Ever since we started cooking Ragi dishes in school, we were keen to illustrate these recipes in the (TDAC)They Draw and Cook style. www.theydrawandcook.com/
I had been fascinated with this TDAC community ever since I had stumbled on them online a few years back and whoever I showed it at school was also equally excited. It never sort of took off in school though because it needed a certain kind of hand holding and we could never crack it. We made several attempts though. The very first dish we created, we had asked some students to illustrate. It was good- but not the TDAC style.
Vinita, Ambika, Roshni, all had the enthusiasm to do this but it was somehow never coming together. I then discussed with Swetha , a former teacher at Poorna, who moved back to Bangalore if she could help us with this. And the vision soon became larger. Could we turn this into an art project with postcards from the farm- what we did at the farm , what we cooked that day, what interesting findings we had.. can all this come together? Swetha was excited and as one trial run we asked class 5 students to draw out their observations. (I must add a disclaimer here- I use these class grades to make it simple for a reader to understand- the children groups at Poorna have names not grade numbers- idea being that they are grouped on ability and not age)
However by October Swetha's free time for this looked doubtful and the modalities also were worrying us.. Roshni and I thought it could be a one day workshop on illustrations or it could be a take home assignment where parents can also get involved but nothing seemed to be clicking.
Natasha a former student of Poorna decided to come onboard then and went to the farm, stayed on to observe the community kitchen behind the scenes and coordinated with Vinita's help a few workshops. We had put up a poster on asking for illustrators and several students signed up for it. There were some wonderful individual illustrations but we needed an anchor to pull it together in the TDAC style. Natasha also seemed to have less time to devote to this and finally we requested Akanksha and Aishwarya, fresh graduates from Srishti School of design who agreed on two things- the very short time we had to produce this in and the very low honorarium we could pay for this. And so, from a larger vision of representing our journey from growing and eating food it became more focused on the cookbook.
Roshni had already compiled the recipes and began editing it. The designers came up with their child friendly version. It was still not TDAC style but we liked it. One day in her bid to explain what we were missing , Roshni exclaimed , "it is the little details-- the licking from a spoon, the smoke from the wood stove, the watering of eyes in chopping onions-- that's what makes TDAC so special! "
I agreed. Food --- to illustrate this evocative theme -- you need to experience it and draw from all your senses! There are too many really nice cookbooks and many appealing children's cookbooks too and ours perhaps will be a nice and welcome addition to that . But someday , we will crack that TDAC style and who knows maybe make our own style centering on food and ecology?!
For now, our Ragi cookbook in this form itself is making waves. We sent it out to many people and networks working in the space of environment education, millet promotion, food advocacy, seed sovereignty across the country and the reviews have been warming our hearts! We also gave a cookbook each to all students of the school and each faculty at Azim Premji University. And received many pictures of dishes tried out by folks on Whatsapp! Till now, Ragi Roti, Ragi Cake, Kharpole, Chakli, Ladoos have been tried out! Suggestions have poured in to include Ragi Pancake, Ragi Halwa, Ragi Idli and Dosa! NGOs in Bhubhneshwar, Udaipur and Chattisgarh who use Ragi in their cuisine have asked for more copies to encourage schools to try something similar.
Here are some testimonies I pulled out from emails:
Prayag Joshi of Imlee Mahuaa School wrote a lovely email...
"Many thanks for your lovely gifts that just arrived in the mail today. I will share them with our children and staff tomorrow. I am sure some of the children will try out your delightful ragi recipes, for ragi is grown aplenty in these climes and is a part of the daily diet in the form of a soupy drink called a payz (kanji)."
Nyla Coelho wrote appreciatively : "Poorna's Ragi book (too) is a piece of genius. Kudos to the school, their teacher Ashwini, the children and the team at Poorna...I have been mentioning it to people working on millets that I met recently."
Sushama Sharma of Anand Niketan school at Sewagram wrote : "Thanks a lot. It looks wonderful. Congratulations... It shows the amount of effort put into it."
Kala Sunder , Trustee of Poorna wrote , "Thanks for the book of ragi recipes, it is beautifully designed, and the recipes are simple enough to appeal even to a lazy cook like me. I missed ragi dosa and idli."
When Vidya Iyengar connected with Sammitha to do a story on the community kitchen cooking by students at Poorna, little did we know that she would also spend time learning about the Ragi Project, be with us at the harvest, and get some feedback from students as well as parents! (Something which we have not been able to do!) What a surprise it was for us then to read this all as a cover story on 10th December! Here is the link to a well written story: http://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/cover-story/toor-de-force-in-ragi-fields/articleshow/62002023.cms?
I woke up with fever on the harvest day. It had been such a hectic month and I think the body was rebelling. But it was also the D -Day and thank god for the enthu - punter Poorna team for organising , coordinating, and keeping spirits high. It was the day when we had a reporter coming in from Bangalore Mirror. She had been interested in doing a story on the community kitchen cooking day of Poorna and it was a perfect day to invite her. For, it was the turn of class 7 kids to cook- the same group which had rebelled many times against including a Ragi dish in their cooking . But after Sreeja took them on a farm visit to see the crop two weeks back, they unanimously decided to cook nothing less than Ragi Mudde!!!! It was also the day when the freshly harvested 'Tuwar' ( we harvested some 4.5 kgs!) was being used in the cooking. It was also the day when two bloggers, who had been following our journey online for some time decided to make a trip to school from the other end of Bangalore. Indira was bringing her family including her 2 year old granddaughter who had been humming Ragi Tandira ever since she watched the Vasu Dixit video from the Children's day programme.
We had organised a few big scissors for the smaller students and some sickles. I went to my malyalee neighbour's house to enquire if they had one and I could borrow? "What? My house won't have a sickle? Impossible! Also, do you want a star to go with it to complete the CPI-M logo", asked Raji, my neighbour! HAHA . I tried my hand at cutting some stalks from my pot - not bad. Kids can also do it. The teachers seem confident about handling kids and the tools. So we were all set.
Madhavan in the morning bus ride had protested- "it is not fair, our class isn't going to harvest, why are the younger ones having all the fun?" Fun?
I got down from the bus and got unusually many cheerful, "Hi Pallavi! greetings from kids. Wait, kids are excited to do the hard work? Class 5 lined up at the gate without telling them to do so . Was it my delirious feverish state? or was there some real difference in enthu levels of these kids?
We quickly spread a bedsheet on the terrace and dried the already harvested Ragi that Vasantha brought form her house . A lovely Bangalore morning- nip in the air and sunlight. and dried Ragi stalks. Wonderful!
Banu and Viji had organised extra buses and we all landed up by 9:15 at the farm. We saw Santosh and Nataraj getting off their motorcycle. Nataraj had come in from Mysore. Laksh and his colleague, Uday joined us . We all went to the farm. Everyone took off their shoes except me- I hadn't heard the instruction and one student took me to task. Santosh and Nataraj quickly changed their attire - veshti and a shirt, talas(cymbals), Khanjira( hand held drum) and ghunghroos tied to wrists- what a festive sight! Shyamanna , the farmer next door, came in to join us. He instructed us to do a Puja first. Four stones , with incense( agarbattis) and kumkum were procured- thanks to Gauri shankar and Elijah's sprints . And when the Puja was done , gorgeous folk song notes hit the air. Shymanna cut the first few stalks. (and would have continued had we not requested him to stop and give the kids a chance). Then plot by plot, class 4,5,6 students worked in batches and used sickles, scissors , bare hands , and cut stalks of Ragi. We spread bedsheets on land and gathered and tied the produce. We did this with the folk music in the background which extolled the cycle of nature, the art of giving, the life of a farmer and the art of tilling the land -with close ties to nature. You didn't need any more lessons on sustainability if you paused and learnt from the cultural , traditional, simpler agrarian ways. I was very chuffed. First, because Shriprya told us all that our harvest is from the seeds that have been passed down 15 generations. And second when she narrated folklores that she had learnt from farmers she is friends with in Thalli- all about humility in front of nature's ways. When we lose this connection to land, we lose more than livelihood or food...We lose a language too. And these cultural losses will never be accounted for when we do the maths of rural-urban migration.
Apart from the pictures here, Sharmila, who blogs at www.theyellowturmeric.com posted a few if you can see it on facebook :https://www.facebook.com/TheYellowTurmeric/?timeline_context_item_type=intro_card_work&timeline_context_item_source=734115313&pnref=lhc
and so did Maya , from Eartha : https://www.earthamag.org/stories/stories/2017/12/11/the-ragi-project-how-one-school-is-feeding-itself-from-within
And then there is our FB page as well: https://www.facebook.com/ragiproject/
We then sat on the road listening to more songs and stories and then time to wrap up and get to school for a lunch of???? Muddes!!!
The teachers had to continue their classes post lunch and the students in two classes asked for nap time to help them recover from their hard work! well deserved nap time, for sure!
The day ended with bringing back all the harvested Ragi that had been kept on the terrace back into the classroom.
The many hands that came forward today when we worked together.. I lost count- the bus incharge to the teachers, to visitors, to children. What a lovely feeling! I hope the school will cherish this
On the day we had all met last, 14th November 2017, for the children's day programme, we decided that the first week of December 2017 would be the ideal time to harvest.
Madhu groaned hearing the time line- She was going to miss it! Her wedding was in that week! Sammitha was happy it was before 15th because she would be able to make it ! We were going to miss our Madhu on D-Day but were happy that Sammitha's enthusiasm was around. Meanwhile, Laksh said, in his characteristic style, "100 percent! Ragi would be ready by then!" He felt some of our crop was slightly infected but still we would get to harvest the rest.
All right then! what all would we need? Sickles, a gunny bag, space to dry, space to store, bedsheets and we could do the whole process in the school in front of all classes, and explain to them the stages of harvesting.
I had no understanding of this- having never seen this process before but making a mental note to check the internet and ask my farmer relatives who might transfer some paddy harvesting knowledge. But I soon heard Vasantha, Madhu, Ashwini, Reena. Sreeja, discussing nostalgically about similar processes in their grandparents' place .
Harvest is a time for joy but also for planning- harvesting, drying, grain processing and storage itself is a lot of work . Thank god, for Roshni's management skills.
Anyways, as usual with every activity, much excitement was around...Jalaja and Roshni decided to ask our neighbouring farmer, Shyamanna, to help us and come over for the community lunch. Jalaja also came up with the idea of asking Santosh , who is trained with Ninasam theatre to come sing some traditional harvest songs for us. With a bit of understanding (and even misunderstanding around honorarium amount and travel funding) finally the 6th December programme was laid out.
Very nice, very nice. Until Cyclone Okchi struck....
Roshni, Banu, Viji and Shubha had been to the farm on Thursday ( 30th Nov) just before that. (The first time for them except Roshni,of course). They sent the pictures which in excitement I forwarded to Laksh. I get a serious call from him within 10 minutes. "Pallavi! The birds seemed to be eating all your grains, Harvest quick! Otherwise you will be left with nothing"
Birds? that's what we should worry about now? Not the rain? Apparently we had put up our scarecrows too early and now with the rain and wind they were pretty useless. Laksh laughed and said , "it is not the scarecrows alone, farmers guard their crop in the evenings and early mornings by whooshing away the birds with a cloth. Since you are never around, the birds are having a field day!" Ah!<facepalm>
A mad scramble to harvest the very next day, (Friday, 1st December) ensued with whatsapp messages and calls flowing from Roshni to others and back. Neither I nor Laksh could join. But I sent in old bedheets and an old cotton curtain- my only contribution! Some more were collected.
Anyways, birds soon became our second worry. The cyclonic rain had troubled us the whole night. We requested Asha who knew the how of harvesting better than any of us to come along. In the morning however, Asha couldn't make it. The wet, gloomy Friday came with with many confusing suggestions. "If we harvest now, the wet crop will surely get spoilt! If we don't , the stalks which are already bent because of the wind and the rain will get spoilt anyways." Frantic phone calls to Laksh and to Loknath (Agastya's Botanist) didn't solve our crisis because of conflicting advice. From Birds to Rain . the nature of woes changed quickly.
The school was set to celebrate Kannada Rajyotsava and Kids had dressed up. Jalaja wasn't happy as she had put in quite an effort in organising celebrations. Going to farm would eat into time and energy. She was right. Taking kids however was not an option at anytime as the ground was muddy and slippery.
Finally, it was decided that only a few adults will do an 'emergency harvest' of only those stalks that had fallen down. Ashwini, Sammitha, Vasantha and Roshni made a quick dash to the farm. They cut the fallen ones and literally tied up some of other fallen down stalks together like bandages! They then brought back the cut stalks, dried them on newspapers under a full speed fan in the AV room. The Alpha class group (approx. class 5) spent one of their classes helping the teachers. Roshni made them sit around and asked how they were feeling looking at all this- some said happy because of their own produce, some said sad because it was all over. Some exclaimed, "this is how Ragi looks when mature?! " It was a good moment of reflection of their six month journey. When the school day ended, Roshni and Sammitha transferred the stalks to Vasantha's house nearby after some interesting discussion on the possible after school visitors- rodents/ pests/ squirrels who will be delighted to have the crop to themselves! Done for now. All in one day. Pheeeeeew.
At the end of the day, Roshni sent me pictures of some embroidery Ashwini was trying her hand at- the motifs inspired by the Ragi project and the upcoming harvest! Absolutely wonderful!