Grains of change

At Spirit of the Earth, Sheela Balaji introduces us to ancient grains that turn purple when cooked, smell like jasmine and more

June 30, 2017 03:53 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

Welcome rains have lashed Manjakudi, a village with a population of 1,500 in Tiruvarur district, and a warm breeze wafts across the banks of the river Chozha Choodamani, a distributary of the Cauvery. The lush paddy rustles and waves in response. This is the heart of today’s parched Delta region, traditionally known for its fertile fields and bountiful yield.

It’s fitting then that this is where seven heritage varieties of rice are being raised across 40 acres that belong to the Swami Dayananda Educational Trust — from Kaatuyaanam , which grows to over seven feet tall and is capable of hiding an elephant, and Karuppu Kauvuni , a deep purple-black variety that turns sticky when cooked, to Thooyamalli , said to resemble jasmine buds.

These heritage grains are the result of years of work put in by select farmers and Sheela Balaji, chairperson and managing director of AIM for Seva and the Trust. Now, these grains and products made by tribal women and specially-able people find a new home in Chennai, courtesy their new store, Spirit of The Earth, in Mylapore.

Rooted in tradition

Balaji has, for long, been fond of everything natural. Until about 15 years ago, her store, Soundaraya, was known for its work with natural dyes. She then became inspired by late cultural activist Pupul Jayakar’s Festival of India, and almost organically, moved to another field, again related to the land. “In Manjakudi, farms are all you see. And when you grow hybrid varieties, you have to keep buying seeds every year. I started off with the desire to keep alive these precious heritage grains that you can keep reusing,” she says.

For four years now, she’s been trying to spread the knowledge through a Nel Thiruvizha, a festival of grains held in the village (other groups organise it in nearby villages). This year, Balaji was forced to break the tradition because of the poor monsoon. “We all eat rice. Yet we don’t know much about our staple food. It’s only recently that people have come to realise that we have these many varieties,” she says, adding, “Even now, not many know how to use and how to eat traditional grains.”

This is why Spirit of The Earth will also feature an experiential centre, where trained staff will guide visitors on how they can use the produce they buy at the boutique store. Rakesh Raghunathan of Puliyogare Travels will also curate food experiences. “It is an interactive, non-formal space for knowledge sharing. You can share recipes and experiment with the grains,” she shares. All the rice (organic and half-milled) are stored in bags with printed details (like rice varieties, cooking instructions, health benefits, and a line map of Manjakudi) on the side. Balaji calls this the ‘sustenance’ part of the initiative.

Benefitting society

AIM for Seva also runs the Krupa home for the differently-abled, which provides them with end-of-life care. Incense sticks made by the residents find a place on the store shelves. “They are delighted something they made is being showcased,” says Balaji. The NGO, an offshoot of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, headquartered in Anaikatti, also trains the local tribal women to create pouches from banana fibre and make plates from arecanut leaf sheaths. This initiative falls under ‘compassion’, says Balaji.

Finally, comes ‘wisdom’ — from books on spirituality stocked at the store. “An amalgamation of sustenance, compassion and wisdom had to be called Spirit of the Earth,” smiles Balaji.

Of course, none of these came easy. “It takes constant working, and cajoling. We spoke to farmers for years on why it was harmful to use pesticides, and what happens to the body and soil. Now, a handful of them has started raising heritage rice organically, at least for their own consumption. I consider even that a success.”

Flavour profile

Precious seeds from the last harvest are tagged and stored under ideal moisture conditions in Manjakudi. And, if all goes well, Balaji hopes to plant another 12 heritage varieties, including the Kerala Navara, Kalanamak from Uttar Pradesh, Ambemohar from Maharashtra and Gandhakasala from Kerala and Karnataka.

“That would be a speck compared to what we once had — a treasure trove of over a lakh varieties of rice, each of which had a medicinal purpose, too. But, this is a definite beginning,” she says.

For now, the sun-lit boutique offers people a chance to sample grains their ancestors once did. And learn to appreciate the many flavours and textures. Balaji also hopes to introduce them to her favourite — Iluppai Poo Samba , which carries with it the heady aroma of Bassia Latifolia ( mahua flower).

Spirit of The Earth is located at Srinidhi Apartments, No 4, Desika Road. The rice is priced between ₹120 and ₹130 a kilogram, and plans are afoot to soon make it available online too. For details, call 9500082142, 24987955

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