Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chakla Balan in rural Kachchh

Recently I went to visit the coastal areas of Kachchh using the opportunity to find out more about the chakla balan and its place in the home. The reaction I received when asking people if they would mind showing me their chakla balan and telling me about it illustrates the nature of the object in it's cultural context. It is integrated completely, losing it's importance(as why would you bother questioning about it? its a chakla balan). It is used so much for staple diets - a fact of the Indian kitchen.

Interview 1:
Two farming Villages
When speaking to Surendra's wife about their kitchen, the level of laughter was great however they told me happily about the history of her chakla as I played with it. The chakla was a gift to the farmer's wife as part of her dowry. Her mother included it, and it was seen as a practical and necessary part of the dowry. The rolling pin was decorated with patterns to mark the auspicious occasion, it was beautiful and the daughter was very proud of it.

The design of the object gradually thinned towards each end, this according to the woman was to create greater control and could thin out where wanted. It was made of wood and the length was quite small (probably 25cm) and the maximum diameter was 3cm.
If I wanted one could just get from the market. She said there were many different types and many new ones, however was happy with her sentimental one, so I should just go and buy one. The women would share the kitchen however eat separately with their immediate family.The board had small legs on it, this was so one could roll without hitting the edge of your hands on the surface. I should point out that the clearance was enough for smaller hands - a gender integrated object - women will do the rolling!

The next place that I spoke to two women about her chakla balan was in a hindu temple where they supplied food for the surrounding poor every dinner. The amount they were making was a lot more. Again I was greeted with much laughter. They had about twenty rolling pins. The design was different and was used for pressing down harder - this may be due to the courseness of the grain or the style of bread - I am not sure. They were not very decorated which may be due to the fact that kitchen was not a home. This was also designed to be used whist sitting on the floor. Most of the kitchens we observed, the floor was the work area, with the burner, chakla and other necessities. They told me that men do not use the chakla unless it is in large factories. The women were sitting on the floor readying the meals for many people.

The next encounter with the rural chakla was in a friend's house. Their child was sitting out the back rolling mini-chapatti - she must have been 2 years old...

The last encounter was within a children's hostel. The women were making dinner for approximately 30 kids in the YMC hostel. Here the design was similar to at the temple however the pin was smaller. The woman was using a small stool as well to sit on whilst preparing the chapatti.

One village was a farming village approximately 5km in land from the coast. The village sustains itself well and has a long history of this way of living for hundreds of years. There are obvious changes, one man we spoke to had just bought a tractor that he used for his own fields and helped in the fields of others. The houses were made of concrete where as they had been made of mud brick a few decades before. Electricity had been installed twenty years before. One of the family's we visited lived in a row of four houses with two shared kitchens facing the verandah area. The kitchens were small with little ventilation.

The farmers farmed juwari (holcus sorghum), wheat, budjri, mung and BT cotton. Juwari and wheat are an old crop: 'The wheat and juwari crops of Upper Sindh may vie in richness with those of Egypt even, where, it may be remarked, they occupy the same positions, being the spring and winter grains.' The use of this crop, farmed in a traditional manner and has for along time formed the staple diet. 'A favourable season for crops depends entirely on the extent of inundation. Wheat is sown in November or December, and reaped in April. Juwari is sown in the latter and reaped in the former, being irrigated the whole time by the river....The other dry grains -are Badjri (Holcus spi-catus) ; Mung (Phaseolus Mungo) ; grain and barley." ['Personal Observations of Sindh'Thomas Postans p91]. Thomas Postans was writing early in the British colonisation to pursuade the British of the welath to be had by infiltrating India. We saw all of these crops being grown still. These grains are used in creating traditional flatbreads, through the use of the chakla balan. The crop is directly responsible for the widespread and integral use of the utensil.

The interesting aspect is now only is this continuity lacking. The crops are faltering because of water over use, the changes in seasons and are switching to corporate seeds such as BT.
BT cotton is a cash crop and the preference for this due to higher profits and a four year crop cycle. From the farmers we talked to this meant farmers would farm even though they knew it was resource intensive to do so. They were aware that the groundwater was falling rather quickly. Their traditional methods of farming ensured that the land remained fertile and this season would not negatively impact the next. Due to the necessity of working within global markets and want for greater profits the pressure to modernise implicates the crops depleting resources as artifiically supplying the condition for them to produce the yeild.
The villagers were quite worried about the influence of industry and the rapid approaching industrialisation that loomed closer and closer. The village is near the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) set up to boost the Gujurati economy . This is very much at the cost of the locals. Industrial growth is sucking up the groundwater, polluting the water, air and soil. The factories are encroaching on farmers land without providing any alternative rather to sell as they cut off the local markets by flooding them with global produce. Inflation and migration into the area is huge, within Mundra the town is now made up 0f 80% non-Kachche. Whilst walking in the fields of the farmers the steel factory in the background created a visual analogy. Within the year a nuclear power plant is to be built close by as are many other factories.
This is an interesting framework to discuss the transitions of the chakla balan as an integral tradition in the Indian kitchen as is farming and village life a social foundation. Without this social foundation, the pressure of foreign culture, the way in which the local cultures survive is under serious question.
My point is a utensil is defined by its use. It has a purpose. In the case the chakla balan in Southern Kachchh is directly unified with it's material - the flour, which comes from the fields. This direct linkage is changing, thus the continuity of the culture will also. The nature of the utensil and the strength of food tradition in Indian culture does not point to the extinction of use. The changing realms of the community indicates soon to be changes in preparation & process even at the most basic level of the village.

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