ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Eating Millets in Autumn: Memories of Farming, Crops and Hunger in East Central India.


Sengupta Sohini - Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Social Work, Mumbai, India


07 – Towards Collaborative Research on Cereal Cultures in South Asia


 Tribal farmers in the Central Indian upland regions grew a range of crops adapted to the short growing season and itinerant lifestyles in the nineteenth century. Away from the institutional authority of imperial kingdom, though not in isolation from trade routes, such communities experienced a transition mid-nineteenth century, when land was enclosed, as farms and state forests, for raising revenue for the government. Sedentism and permanent field cultivation through land grant led to expansion of wet-rice and decline of a complex cropping system based on forest-fallows. Based on my archival and ethnographic research in east central India, where tribal farmers embraced ‘improvement’ based on rice despite the limitations of rainfall, terrain, communication and capital, I show how the agrarian transition, unfolded slowly shaped by land gradients, limited resources, monsoonal fluctuations, tax contracts and commercial interests. When villagers remembered rituals of foraging and  harvest and contracts of land and labour, they invested landscapes with social meaning that brought the past into the present. Millets as food of deities jostled with the fear of hunger months and trials of forest cultivation tempered by regrets about lost crops and food. Reframing of millets as smart crop, attributes valued properties to the grain shaped by markets and state policies. Misreading of historical landscape may aid new ‘monocultures’ and transfer the risk of transitions to small holders.