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”.



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.


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.


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: 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.








Cinnamon, Potatoes, and Quinoa

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann,; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann, 

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 ( 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 (, 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 (; 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