'Our grandmother used to sing whilst weeding': Oral histories, millet food culture, and farming rituals among women smallholders in Ramanagara district, Karnataka

Hazareesingh, Sandip (2020). 'Our grandmother used to sing whilst weeding': Oral histories, millet food culture, and farming rituals among women smallholders in Ramanagara district, Karnataka. Modern Asian Studies (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X20000190

Abstract

The cultural and historical dimensions of rural lives matter. However, development practitioners and writings tend to play down these aspects. This article demonstrates the significance of oral history in revealing the meanings of women smallholders’ millet based foodways in southern India. It argues that women farmers’ cultural practices around food constitute fundamental ‘capabilities’ nurtured over a long historical duration, and are essential to any meaningful articulation of ‘development’. Drawing on age-old spiritual beliefs and practices involving non-human entities, the women demonstrate fine-tuned skills in nurturing seeds and growing crops, in preparing and cooking food, and in discerning food tastes, particularly in relation to the local staple ragi, or finger millet. They also express their creativity in the joys of performing songs and farming rituals linked to the agricultural cycle. In this way, cultural capabilities express significant dimensions of women’s agency exercised in the intimately related spheres of food and farming. Oral history thus emerges as a research method capable of generating insights into concrete manifestations of culture over a significant historical duration, one that is particularly conducive to reclaiming the voices and life experiences of subaltern groups such as women smallholders who are either not heard or are marginalized in written contemporary and historical documentary records.

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