May 13, 2012

Aurangabad, Cotton, Farmers, and Passing Thoughts

Lasur is hot, scalding hot. I’d have thought February would’ve given Aurangabad district a break from the traditionally hot summer months of March-May.

Maybe it is the time of the day, past noon. Maybe it is the geography; bordered as it is by Ahmednagar, Jalna, Jalgaon, and Nashik, none known for being green, at least not in the sense the Konkan stretch is.

Maybe it’s the topography, with the Deccan Trap lava flows of the upper Cretaceous to Eocene age covering the district, much of it bare of rivers, rivulets, and streams, at least none that I could spot along the way as we chugged toward Aurangabad even though it’s located in the Godavari and Tapi river basins.

Maybe it’s the farming, tracts denuded of forest vegetation to support agriculture.

Maybe I expect too much, having travelled through the Konkan more times than I care to remember where rivers and rivulets snake as densely as the lines in the palm of the hand, where the green is spread around as widely as the blue overhead.

Even so the landscape is stirring, like the one in the Deccan Plateau, with fields stretching a long way off, a succession of neatly cut rows of livelihood, nuanced by the crops sown and harvested, enlivened by the stark contrast of farmers dwarfed by the land they till, slight figures embraced by a landscape largely emptied of human presence, spotted only because they break with the uniformity of the land that dutifully conforms to the character the farmers lent it and one they strive to retain in the harshest of times.

And it does feel hot the moment my eyes, having trawled over the landscape seeking typical rural signposts of carts, cattle, homesteads, and farmhands, withdraw for respite from finding none or too few and far between in the miles that abound.

Monotony is not so much endless uniformity, as it is a lack of contrasting elements inhabiting the uniformity.

It’s a landscape to lose oneself in without being truly lost. It’s a landscape to be truly lost in without actually managing to.

But I had little to complain for, past Lasur, approaching Potul, the land rounded on me just as surely as my eager anticipation of sighting cotton fields had propelled me to the door no sooner we left the Nashik district behind.

The contrast of cotton with the earth, heightened by memories of regularly wading through cotton fields a long, long time ago, and most recently from the sight of white puffs cascading the earth past Raichur in Karnataka, this was the closest I came to reliving those memories the moment I conceded, concluded really, that these must indeed be cotton fields even though they were nowhere as profuse with whites as those others I’ve seen and been in before.

Among the sparse trees, I sought for signs of farmers. While there were plenty of signs of their presence, hay stacked high, bullock carts left out in the Sun, bullocks grazing in what little grass there was along the edges of fields, bullocks sitting and chewing cud, charpoys laid out in the shade of trees outside rustic tenements, of the farmers there was but little sign.

Maybe I missed them in the contours of the land as they rested in the shade of trees, turned over on the side for a nap on the charpoy while children played in the shade, their voices ticking time just as surely a clock would.

Maybe I missed them in the brown of the fields, the colour of their skin turned to the very shade they tilled, made one with the life they shaped to shape their own. In time the land makes each its very own but not after they’ve made peace with it, making its  moods their own.

There’s a reason they Sons of the Soil came to be used in competitive electoral parlance, and it’s not likely to be long before Soil Of The Son creeps in as well if it already hasn’t in other forms.  

The poetry of life in the Deccan, like it must be elsewhere in the hinterland, finds its metre in the cyclical nature of rhythms that pulsate the land, its cadences shaped as much by the seeming monotony of the landscape as by the unchanging nature of life it sustains, redeemed by the simplicity that must pervade to sustain life through the vicissitudes of nature and the hard bargains that market drives with farmers.    

I lift my head, pointing my nose up, as if seeking word from silences that roam on the wind. I’m caressed and let go, returning me to watching for life in the uniformity of livelihood that pervades the hinterland.     

Even so, every now and then, the fields revealed their masters of the moment, men and women rendered stationery by the distances that separated them from me, the flashing scene laying over another contiguously. That’s the nature of a land that stretches past one’s own journey.

A farmer and a woman watched over the cotton field by a bullock cart. The bullocks were nowhere to be seen. She had wrapped the pallu of her sari around her head to shield from the Sun. A large white sack stood beside her. Cotton? Perhaps. The farmer wore a white Gandhi topi. Behind them the earth had bumped up the field, elevating it head-high before flattening it out into cotton crop. White wisps clung to dark stems.

Not far from Lasur and Potul, in the weaving centres of Aurangabad, the wisps of cotton that stubbornly cling on to dark stems acreage after acreage, gathering the dust the wind deposits from its meandering about the Deccan, while showing little promise in the scalding sun are transformed into elegance, examples of which we were to see later at the Himroo Weaving Centre in Aurangabad.

At one time, more so before than now or so it seems, Aurangabad came into prominence for its Himroo saris and shawls.

It was no coincidence though, for Himroo textiles drew from cotton grown locally and together with silk, the fabric that eventually emerged from the handicrafts industry, owing as much to its unique designs as its texture came to be sought after besides lending Aurangabad prominence through the middle ages, from as far back as the reign of Mohammed Tughlaq and Malik Ambar.

Paithani saris are the other product Aurangabad is well known for.

Weaving looms attached to showrooms are rarely functional, at least not the ones I’ve seen. They’re displayed more to sate curiosity of travellers bussed to weaving centres returning from visiting monuments, here the Ellora caves.


In their silence, and loneliness, I imagine faces that once sat at the loom, eyes fixed on the wooden supports and the warp thread that flow from above, weaving the geometry that distinguished Himroo textiles from the rest.    

Standing in the middle of richly woven textiles it takes more than just academic imagination to make the leap from the cotton fields of Lasur and Potul to the vivid designs stacked in neat rows of shelves on the wall.

It’s no less easy to make a similar transition from the farmers in the middle of the field and the salesperson rolling out Himroo shawls and saris for potential customers.   

I return to the landscape teasing me. I tire not from gazing out. I tire not from the unchanging terrain. In the seeming monotony of the landscape I merely see the beauty of the vastness that time repeats as a function of distance. I could keep looking on for ever, and ever.

Gods planted in the shade of Neem, a sight nowhere as common in Maharashtra as in North Karnataka, where there’s barely a field which isn’t inhabited by a small, waist high temple with tapering tops in the shade of Neem trees, softened the landscape with the belief and hope the farmer must invest in his offerings of obeisance to the deity before beginning sowing, and praying for a successful harvest.

There’s no one at the small temple located in the corner of the field where dykes proportioning the field meet at right angles. There’s a quiet air to the place.

An idol of Goddess Lakshmi sits outside in the sun, leaning against the wall of what appears to be the site of an older temple dismantled in favour of a new one built adjacent. I expect there’d be another idol inside the temple, or merely a stone picked up from the field and worshipped symbolically as Lakshmi. Yes, stones.

At first, as a schoolboy meandering in fields in North Karnataka, finding stones anointed with the traditional offering of haldi and vermillion but bereft of any shape remotely resembling any of the gods from the Hindu pantheon would greatly confuse me as to the deity they represented until a farmer revealed their origins, and purpose: to be worshipped before beginning sowing and at the time of harvest, and in between depending upon the need for reassurance and blessings.

“It’s Lakshmi we worship,” he had said. These are not temples where communities form a line in front of. These are temples of relevance to the farmer who built it. But that is not to say that offerings made are not offered to fellow farming neighbours. And for most part the temples in fields enjoy the solitude of a silence enjoying a quiet siesta.

Incarnations of Lakshmi are worshipped for prosperity. In all likelihood, as it might well be in many other cases, the farmer would be happy to merely cover his expenses if not a modest profit to pull him and his family through the year.

In the vast landscapes of the Indian hinterland, faith is a necessity to make sense of the vicissitudes of nature, the constant in whose power time twirls. 

Trees, those silent sentinels that keep watch over their shade from dawn to dusk, lend permanence to the land that alternates from being harsh to forgiving to nurturing.

Soon it untangled itself from my gaze and floated into the grasp of another’s.


Riot Kitty said...

Thank you for another wonderful tour. And those first pics just look hot!

Meena Venkataraman said...

Wow...beautifully written...
love the descripion of the landscape and the beautiful portrayal of the harsh realities of life there

Anil P said...

Riot Kitty: Thank you.

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you.

Susan Scheid said...

Thank you so much for bringing us these gorgeous glimpses from your world.

Anil P said...

Susan Scheid: Thank you. A pleasure to know you liked reading it.

Ambika said...

The summer heat by the look of the first few pictures is unwelcoming. But your account of the place is really heartwarming! I enjoyed the tour through your words.

Anil P said...

Ambika: Thank you. The heat can be fierce, but it does bake the earth in those landscapes in a very arresting way.