The world in a grain of ricehttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/the-world-in-a-grain-of-rice-5658840/

The world in a grain of rice

Lush-green paddy fields turning into villas, uncertain rains and struggling farmers — a film about an unusual Goa story travels to Paris.

Saxtticho Koddo: The Granary of Salcete, film, documentary film
Sons of the soil: A farmer tills the field in Curtorim in a still from the film. (Courtesy: Vince Costa)

On the afternoon of April 19, a handful of viewers will cross the Moulin Rouge, stroll past Vincent Van Gogh’s apartment on the hills of Montmarte, bend their journey right across the print shop where Pablo Picasso picked up printmaking and tiptoe into Ciné 13. In the Parisian theatre’s dark silence, they can listen to Jose Antonio Barbosa, a rice farmer from Goa, speak fondly about his relationship with his two bullocks, Gambru and Tambdul. “They know their names and respond to directions. They understand the language that even humans don’t,” he says.

Barbosa is no scientist, but, like the two other farmer protagonists in the documentary film Saxtticho Koddo: The Granary of Salcete, he can spell out a thing or two about climate change. For one, he senses a heat that wasn’t there before, something which affects both the soil and his animals. But, most importantly, the gushing rain that arrived in his childhood clockwork-like in May is now a scanty, reluctant visitor in July. His wrinkled face cringes at the changing attitudes towards agriculture; he dreads the shift in the land use that leads villas and buildings to come up on fertile agricultural land. In an important moment, he scoffs and reminds the viewers: “Everyone is alive because of us farmers!”

Before Paris’s Ethnografilm festival, Saxtticho Koddo at the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival, Bristol; and the Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Lisbon. The first Goa screening was held early in March under a mango tree at director Vince Costa’s ancestral home. Since then, the movie has been discussed and debated across Goan communities, WhatsApp groups and local agricultural bulletins. “The documentary shows a side of Goa we all know, yet had not viewed from the same perspective.

“The farmer is the protagonist and it’s his perspective,” says Hansel Vaz, a feni distiller.

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The 37-minute film began in 2014 as a “memory project” for Costa’s year-and-a-half-old daughter Arya. Costa says he wanted to capture life on the rice fields that surround his home in Curtorim. “I was just documenting, running errands to enter their fields, sometimes sharing tea with the villagers, sometimes gossip. Till one day it hit me. The visuals started speaking. I thought, wait a second, this story needs to be told,” recalls Costa, a former musician, whose in-house studio slowly made room for research on seed varieties, gene pool, and the influence of caste and migration on cultivation.

The story he tells is of Curtorim, called Salcete’s granary, because of the rich fertile land by the banks of the river Zuari on which it rests. Surrounded by springs and aquifers, here farmers were the first to perfect the art of irrigation in low-lying lands much before the Portuguese came to Goa. Paddy, otherwise a monsoon-dependent crop often known to deplete water tables, is cultivated twice — backed by “time-tested village intelligence” and a robust water channel monitored by the Curtorim farmers’ collective.

Saxtticho Koddo, poster, documentary, documentary film
The poster of Saxtticho Koddo

The film tells the story of Goa’s paddy farmers, who now struggle with scanty, uncertain rain as well as the exodus of young men from agriculture — it also harkens back to a past where paddy was entwined with culture. Church edicts would ask new Christian converts to add salt while cooking rice, to separate them from Hindus.

The Christian neighbourhoods of Curtorim, Chandor, Raia and Paroda made up the rice bowl that largely fed rice to the European explorers for four centuries. It remains a deeply Christian milieu, seen in the rosaries that hang from the necks of women as they plant paddy, in the candles lit for the “harbinger of rains”, Saint Anthony, or the long queues outside the Farmer’s Cross at Raia where farmers pray for a good crop.

“The story is set in Curtorim. In that sense, it echoes the Catholic rituals, but the appeal is universal. The Feast of Saint Anthony on July 17 marked the time to transplant paddy. For hundreds of years, it would rain exactly that day. But for three years now, the rain is been delayed for weeks and sometimes months,” says Costa.

When he started to shoot, Costa’s camera captured the ubiquitous picture-postcard Goan images of verdant green fields. But on the edit table, a closer look revealed that some plots were overrun with weeds, and others left barren with neglect.

Costa decided to investigate. The 80 hours of footage, shot over three years, told one story over and over again. “Education came in and we were taught about the world. Things outside became aspirational. We forgot the pride of the wealth we had right here on our banks. But our secrets of agriculture cannot be lost,” he says.

In the movie, the camera follows Barbosa and fellow farmers Glorio De Melo and Rita Pereira Rebello. Rita has never been to school and has now convinced her sons to work in the fields; and Glorio hopes he can convince his family to support him in using the knowledge of his ancestors.

The rich visuals show the farmers ploughing, teaching English rhymes to their children, sitting on the bunds, sharing a juicy mackerel fry, and climbing a hill to pray for rain. In one scene, a farmer sits on his bike, his gaze fixed on the distant horizon, wondering aloud if “rains are only in the hands of God or could he demand it?”.

“Essentially this story is of agriculture everywhere,” says Miguel Braganza, an agriculturist and secretary of the Botanical Society of Goa. “The debate and discussion it has opened is good. Agriculture is made to look unprofitable by land sharks. We will always have issues like highways or train network cutting through fields but, more importantly, we are seeing lands kept fallow and converted to settlements for larger profits. The only way forward is farming in a collective to ensure profits,” he says.

Collective farming was once common in Old Goa, when many families would till the land under a system of local governance called comunidades. Over time, tilling the land became the work of only “lower caste” people, while the ownership passed into the hands of the “upper-caste” landlords. “It starts in schools. If you do not get good marks, teachers are quick to say ‘go back to your fields!’ That is where the correction should start,” says Braganza. Now, most labourers are migrants from the east, while the children of the bhatkars (landlords) as well as tillers (with Portuguese passports) are mostly abroad — in Portugal and England.

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But the film also tells of those who still persist in honouring their ties to the land. One of the most telling images is of elderly women tillers planting paddy in a field. One of them is wearing a football jersey which says “Messi 10”. As she wades through water, others are heard singing in the background: “Pay attention to these words. This secret lies between us… Who do we blame? Hard times are upon us.”