make it more nourishing, and of better taste. The flour was kneaded with aniseed, liquorice, and ginger, or boiled milk, or eggs – depending on what was available. To make it last, he tried adding aqua composita (alcoholic flavoured water), cinnamon, and wine or ale wort. Apparently, seething the macaroni in pudding skins made it tougher, and the paste of flour was driven through hollow pipes and dried. The manuscripts with these experimental recipes are preserved in the British Librarys Sloane collection. I cannot imagine how pasta laced with aniseed or liquorice might appeal to the palate … but the material sense of taste is perhaps as contextually driven as the recipes and ingredients themselves, and the eaters of Hugh Platt’s pasta may have tasted it differently. 

In Platts collection of food and drink recipes for sailors, printed in 1607, a year before his death, he described a cheap, fresh, and lasting victuall, called by the name of Macaroni amongst the Italians, which seemed useful at a time of shortage. 

From Platt’s broadside, Certaine philosophical preparations of foode and beverage for sea-men, in their long voyages (1607). Copy at British Library, London.

Platt had furnished the famous explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins with his macaroni, since it was long-lasting and helped to address shortage of staple food aboard ships during long voyages.  

In the difficult decade of the 1590s, pasta had a strange renaissance in England – it metamorphosed from a foreign curiosity consumed by sailors to a domestic food, enough for a reasonable stomach” in times of dearth, and then, an item locally (and perhaps mechanically) manufactured and supplied to English sailors for survival.  

I’m not quite sure what remedies Hugh Platt would have recommended for this ….

Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London

“Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London”, during the Covid crisis, March 2020. Wikimedia Commons. Philafrenzy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English, College of Humanities, University of Exeter. Her book on Hugh Platt and the 1590s food crisis in England is called Penury into Plenty: Dearth and the Making of Knowledge in Early Modern England (2015) and she is the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800 and Famine Tales from India and Britain

Colours in the Time of Corona

Colours in the Time of Corona 

By Sarbajit Sen

 

The ideation of my Phullara story for Famine Tales had taken rather long to acquire shape. But once it was done I felt cool. So cool that I let one full month roll by, my mind diverted by other tasks, without doing anything about the final artwork for Phullara. The entire script was already there in my mind – graphically set – almost frame by frame. So there was no need to worry.

I had no inkling how my complacence would be smashed and replaced soon by an unsettling sense of restlessness and despair with the arrival of a diabolical, invisible monster named Corona. The world around us was thrown out of gear in no time. Our familiar life patterns went for a total toss. Our collective psyche took a weary dip in a vast ocean of soap bubbles and sanitisers with countless foams of do’s and dont’s from WHO (and who not!) on the crests of its dark waves.

Kolkata’s iconic Howrah Bridge, usually packed with traffic, stands eerily empty during lockdown. Source: VisionMakers

The tentative deadline for my final submission to Famine Tales was also knocking at the door. But it was becoming too difficult to concentrate on the artwork. I was distracted and my thoughts were diffused. Mild, friendly reminder mails were also coming at times. And, to make things worse, I suddenly discovered that a particular drawing ink which I badly wanted to use for my story was simply not there in my stock. A total lockdown had been clamped down on us by that time. The shops were closed. Amazon too was lost in thin air. But I badly needed to do a lot of nib sketches in brown, since I never wanted to solely depend on black – for this story, at least. All this added to my unrest.

Suddenly, I thought – how about trying to make my own drawing ink? A few attempts at mixing whatever Fuji transparent colour paper strips were still left with black drawing ink proved futile. I did not get that special brown tint I wanted. Eventually, I consulted an artist friend. He suggested kattha, one of the principal ingredients used in the preparation of paan from betel leaves. It is popularly known as cutch or Acacia catechu, which is widely used for dyeing clothes.

Acacia catechu, known as cutch, kattha, or khair. Source: CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai database

A young friend further helped me by bringing some hard chunks of cutch from a local paan shop owner who still kept his shop open.

Cutch (khair) being used in paan.

I followed my friend’s instructions – dipped a chunk in some water and left it for one full day.

The colour looked rich, but it had to be used on good cartridge papers, that too, only in brushstrokes. It was not yet strong enough …

… I needed it to hold on to a nib. And the lesser the water the darker the colour.

To be precise, the darkness or brightness depended on the amount of water used. A good amount of water gave the work a certain soft, suave tone.

I was now determined to go ahead with it.

I don’t remember how long I had to wait before I could book an order for commercial paints online. Corona has made many of us lose count of time. A set of the required ink bottles took some time to come, and when they did, they landed up like a boxful of angels.

But by that time, I had already created some of the artwork using my traditional colour source. The entire exercise had also been intoxicating for me. As if it was a kind of rediscovery of memories of the many accounts I had read of inventing mediums in times of necessity. The sight of the first small bowl of pigment carefully prepared by my wife in our small kitchen was sheer love. I had felt like an overjoyed Florentino in these weird times of Corona! How could I have even thought of forgetting them once the crisis was over – though only for the time being?

I decided to give those drawings their due place. They have been incorporated in my story. The warm brown in the early artworks will forever be a celebration.

Sarbajit sketches and paints with his cutch colours.

 

Sarbajit Sen is a well-known graphic artist and filmmaker in India. His graphic narratives have been exhibited at the Barbican in London, and in Kolkata, New Delhi, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Widely published in India and abroad, Sarbajit is also an editor of Longform, an anthology of graphic narratives, published by Harper Collins, India.

Sustainable Living and the Patuyas of Naya

Sustainable Living and the Patuyas of Naya

Shrutakirti Dutta

 

A painted home in Naya

A scroll painter’s home in Naya, Midnapur, West Bengal

 

Patuya working on an item

A chitrakar working on an “item”

When you enter the patuya para (scroll painters’ locality) of Naya, Pingla, a village in West Midnapur, you are met with a row of houses whose walls are brightly painted with images of plants, flowers, and animals. If you arrive in winter, at every turn you are likely to find an artist bent over an “item,” as it is pithily described by veteran chitrakars (also called patuyas, or scroll painters). This “item” could be an article of clothing or a piece of home decor on which they may be painting familiar motifs from scroll paintings. These will later take pride of place at kiosks and stalls in fairs across Bengal throughout the winter, fetching the chitrakars an increasingly large proportion of their annual income.

Dukhushyam singing

Dukhushyam Chitrakar

Take a right turn and you might meet Dukhushyam Chitrakar, a patuya for more than sixty years, out for his usual morning walk. More often than not, he will speak wistfully of a time when scroll painting was primarily an oral tradition where the song took precedence, in terms of both process and significance, over the artwork. Patuyas would travel from village to village, singing songs based on tales from Hindu epics and contemporary events. The long scrolls would be unfurled in conjunction with their song, visually tethering the narrative. Villagers would eagerly gather around a patuya to watch his performance. Afterwards they would pay him in kind, and sometimes with money. Having thus secured provisions for the day, the patuya would return to his community where, in the evenings, it was often customary to gather together and sing the familiar songs again; this time, informally, and offer criticism and suggestions to further hone their craft.

Traditional jatra Gunahabibi-r Pala performed by Diamond Harbour Group (Project Palagaan, 2013, Jadavpur University)

The picture Dukhushyam paints for us is one that has been disrupted by complex cultural changes in the cities and villages of Bengal. Over time, with the advent of radios and televisions, the demand for older performance traditions of jatra, pala, and pat-er gaan slowly diminished. Pat-er gaan (scroll songs) no longer remained one of the primary choices of entertainment among village residents, and thus ceased being an adequate means of livelihood for the patuya community. Over several decades, this translated to the loss of some songs and verses (payar) which died out from disuse and lack of intra-community exchange, as Beatrix Hauser shows.

 

Colour Making: A Sustainable Practice?

Documenting the making of natural colours in a Naya household

Patuya communities are spread across many villages of Bengal and face similar threats to their craft. However, being part of the Famine Tales team made me think about the impact of these changes in Naya, particularly on their colour-making tradition. By working outside the new commercial model, we wanted to see how far we could address the challenges that now arise while gathering the raw materials traditionally used to create a patachitra (scroll painting).

Creating white from raw, uncooked rice

Raw white rice being ground into paste

Scroll painting traditions across greater Bengal were influenced by the topography, climate, and produce of the region, with colours and pigments made from easily sourced, widely available natural ingredients like grains, weed, flowers, fruits and vegetables. The style of patachitra varied greatly depending on the patuya’s location. Patuyas from Orissa, for instance, use minerals and stones to obtain pigment, such as ground conch shells to create a creamy white. In Midnapur, these raw materials are substituted with what is locally grown. Since paddy is the primary crop of Bengal, it makes perfect sense that the shell is replaced by raw, uncooked rice to produce the same colour.

An old handi (pot) being used to gather flame black

Shil Nora

A shil nora (grindstone) being used for colour making

Due to the process itself, domestic and artistic spheres have been inextricably linked in the practice of scroll painting, and there exists a steady network of exchange between the two. The very tools used for the production of natural dye, the shil nora and the handi, come from the kitchens of the community.

Coconut shells holding colour

Coconut shells containing colours made from tumeric, ground brick and burnt black rice

The vessel of choice to store the colour is an empty coconut shell, hollowed out and cleaned thoroughly after the fleshy interior has been eaten.

Bel (wood apples) drying

Dried bel (wood apple) stored for use as cooking fuel

A fundamental ingredient in natural colour-making is the wood apple or bel (Aegle marmelos) whose seeds, when mixed with water, yield a glue that acts as a temper for natural pigments and an organic disinfectant for the scroll. The use of this ingredient is a testament to the resourcefulness of the community who let no part of a raw material go to waste. Since only unripe fruit can be used for this process, the flesh of the wood apple is not fit for consumption after the extraction of glue. This results in a heap of discarded fruit which is left to dry in the sun to be used as cooking fuel later in the month.

 

Women colourmaking

Rehana Chitrakar and Lutfa Chitrakar engaged in colour making 

Perhaps because the implements and ingredients used to make colour are rooted to traditionally gendered spaces, colour making within the community remains a process led by women. Patachitra is a living tradition, finding place within an active and demanding domestic structure, and thriving in it. Children of the chitrakar community learn to paint by observing their parents and engaging with the tradition from a very young age.

Young Mohima, painting

Mahima Chitrakar, eight years old, painting traditional fish motifs

"Items" and scrolls painted in synthetic colours

An array of items painted with chemical colours, being sold at the annual Patmaya fair at Naya 

Sustainable living has been a way of life with food insecure communities like the patuyas, who, by convention, never own land and cannot afford to grow the fruits and vegetables required in bulk for colour making. However, raw materials which, decades ago, may have been available for free (such as a neighbour’s excess produce of bel) today require money to purchase. Dukhushyam speaks of a time when he and fellow patuyas would simply walk to a nearby forest and forage for the things they needed. Regional ecologies have altered, these forests no longer exist, and therefore neither does this harmonious chain of supply. Several colours have retired from the palettes of patuyas because their source ingredients like tela kucho (below left) can rarely be found today, or like bhushum mati (below right) is available for an increasingly small window in a year.

Left: Tela kucho (coccinia grandis); Right: Bhushum mati (local name for soil extracted by digging 8-10 feet under dried sweet water ponds)

Today patachitra made from natural colours have become something of a novelty, usually made when specifically commissioned. Time and cost-effective alternatives like chemical colours have gained popularity among patuyas over time, although this has come at some cost to the living tradition.

 

Solutions: Past and Present

A nineteenth-century scroll painting of the Ramayana at Gurusaday Museum, Calcutta.

Interventions have been made since the last century to protect the art form and empower the community of patuyas. Between 1929-40, during the surge of the nationalist movement in Bengal, Gurusaday Dutt – a civil servant in British India – collected various “folk” artefacts from across rural Bengal, including patachitra, with the intention of preserving indigenous art forms and living traditions. Today this considerable collection resides at the Gurusaday Museum in Calcutta.

There was renewed interest in patachitra in the 1960s and 70s among the urban intelligentsia of Calcutta. Artists Hiran Mitra and Ganesh Haloi supported patuyas in their personal capacity, and the poet Dipak Majumdar commissioned several scroll paintings and brought the community wider recognition. Professor Sankar Sengupta organized the first All India Folklore Conference in 1964. These interventions brought patachitra back into the conversation. While the stories from the Mangal Kavyas, or the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were considered significant for their historic value, they no longer served as ubiquitous “entertainment”.

An annual handicrafts fair in Bengal: Hasta Shilpa Mela. Source: google

An annual handicrafts fair in Bengal: Hasta Shilpa Mela.

The West Bengal government-led annual Hasta Shilpa Mela (handicrafts fair) and Biswa Bangla have provided platforms to generate revenue streams for rural artists. The Rural Craft and Cultural Hub (RCCH) project has been an ongoing initiative to provide some agency and relief to Bengal’s indigenous craft communities, like the patuyas.

Visiting Potmaya

Potmaya 2019 – a patachitra festival

Since 2010, a Kolkata based NGO’s Art for Life initiative has facilitated the income of patuyas in Naya by establishing an annual patachitra mela where patuyas can market their skills and sell their craft to a wider network of buyers. During my visit to the fair in November 2019, I observed pat-er gaan (scroll songs) being sung from kiosks at various intervals, drawing the audience towards a particular table and its wares. For a brief moment, people gathered together to record the spectacle on their device of choice, before moving on to inspect a t-shirt or set of coasters. Within this context, shorter narratives have gained favour over those depicting more sophisticated storylines. Now pat-er gaan needs to be truncated and/or abridged to better hold the audience’s attention. Finer details within the artwork and the intricacies of parallel sub plots within the narrative are omitted in favour of straightforward, shorter stories.

Website selling patachitra for display in modern homes

Changing market structures have thus influenced and altered the process of scroll painting itself. Public access to patachitra has come via fairs, which became the primary site for patuyas to showcase and sell their scrolls. The focus shifted from the oral storytelling aspect of the patachitra tradition to the two-dimensional visual art form, dismantling the core structure of scroll making and altering the thrust of the living tradition. Patachitra entered Bengali living rooms and stayed there as framed pieces of art. 

The motifs painted on the “items” are taken directly from traditional scrolls but presented without narrative or context. The very medium which gave patachitra its name – patta or cloth – has altered and expanded to include various media, such as wood, steel, copper and terracotta; eventually, turning patachitra into “items” for sale (Potmaya news report 2019 ABP). While these initiatives have contributed substantially towards the chitrakars’ visibility and financial security, the paradigm shift in the perception and consumption of indigenous craft traditions like patachitra, the impact on local ecology, sustainable living, land-ownership and tenure issues among patuyas, and the breakdown of local organic economies, remain largely unaddressed.

Steps have been taken to encourage and preserve older traditions of patachitra in sustainable ways. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, whose campus is located a few miles from Naya, distributed saplings of specific flower-bearing plants to the patuyas to sustain the use of natural ingredients in making colours and pigments. One such example was the Latkan or Achiote.

Pressing Latkan seeds

Latkan, or Achiote seed, produces a gorgeous liquid red

The seeds of this fruit yield a fiery, liquid red colour when pressed in the palm of one’s hand. This ingredient and the hue produced from it has proved overwhelmingly popular among the chitrakars and feature in almost all of their paintings. Yet, access to the fruit still remains difficult for the chitrakar community. Dukhushyam and his family either have to depend on the generosity of landowning neighbours who can afford to plant the sapling, or make a trip to the IIT campus to source the raw ingredient themselves. However well-intentioned, modern measures designed to address the economic prosperity of the patuyas, or the availability of specific natural ingredients, have their limitations when it comes to addressing the wider ecological issues that impact the survival of a community like Naya.

With this in mind, organisations and institutions have paid specific attention to the uniqueness of patachitra‘s oral tradition. Applying the storytelling potential of pat-er gaan, projects like HIV scrolls, or initiatives focused on gender like Singing Pictures, and self-empowerment programmes (see: Malini Bhattacharya, Patua Art and Women Patuas of Medinipur, 2004), have commissioned patuyas to write songs and tell stories relevant to their projects. Sujit Kumar Mandal’s book Patuya Sangeet (2011) recovered in detail the immense and valuable corpus of patuya Dukhushyam Chitrakar, and documented colour making processes at Naya. More recently, our own Famine Tales project enables a team of patuyas, led by the legendary Dukhushyam, to create traditional scrolls with natural colours to reflect on food insecurity, an issue that continues to be germane to their own circumstances. Recent crises like the Coronavirus and the cyclone Amphan have shown exactly how vulnerable the community still is. Our endeavours can rejuvenate traditional methods of painting and mechanisms of sustainable living, and protect a community from an immediate crisis. But they cannot give patuyas adequate land to grow their ingredients, or provide longterm solutions to the larger, structural problems that underpin their continued food insecurity.

Dukhushyam’s reminiscences point to a patachitra tradition that existed in a delicate balance of ecological and social harmony, where the patuya community was integrated with a society that facilitated the art form, recognizing that doing so was part of their ethical and moral function.  Cultural shifts in the cities and villages of Bengal have resulted in changes to the living tradition and ecological balance in the community, which cannot be resolved through economic intervention alone – hence Dukhushyam’s intuitive rejection of “item” making. The core practices of patachitra and pat-er gaan will continue to remain vulnerable until we as an audience collectively embody the shift we wish to see, making the journey from being mere observers who document Bengal’s endangered “folk” traditions, to facilitators who foster a community where living traditions can be integrated into modern life on their own terms.

 

Shrutakirti Dutta is a PhD researcher in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and Research Fellow on the Famine Tales project. Her PhD project is titled “A Stitch in Time: Exploring Domestic Craft Practices in Nineteenth Century Bengal”.

Silent

SILENT

Sarbajit Sen

Debkumar Mitra

Argha Manna

 

নগরের পথে পথে দেখেছ অদ্ভুত এক জীব 

ঠিক মানুষের মতো 

কিংবা ঠিক নয়

যেন তার ব্যাঙ্গচিত্র বিদ্রুপ বিকৃত 

তবু তারা নড়ে চড়ে, কথা বলে,  আর

জঞ্জালের মতো জমে রাস্তায় রাস্তায়

উচ্ছিষ্টের আস্তাকুঁড়ে বসে বসে ধোঁকে

– আর ফ্যান চায়।

[You have seen on the city streets

Strange beings,

Human, yet not quite –

Cruel caricatures, twisted in scorn!

Yet they move, and speak

And pile up like garbage on the roads.

They sit, weary, on mounds of refuse

And cry for rice-water.]

(“ফ্যান” [Rice-water] by Premendra Mitra, 1989; translated by Amlan Das Gupta)

Community Kitchen Initiatives in UK and India

Community Kitchen Initiatives in UK and India 

Towards a transformative politics during the time of Covid-19

By Rishika Mukhopadhyay

From BBC News, 15 March, 2020

The week before the official lockdown in the UK, we knew something ominous was coming because the supermarket shelves were emptying fast. The first advice I had was to secure grocery to survive for a few weeks. Within a few days, the shelves were replenished and there was no shortage of food in my life here. A strange calmness engulfed me in this little town of South West England. Sitting in the comfort of the four walls of my room in Exeter, I hardly realised how Covid-19 ravaged people’s lives elsewhere. I was allowed to go out once a day for exercise, to use that time of walking attentively and mindfully, soak in the nature around us. My well-wishers were concerned about my health and wellbeing. I focused my energy on creating ideal working conditions, as ‘work from home’ became the new norm. It was alright, until one day when I encountered the image of Indian migrants’ ‘long march home’.

From Times of India, 27 March, 2020

My reality transformed drastically as a virus-hit world once again exposed glaring inequalities and showed how few of us are granted privileges. From the very beginning, every government decision designed to prevent the spread of this virus, in the UK and India, was taken keeping in mind people like us: who have a safe home to stay in, endless water supply to wash their hands, whose vocabulary includes “hand sanitiser”, and who can afford to think about “social distancing” while working from home! I  felt terribly unsettled by these pandemic mitigation policies where a whole section of the vulnerable population was rendered silent and invisible unless they decided to walk thousands of kilometres to reach their home!

It is not the virus alone that is a threat. Extreme hunger and starvation are threatening the lives of millions of people. The world food program (WFP) has already estimated that 265 million people are suffering from acute food shortage due to Covid-19. The chief of the UN food relief agency cautioned that famine can devastate 30 countries in the developing world. The picture is bleak in countries like the UK as well. The Food Foundation report reveals that during the first three weeks of the lockdown in the UK, three million people were hungry. In these trying times, food insecurity is not limited to those who have lost jobs and are therefore economically distressed. Rather a significant section of our demography, including families with children who used to get free school meals and the aged population who are alone, have been affected severely. In India, migrant workers who are daily wage earners, waste-pickers, casual workers in small enterprises, hawkers, and artisans are at the receiving end of this humanitarian and food crisis. Administrative effort to reach people who are going through deprivation and starvation with food and ration is scant. Reporters have found out that children are eating grass in some parts of the country after enduring extreme hunger for days.

From National Herald, 27 March, 2020

Nevertheless, these are times when people often come together to foster a sense of solidarity, compassion and a hopeful future. Soon, I heard some friends and teachers from my previous University in Delhi had set up a community kitchen to distribute cooked food to various industrial clusters in Delhi, where migrant workers now live a precarious life without income and food. The Worker’s Dhaba was not the only one; across the country many citizen’s initiatives started to consolidate efforts and reach people who are in dire need. These active interventions by ordinary citizens give me optimism and strength amidst this global pandemic. I will talk about four such initiatives, two from India and two from Exeter, to understand how citizen’s actions can lead to a transformative politics.

Workers’ Dhaba, New Delhi, India

Workers' Dhaba

For over a month Workers’ Dhaba, run by three cooks and volunteers is regularly cooking and distributing meals twice a day to about 2000 people across Delhi. It came together under the banner of Citizen’s Collective for Humanitarian Relief (CCHR). The Center for Education and Communication (CEC) helps them with operational guidance and technological outreach. Many civil society organisations, like press club, and café lota, are partnering with them to distribute food widely. They are also providing dry rations, milk, and baby powder in slums, settler camps, and squatters. In the true spirit of community collaboration, a second kitchen has been opened away from the university space. The idea was to localise food production and include the community. Here, community members of two slums are cooking together and distributing food to other areas, showing extraordinary resilience, support, and cooperation. Praveen, the researcher who was responsible for distributing food in this area and later made the collaboration possible told me:

“We aren’t doing any charity or philanthropy which is premised on the inherent structure of hierarchy and power. We are all in this together! The collaboration was a result of community feeling. With a little help and support, people have immense potential to rebuild their lives. It was amazing to see people from both the Jhuggis coming together and volunteer themselves for cooking and distribution.”

The effort of decentralisation and moving into more neighbourhood-based kitchen initiatives run by local communities is a prominent future plan of this collective.

Quarantined Student-Youth Network, Kolkata, India

Quarantined Student-Youth Network

Another friend from Kolkata shared with me how they have built the Quarantined Student-Youth Network  run by students and alumni from universities in West Bengal. Koumi said, “We are now joined by so many who believe in the principle of physical distance and social solidarity. We work in parts of West Bengal and some areas in Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.” They joined hands when they realised how inadequate the response of the State has been in identifying, locating, and reaching out to the affected population. Their operational framework enables people to make use of digital technology efficiently during lockdown by identifying their location on the map where relief from the Public Distribution System (PDS) hasn’t reached. Each local district volunteer then verifies the complaint and reaches out to people in that area by delivering ration or other requirements. For homeless migrants living in temporary shelters and pavement dwellers in the city, delivering cooked food is the only measure, whereas in villages they run People’s Kitchen. Wherever needed, they deliver soap, sanitary napkins, masks, sanitiser and medicine. Similar to the idea of the Delhi network, this group firmly believes that they are neither running a charity nor acting as benefactors. Debojit, another member of this network, says passionately: 

“It must be noted, those we are trying to assist continue to further our society and civilisation without receiving adequate compensation for their labour. Thus, this solidarity is their right, it’s not a donation.”

Treating the vulnerable population with respect and dignity is one of their guiding values; another is their outreach to remote corners of Bengal, not just limited to the state capital, Kolkata. The helping hand of the local community – farmers, fishermen, and workers from all sorts of backgrounds – have helped to strengthen their feeling of being a commune. Through non-monetary exchanges, such as receiving unsold vegetables from farmers in exchange for rice, pulses, or fish, and forming cooperatives, this student initiative carves out a space of hope for an alternative politics.  

St Thomas Food Fight, Exeter, UK

St. Thomas Food Fight

Food Donated to St. Thomas Food Fight (Source: their Facebook page)

In Exeter, quite a few organisations are working to provide free cooked meals. I have spoken to two of them to understand how, in the UK, issues of starvation, hunger, and food insecurity affect people’s lives. A member of the St. Thomas Food Fight group, Alison, told me why they were motivated to start this initiative:

“A few of us started thinking about food poverty some time ago. Students from the University of Exeter started Exeter Food Fight and gave out free hot food and drinks in the High Street. Out of that came St Thomas Food Fight. We are motivated by compassion and a desire to see everyone fed and looked after.”

Exeter Food Fight is a grassroots community group committed to raising awareness regarding issues like poverty, sexism, and racism. They reach out to not only the homeless in the city but also the elderly, disabled, lonely, young families, or those affected by substance abuse and mental health problems. During the lockdown, they started by dropping off hot food for takeaway in paper carrier bags outside Natwest Bank on Cowick Street. The initiative expanded when a charity St. Petrocks asked them to provide cooked food for 33 homeless people during the lockdown. They also get requests from organisations like CoLab Exeter to prepare meals for the vulnerable being shielded. They cook for 30 people in the community who are in food poverty or unable to cook for themselves regularly. Apart from the Devon County Council Covid Response fund, they have immense support from the local community, who bring them packaging, donate vegetables, or cook a one-time hot meal. A cycling activity group FREEMOVEMENT help them with deliveries. An organic farm Shillingford offers them vegetables from their local firm, and Exeter Food Action provide a wide range of food, including rice, pasta, and beans.

Exeter Communities Together CIC, Exeter, UK

Exeter Communities Together CIC

Exeter Communities Together CIC runs a Coronavirus Hardship Relief Project during lockdown from Exwick Community Centre. They receive support from Exeter City Council, Devon County Council, and Morrisons of Crediton, along with public donations. They not only help the elderly vulnerable population by giving food to residential care homes but also reach out to frontline workers such as NHS caregivers and the police, or anyone who is struggling financially. This organisation was established to give Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the city greater voice. They translate important information on self-isolation and social distancing for wider circulation. Anyone in Exeter can ask for their support for assistance in shopping for essentials and medicines.

There are many inspiring stories – from women organising themselves from their homes in London to a couple turning their closed pub into a community kitchen and food bank in Melling – in the UK. In the four examples featured above from India and the UK, despite the varying scale, intensity, and nature of organisation, one common factor connects them. That is, their commitment towards a transformative and emancipatory politics through democratic mobilisation and collaboration. With the rise of divisive politics all over the world, this pandemic has brought many people closer and fostered cooperation.

Detail of sketch by Debkumar Mitra, for Famine Tales from India and Britain

Arundhati Roy has written how, historically, pandemics have been a portal to break free from the old world of lies, prejudices, greed, exploitation, hatred and violence and bravely imagine a hopeful future. We must think about what we can change when things go back to “normal.” The pause this has brought to our lives should lead us all to reimagine and rethink our everyday actions for a sustainable and just world. We have been hearing around us a call for reworlding. We cannot go back to “normal” as it was, because the way we led our lives, by exploiting and abusing nature for the benefit of a few global corporations and their political corroborators, cannot be our normal. A capitalist production regime for the interest of the few and its subsequent unhinged growth narrative must be challenged now by adopting a language and practice of meaningful living. On the one hand we need to strengthen the demand for Universal Basic Income, for labour rights, and make our governments accountable for investing more in the domains of food security, health care, housing, and accessible education for public welfare. On the other hand, we need to reorient our own priorities and consumption practices.

The way forward is not only to build networks of care, support, compassion, and solidarity around us and with the non-human world, but also to radically reimagine our future economic practices. The provocation of A Post-Capitalist future, proposed by feminist economic geographers JK Gibson-Graham is not a utopia anymore. Around the world, people are actively participating and creating a vision for another world by building resilient communities interdependent on local resources, away from the global chain of commodity production. Practices of commoning, co-operatives, building solidarity economy and community economy have started. Building a community kitchen during the time of this catastrophe is an extension of this imagination and the alternative politics it embraces. These groups have a clear vision that their work will solidify ethically driven collective efforts for justice and dignity, and embolden an idea of community beyond heteronormative family and kinship structures. To change the abysmal state of the world, we need to reorganise our lives. The possibilities are endless and diverse. It is time to reframe our ontologies of being to build a world we want to live in.

Acknowledgements

I thank my friend Ghee Bowman for directing me towards the Exeter initiatives. Thanks to Mariel for suggesting some of the articles for reading and the postcapitalist summer school in Sydney for inspiring me to think in this direction.

Rishika Mukhopadyay is a final year PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, UK. She did her Masters and MPhil in Geography from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.

DESTINED TO STARVE?

by Argha Manna

 

Argha Manna was trained as a cancer researcher but is currently a science illustrator who runs an online platform named ‘Drawing History of Science‘ where he blends his passion for science, history, and comics to carve a unique genre. His artwork tells stories from the history of science through comics and other forms of visual narratives, combining prose writing with sequential art. His current work, includes projects on Indian Women in Science (with Sci-Illustrate, Munich, and the Ministry of Science and Technology, India), History of Cell Biology (with the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika), and stories of the early days of the Royal Society (with the Indian newspaper The Telegraph).

Please feel free to leave thoughts or comments below!

An Exciting Update: Famine Tales

Hello all who are interested in food security.

We will be hosting regular bi-weekly contributions from across the world. Some of this will be stemming from the AHRC funded Famine Tales project, which seeks to explore tales of famine from India and Britain through art – please see details and some of the artwork below.

If you are interested in contributing to the blog whether in relation to the Famine Tales project, or issues of food security more widely, please do get in touch with us at: faminetales@gmail.com we would love to hear from you!

You can find out more about the Famine Tales project from the details below, followed by a few of our favourite images from the project so far.

Website

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Cinnamon, Potatoes, and Quinoa

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann, http://www.cropsforthefuture.org/; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann, http://www.cropsforthefuture.org/ 

As I started to tell people about the work I was doing on Harriet Martineau’s Cinnamon and Pearls, their immediate response was to compare the tale to a current issue of food security: quinoa.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

Martineau, the first British female sociologist, writes of the monopoly of the East India Company in Ceylon, and their desire to create a market for cinnamon throughout the British Empire and its trading partners during the early nineteenth century. The result of the Company’s actions was, in Martineau’s narrative, twofold: the native Cingalese were no longer permitted to grow cinnamon of their own – it all belonged to the Company; and the market really wasn’t that interested in cinnamon, so crops had to be destroyed in order to decrease supply to match demand – in order to sustain suitably high prices.

 

Hoe men de Caneel schilt opt Eyland Ceylon [peeling cinnamon in Ceylon], c.1672. By Anonymous (engraver), Johannes Janssonius Waasbergen (publisher)

Peeling cinnamon in Ceylon, c.1672. By Anonymous (engraver), Johannes Janssonius Waasbergen (publisher)

Now, for the shareholders in the East India Company, it stands to reason that they appreciated such care; however, for the Cingalese, these circumstances meant that they were no longer able to eat from a crop that had previously been a part of their staple diet. Food security conversations need to be critiqued in terms of whose food security the speakers are concerned about. A recent online article, for instance, wrote of the problems of supply (http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Suppliers2/Securing-long-term-supply-key-to-success-in-chia-quinoa-spheres-marketer-says) in terms of the increased demand for quinoa in the United States. But it is important to realise that this ‘need’ is very new: it is constructed through discourses of healthy diets (particularly given the high protein content) and, importantly, ethics: for vegans and vegetarians, it is important that no animals were harmed in the making of their new food of lifestyle choice.

 

quinoa-packageExcept – animals ARE being harmed: the human animals, for whom for centuries, quinoa was the staple of their diet. Even from 2013 – declared the International Year of Quinoa by the UN – the Bolivian and Peruvian peasants who grew quinoa were suffering. Their supply needed to be exported—the West was demanding it—and they were getting paid for their crops. That does not mean they earned what we’d consider a ‘living wage,’ though, whereas previously they had a self-sustaining system of crops and harvests. It is, according to Joanna Blythman from The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa), cheaper to buy imported junk food in these countries than it is to buy quinoa, and ‘in Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken.’ Blythman also points out that land that had been used for diverse crops was now being transformed into ‘quinoa monoculture,’ depriving the local farmers of access to other foods as well as the quinoa they can’t afford.

 

The scene at Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. From a series of illustrations by Cork artist James Mahony (1810-1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847

Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. By  James Mahony, commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847

The concern of Western affluence for quinoa supply reminds me most profoundly of Continental Europe’s perturbance that their potato supply had diminished during the Great Potato Famine of mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. It seems to me that we are able to indulge in the ethical luxuries of the past – we are able to judge the blindness of others to the plight of those dispossessed by the British Empire and the rise of globalised capitalist industry in the nineteenth century – but we remain blind to similar acts of dispossession occurring in our own time.

 

Lesa Scholl

 

Images: CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0); Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Human History of Food Security

“Food security” doesn’t immediately signal work done in humanities disciplines. It is a complex, contested issue, whose currency and significance are hardly debatable given present concerns about environmental change, resource management, and sustainability. It’s largely studied within science and social science disciplines in current or very recent historical contexts. And yet, the concern about long-term availability, quality, and distribution of food has a history that can be traced far back. This isn’t only a history of economics and agricultural or technological development; it’s equally a history of human responses, resilience, and representations. Food security has a social and cultural history of considerable ethical value. This blog invites people to communicate this to a wider audience.

Food Security: Past and Present is part of a research project in the humanities which looks at food security from an early modern perspective (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries). Geographically and culturally, it compares attitudes towards the concern in India and Britain. Food, famine, and dearth are not issues that are, or have been, problematic for the “Third World” alone. The Western world too has a long history of coping with food crises. Hence the comparative approach of our project.

“What’s the use?”

When I described the project to a friend who does not work within a humanities discipline, she said, “But what’s the use? The phrase ‘food security’ didn’t even exist in those days.” True, even if the point is put in a manner that may rile humanities scholars who professionally invest in recovering the past, and to whom the “uses” of the past may be self-evident. Rather like the words “sustainability”, or “climate change”, “food security” is a recognisably contemporary term. If we want to apply the past to the understanding of urgent present concerns, we will have to address questions like the above in an accessible way. A fundamental point to make, perhaps, is that ideas and concerns can pre-date phrases and terms, and can also develop beyond the moment at which a particular terminology is invented. In other words, the phrase “food security” may not have existed in, say, sixteenth-century Britain or India, but concerns about long-term food availability, access, and health did. People came up with ideas for addressing these issues and argued about them. Many of these arguments are relevant today, as are questions of public knowledge and dissemination.

An early modern example

Soc[1].Ant 1In the last decade of the sixteenth century, England faced a notorious food crisis, after four consecutive failures of the wheat harvest (1594-97) and rises in food prices. In these difficult times, a scientist, medical practitioner, trader, poet, and socio-economic analyst Sir Hugh Platt began to publish experiments for “remedying famine”, which he had conducted since the 1580s. The latter half of this century, in fact, saw some of the most serious food shortages recorded in early modern England – 1555-57, 1586-88, and finally, 1594-98. Platt experimented with numerous ways of recycling, reducing waste in households and trades of his time, balancing trade or business interests with environmental concerns, improving agricultural techniques and practices, soil analysis and use, land management, food production, preservation and transport.

Boulting HutchHe gathered ideas and practices from local people in London (where Platt himself was based) and beyond. His informants included not only landed gentlemen and aristocrats, but gardeners, farmers, apothecaries, carpenters, brewers, bakers, starch makers, goldsmiths, limners, dyers, soap boilers, saltpetre men, clothiers, medical practitioners, housewives, travellers, soldiers and sailors. In his experiments, Platt tested the practices of ordinary men and women of his day, modified or improved them, and published them for “public good” (“Bonum Publicum”). His work was printed in broadsides (a single large sheet of paper printed on one side – an early modern equivalent of a poster), pamphlets, and books. His first broadside appeared in 1593 (see excerpts), a year before the acute food crises of the 1590s began, and, until his death in 1608, Platt produced almost a publication per year. His work was reprinted and recycled throughout the seventeenth century, long after his death. He became something of a publishing phenomenon in his time. He was a great advocate of writing for people in “plain terms”, without learned jargon. Had he lived today, I’m convinced he would have, alongside his various activities, written a widely read blog! He deserves at the very least a separate blog post. That will appear in due course.

Public awareness

graph 1For now, it may be worth noting that Platt died anxious about the reception of his life’s work. In his last broadside, he worried whether his current and future socio-economic environments would allow his experiments, practices, and books to actually benefit the public. Would responsible ways of using the natural world and its resources ever become part of public knowledge and practice in the way he had envisaged? Or would “Nature’s cabinet of jewels” and its “secrets” remain closed to the public? One would think that with modern forms of knowledge dissemination, such worries should now be outdated. Yet, a 2012 survey of public attitudes in the UK towards food security, published by the Global Food Security Programme, revealed that 86% of the 1127 respondents, selected from across the country, had not heard of the term “global food security”, although 55% agreed they were more concerned about rising food prices than all other food issues.

graph 2While 90% agreed with the statement that the UK wastes too much food and people should only buy what they need, 55% said that food security was not an issue that affected them but was more a problem for people in developing countries. The survey reflected that, in the wake of food price spikes in 2008 and 2011, people felt strongly about food prices and waste, but did not equate these issues with “food security”.

graph 3When the 14% who said they were aware of the term were asked to spontaneously describe what they thought it meant, most of them (38%) responded: “that there is enough food for everyone”. Very small proportions (3-6%) of the original 14% associated the term with safety, health, quality, distribution, or sustainability, which are fundamental aspects of the definition of “food security” as it has evolved over the last few decades, since the first World Food Conference of 1974. We may now possess the terminology, but not necessarily the wider awareness of its meaning, let alone of the debates or the history of human responses that underpin the term.

workshop poster image fileThis is not for the lack of public concern or interest. Clearly, people who responded to this survey were concerned about food availability, price, and waste, particularly in local and national contexts. It is, rather, a gap in communication, and in the pragmatic and ethical tuning and coordination of current awareness, policy, and practice. The findings of humanities disciplines can help to address this gap. Human responses to famine and dearth in “the past” (pre-modern or pre-industrial worlds) can offer provoking examples to think with. This is because modern environmental crises have forced us to confront a relationship with famine that resembles its pre-modern counterpart. So, humanities scholars must communicate their findings beyond their immediate disciplines and coteries.

Sharing research

IMG_20150903_152326To this end, our workshop Food Security and the Environment in India and Britain brought together a group of literary scholars, historians, scientists, social scientists, and people engaged in community initiatives to discuss the interactive potential of their distinctive approaches to food security. The sessions kept the comparative approach of the project, looking at both India and Britain, and the chronology was extended beyond 1800. The sessions were thematically organised to enable comparison across time and place. Details can be found here: Workshop: Day 1 and Day 2.

IMG_20150903_154606The Q&A after each session and the group discussions at the end of the day were rather vigorous and kept spilling across individual sessions – a good thing for any workshop. (Hugh Platt, who blended structure and method with formative, comparative dialogue in his experiments, would have approved!) We considered fundamental historical approaches to the topic of famine and dearth – through the lenses of social/moral economy, popular agency, and social order; economic history, evaluating “subsistence crises”; and climate change and “global” environmental crisis. We discussed ways of combining, modifying, or arguing with these approaches.

IMG_0933Many of the presentations attempted a synthesis, using evidence from literature and popular culture in different contexts within India and Britain. The history of human perception and representation is as vital as recovering data on individual crises. Local perspectives emerged as a particular priority – discussions of “global” crises can often displace local concerns in the human history of food security. How do we balance them? Geographical specifics, conditions of travel, networks of people, roads, and trades, ecologies and uses of rivers, popular idioms and landmarks, the agency of popular protest against state-led measures, the politics and practice of charity and welfare, the impact of political conflicts such as war, are questions that cut across several presentations. These are issues that affected human perception and practice during food crises in the past, and they resonate with today’s concerns. The question of “progress” and “improvement” over time is thus a vexed one.

IMG_20150904_164921The workshop ended with presentations about the web-database our Famine and Dearth project team are building. These presentations showed how the rapidly transforming field of the digital humanities can assist with food security research and its communication. We targeted our group discussions at methodology and dissemination. Participants were asked to outline issues of method, research questions, and wider engagement strategies that the project team might try to draw into the web-database and project development as a whole. Groups were asked to put down their discussion points on a poster or chart. These formative outcomes can be seen here, and many of the key points raised are being discussed further on our project wiki. We decided that setting up this blog would be a good way to continue our discussions and share our findings more widely.

Many thanks to the workshop participants for joining our team and for their enthusiastic, vital contributions – and to our Project Partner the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University for their brilliant support. We welcome suggestions, comments, queries, and blog post submissions from all readers of this blog, of any profession or discipline.

Ayesha Mukherjee