Monday, June 4, 2012

The Village, Now and Then

My grandmother could not specify the location of their beginnings. It might be anywhere in the Southern Peninsula. She just mentioned it as ‘that village’, which conjures up a familiar pattern-a hundred houses scattered in four or five narrow streets, with pillared verandahs and pyols, massive front doors, inner courtyards, situated at the bend of a river or its tributary, mounds of garbage here and there, cattle everywhere, a temple tower looming over it all, the temple hall and corridor serving as a meeting ground for the entire population, and an annual festival attracting a big crowd from nearby hamlets – an occasion when a golden replica of the deity in the inner shrine was carried in a procession with pipes and drums around the village.

R. K. Narayan, Grandmother’s Tale

This ‘pattern’ of villages in a specific geographical area—the form and the layout of their houses, the social and religious ceremonies around which life revolved, the landmarks—were ‘familiar’ to most people even till the first half of the 20th century. The villages shared common features derived from the climate and culture of an area; names of individual villages were almost incidental. So it was that R. K. Narayan, one of the more enduring Indian writers of English, (whose famous admirers range from his contemporary author Graham Greene to the present-day popular writer Alexander Macall-Smith) could conjure up a perfectly detailed picture of the village in South India where his grandmother grew up, even while recalling his surprise at her not knowing the name of her mother’s village.
            Villages in earlier times in the Indian sub-continent managed their infrastructure in admirable ways, as evident from the archaeological findings in ancient sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilization[1] as well as the historical records unearthed by the historian Dharampal[2] showing the continuity in such organisation of village life even till three centuries ago. Village dwellings and lifestyles perfected a response that kept their fragile ecosystems intact. This is most evident in areas such as the cold and dry desert of Ladakh, where even the manner in which villages managed and maintain waterworks, is a lesson in planning and cooperation.[3]
It is also the village that has through the ages sustained artists and artisans within a familiar environment that promises them the security of some level of relationship with their land and with its society. For most of us, bred to the superiority of city learning, it would doubtless be surprising to realize that we owe the existence of the world-renowned Jantar Mantars as much to a village priest of humble origins as to the famous Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh. Sawai Jai Singh met Pandit Jagannath, a Brahmin village priest in the Deccan, whose knowledge of astronomy and religion was so manifest that it catalysed Jai Singh to take the priest back with him to Amber. Pandit Jagannath went on to become Jai Singh’s chief aide in his astronomy researches and in the theory and practical construction of his unique masonry instruments of astronomy. That we derive a wealth of meaning and identity from the rural landscape, is perhaps best exemplified in this poem, written 80 years ago for her son by an Englishwoman, Freda Bedi, who married an Indian and made a village in India her home. She was the first British woman to be jailed for participating in India’s freedom struggle against the British. In her evocative poem, the overriding image for an entire region—and even for heaven—is synonymous with an agricultural crop that is grown, cherished and harvested in villages.

Guru Nanak said to God
(White his beard as snow untrod)
‘Whatever tree or fruit it yields
Does mustard grow in the Heavenly fields’?

Curd from the pitcher, well-water sweet
Out in the fields a man must eat’
Whole wheat bread and mustard grant
The heart of Punjab is the sarson plant.

Where is the winter’s unsheathed lance?
Spring comes with a lyric and bhangra dance
My daughter has yellow veils in her dower
The heart of Punjab is the sarson flower.

‘Guru Baba Nanak, look
Tender your eyes like a country brook
Whatever tree or fruit it yields:
There’s a carpet of gold in the Heavenly Fields.’[4]

Despite the fact that villages have inspired some of the most beautiful imagery and most potent literature in our country; and that they have formed the backbone to our civilization, there is an almost complete disregard for rural cultures today. They are considered expendable, archaic, and regressive. SEZs replace them all over the country. The disruption in the traditional village organization caused by the deliberate breakdown of indigenous practices by the colonial incursion, has led to a steady degradation in village society. Manifested in the mounds of garbage recalled by R. K. Narayan even almost a century ago, the village environment across India today is now much, much worse. Between 2003 and 2008, according to research by P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, on an average one farmer committed suicide roughly every 30 minutes, the outcome of a nationwide agrarian crisis. [5]
Among the questions that exercise me are, how should we, as designers, respond to the state of villages today? How can we positively build upon the invaluable knowledge of ecological and cultural systems embodied in village habitats? Are there ways that we can suggest which ensure that traditional farming practices and crafts—and the heightened aesthetics which still flourish in many villages—bring enough to rural communities to live without fear of starvation or eviction? 

Maldevta, A village in the DoonValley, Uttarakhand, 2009 , Photo: Snehanshu Mukherjee

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] The Lost River, On the Trail of The Sarasvati, Michel Danino, Penguin Books 2010
[2] Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century
[3] Ancient Futures, Learning From Ladakh, Helena Norberg-Hodge; ‘The Economics of Happiness’, A film by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick & John Page
[4] ‘Basant’, Rhymes for Ranga, p. 48, Freda Bedi, Random House India, 2010
[5] Agrarian Crisis and Farmer`s Suicide, P. Sainath, IIC Occasional Publication 22


  1. Being brought up on a stable diet of "70% of India lives in the villages" in school textbooks and having roots in a village which I would twice a year, I am still trying to figure out why the villages have disappeared from the agenda of decision-makers and city-dwellers in general. In my own family, I have seen our village house which had 20 people in 1985 go under lock and key with just an annual cleaning by 1998. I can understand that as a culture, a village does not give you the anonymity or the fast rate of change that a city promises (but may or may not provide). As designers we may be able to contribute to making villages work, but not without getting all stakeholders and policy-makers to agree.

  2. I have been reading Ashis Nandy's An Ambiguous Journey to the City,and there is something very illuminating that he writes (p.15, The Journey to the Past as a Journey to the Self):
    'The obverse of the entry of the city as the locus of Indian consciousness is an erosion of the ability to imagine the village. By this I mean creative imagining-of the kind that invokes the fantasy of the 'archetypal', 'remembered' but nevertheless living Indian village-in those staying in villages and in others who have little or no connection with rural India.The erosion is not total; there are individuals whose works disprove the theory of a decline. But, as a collectivity, creative Indians now have poorer access to the village of the imagination and the bonding that it once forged between individual creativity and its wider reception.'