13 January 2017, Kotagiri: The Wild Foods Festival was held at the Keystone campus on Monday where indigenous people from seven areas in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve gathered to celebrate their culinary heritage and Terra Madre Day. Terra Madre Day is celebrated on December 10th every year, but this year circumstances in Tamil Nadu had us postponing celebrations by a month.
The event began with a rousing performance by a group of men belonging to the Bhumij community of Jharkhand who performed their traditional dance – Firkal. Firkal depicts the life of the Bhumij in the forests of Jharkhand. The dancers use swords, shields and sticks to show how they have faced and overcome difficult situations. The dancers performed with precision and there were astonishing displays of physical strength. The drums played with infectious energy had most of the 300 strong audience on their feet. The group from Jharkhand had set the pace for the day!
Once the Bhumij had finished their performance, a group from the Irula community began their traditional dance, the Arakol Atta. The Arakol Atta is usually danced in a slow tempo, but the musicians did not want to let go of the pace that had been set. Very soon, most of the audience had joined in and the musicians in the centre of the circle had as many as four rows of dancers around them, all performing different sets of dance steps to the same music.
The event was also an occasion to present Janakiamma from Vellaricombai village with the Paul K. Feyerabend Award. This award celebrates individuals and organisations who have worked for the betterment of communities in the face of adversities. 56-year-old Janakiamma is a Kurumba woman elder who has emerged as a leader amongst her community. She has been involved since the past decade building young leadership amongst her people. She has worked hard to promote traditional systems of governance and revive important events in the community to keep their pride and identity alive.
The stalls at the Wild Foods Festival were inaugurated by community members. Vaniyampuzha Babu inaugurated the Nilambur and Konavakkarai stall; Janakiamma from Vellaricombai the Sigur, Pillur and Aracode stall, Balan, President-Thalavady Adivasi Munnetra Sangham (TAMS) and Nagamma, village elder from Punanjanur inaugurated the Hasanur and Punanjanur stall; and Ramghulam from Prerak, Chhattisgarh inaugurated the NTFP-EP stall which featured different varieties of traditional seeds and some products made by Custom Made Craft Centre (CMCC).
Besides stalls from different working areas of Keystone, Aadhimalai had also displayed the range of products that were being developed and marketed by them. Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Ltd is run completely by the indigenous communities. There are more than 1600 shareholders who sell their raw produce, both cultivated and wild collected, to the company. Aadhimalai then processes it, value-adds to it, and packages and markets it. The profits made by the company are divided between the shareholders. The growth of the communities in terms of strategizing and implementing for better value for their produce and reaching out to newer markets is a source of pride all all concerned.
The wild food stalls had been set up from community members from the seven working areas of Keystone, Aracode, Pillur, Sigur, Punanjanur, Hasanur, Konnavakkarai, and Nilambur. The indigenous communities of these areas had gathered leaves, shoots, fruits and tubers from the forest and prepared into dishes that they have been consuming for generations. Different areas had focused on different preparations. Dishes from Nilambur included different kinds of pickles – gooseberry, asparagus, tamarind, and banana stem to name a few. They also showcased seven different types of keerai (leaves) prepared in the same method. The different taste of each dish thus brought out the individual flavour of each keerai.
Millets were also presented in a stunning variety of preparations. While the Hasanur stall displayed ragi murukku and thattu vada, Punanjanur presented ragi roti (flatbread), ragi mudde (steamed ragi balls) from Sigur. There was thenai rice, samai payasam and thenai puttu. Amaranthus seeds were displayed as pori (puffed) and vadai . All areas showcased tubers of noorai and rheyaa (Discorea sp) which are important seasonal supplements to their diet. These tubers are usually skinned and boiled or roasted. There was also roasted pumpkin and maize vadai. There was an amazing range of flavours from bland to spicy to bitter to sweet and the display plates had to be refilled time and again.
It was gratifying to see the wonder and excitement when a woman from Pillur tasted the wild food that she had consumed all her life presented to her in a completely different form at the Pillur stall. The feast that had been laid honouring the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities of the Nilgiris had filled every one present with pride and we all returned with the commitment never to lose this heritage.