Imagine a museum with over 1,300 rice varieties, set up by a passionate farmer who wants to preserve the traditions and knowledge of his ancestors. That’s exactly what farmer and museum curator Syed Ghani Khan has created in southern India.
“’Annam Brahma’… Food is God,” says Syed Ghani Khan, as we walk up the narrow stairs of his home. “And rice, which is a gift of the earth, is not only auspicious but can also serve as medicine. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten this.”
We’re inside the rice museum, also known as the Rice Diversity Center on the first floor of Ghani’s house in his home village of Kirugavalu. Bamboo sticks support the brick-tiled thatched roof and different rice grains are hung from it, using twine and thread. The labels for each bottle containing a rice variety are handwritten. And instead of iron grills, there are bamboo sticks in the windows and indigenous folk art decorates the walls. “These paintings are by my daughter,” he tells me, proudly.
Ghani’s house is three hours by road from Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka in Mandya district, in a rural setting of red brick houses and green fields. Roses and native flowers fill his garden and I notice his use of coconut shells as planters, solar power for electricity, and a thriving vegetable garden.
Passionate about the diversity and benefits of indigenous varieties, Ghani started collecting and documenting varieties of native paddy (rice) two decades ago. He had always wanted to be the curator of a museum, and after gaining his degree in Archaeology and Museology in 2002, he decided to convert a part of his farm into a ‘living museum’, where he’s also cultivated over 116 mango varieties, before setting up the rice diversity center.
“I started this venture in 2005 and today, I’ve managed to grow about 1,300 varieties of native paddy in a plot measuring half an acre approximately,” he says. “At the Rice Diversity Center, I have details of all these varieties—the name, region, yield, crop duration, stalk height, season and rice color.”
Ghani tells me that his has been a farming family for the last 200 years and he’s been here at the 16-acre family farm, which he owns with his brother, since childhood. He has his own family too including two daughters and a son—his son even grew eight varieties of paddy from scratch last year.
Ghani was in college, but dropped out in 1996 after his father suffered a brain haemorrhage which left him bedridden, and Ghani returned home to the farm. When he first started, Ghani focused more on yield and as a result, preferred hybrid varieties as they grow more easily—but they required chemical fertilizers in abundance.
One day, while spraying them, he felt extreme nausea and collapsed. The incident proved to be a turning point in his life. He realized he’d been spraying poison to his produce and in turn, selling this to his buyers. “I spoke to my family and my grandmother told me all they used was manure from cow dung and greens. I realized then that organic farming was my calling and have been practising this since 2000,” says Ghani.
Since native rice varieties are more suitable to the local habitat, and require no chemical fertilizers, he quickly switched to indigenous varieties. “I started with just 40 grains of the native ratnachoodi variety in a six-foot patch, which I eventually propagated to two bags,” says Ghani. “I distributed one bag as seeds to other farmers, and I planted the other on my own farm and successfully grew two acres of this variety. A small article on this was published in a local Kannada paper and I’ve not looked back since.”
As Ghani always wanted to complete his graduation, he enrolled for the Archaeology and Museology undergraduate course in Mysore government college, three years after he dropped out. During field trips to neighboring states, he’d interact with farmers and collect the seeds of their local paddy varieties. A visit to the excavation and heritage sites of Harappa and Hampi also fuelled his desire of setting up a museum.
“Cultivation of indigenous varieties is the sustainable way forward—and unless preserved now, it will be a thing of the past for future generations.”
Syed Ghani Khan
After completing his course, Ghani became involved with Bangalore-based NGO and organic farmers’ collective Sahaja Samrudha and their “Save Our Rice Campaign”, an ongoing initiative to preserve, promote and market traditional rice varieties.
During this time, he interacted with numerous farmers across India, and continued to exchange seeds while learning more about different farming and harvesting techniques. According to Ghani, India is home to several thousand varieties—about 18,000 varieties have been documented by the National Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, Odisha, in eastern India.
So what are his plans for the future? “Along with the rice museum and diversity center, I want to set up a full-fledged training center to educate students, farmers and agriculturists about our rich rice heritage and the importance of its conservation,” says Ghani.
“Cultivation of indigenous varieties is the sustainable way forward—and unless preserved now, it will be a thing of the past for future generations,” he adds.
At the live museum, Ghani displays several varieties of black, red, green and brown rice. Along with it are genres that grow in different conditions including dry land, deep water and even saline soil. Some grains like dubraj and jal dubraj can sustain flood-like conditions for as much as 15 days—the genes of those grains allow the plant to grow taller, keeping much of it above water. The grains are grown in perfectly aligned bags, a beautiful show of green—Ghani could identify the variety with just one look.
While some varietals have a maturity of 60 days, others extend up to 180 days. “Indigenous varieties grown organically not only have numerous health benefits but are also resilient to the vagaries of the weather and several pests,” Ghani tells me. “They adapt and thrive in the natural conditions of the place unlike hybrid and genetically modified varieties.”
What’s also interesting is the difference in processing. ‘Polished rice’ refers to the white rice we normally consume—polishing is the process by which the husk is removed to give the rice its white colour. But it also removes the nutrients.
The ongoing pandemic also means he’s been unable to travel to collect new varietals nor have farmers been able to pick up seeds from him—he’s often posted seeds but that can be expensive.
Meanwhile, unpolished rice is brown or red, thicker, richer in minerals and proteins, and less starchy. Unpolished rice and red rice are a panacea for diabetes while the navara variety helps relieve joint pain. Varieties like sanna akki help digestion for small children while ambemohar and neelam samba are known to improve milk secretion for lactating mothers. Rakthasali is another native variety of rice used to cure fevers and ulcers.
“The importance of organic farming techniques, seed conservation and propagating indigenous varieties can hardly be overemphasized,” Ghani says. “Seeds are not anyone’s monopoly. It is nature’s gift and hence has to be shared.”
As for many, life has not been rosy for Ghani during the pandemic. Support and financial assistance for his work has been minimal except for a grant of INR 5 lakh (about USD$6,800) from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).
“Conservation requires investment in equipment—solar freezers and the like,” he says. “To date, I have been doing things at my own expense except for the grant I received in 2019 which helped me set up the rice diversity center.”
“Updating and maintaining my website also entails cost,” says Ghani. He also adds that smaller countries like Thailand have leveraged technology to make several value-added products like wine, multi-vitamin supplements and even soaps from rice. And this investment isn’t happening in India.
The ongoing pandemic also means he’s been unable to travel to collect new varietals nor have farmers been able to pick up seeds from him—he’s often posted seeds but that can be expensive. “As with every sector, farmers have lost revenue, and with the ongoing second wave and a potential third, the future is uncertain,” he says. He also adds his brother contracted COVID-19 and is recovering.
Weekly markets and organic fairs where Ghani sold his produce have also been discontinued due to the pandemic. And due to climate change, rains are also delayed each year, but he plans to sow the new crop with existing seeds.
“June is the sowing period for us, for which we need to prepare the field in May. But we have been waiting for the rains of which there has been no sign,” adds Ghani.
Times are challenging, but Ghani says he’s grateful to be safe and well with his family on his farm. He’s upbeat about a sample of 20 varieties of seeds he’d just received by post from West Bengal and plans to document them in the museum soon. “There is an end to every problem and by the grace of God, things should be normal soon and I can continue to keep the museum growing and alive” says an optimistic Ghani.