80 Kilometres From Mumbai, Festivities And Food With The Warli Tribe
The first thing I notice when we veer off the highway at Takwahal is that the road was not built for cars – or at least, no longer maintained for them. As we try our best to follow the lead of more familiarised drivers before us, I try to take in my surroundings. They are a far cry from the city I was in just an hour ago, and now looking at my lush green surroundings, I finally feel like I can breathe (metaphorically of course, in my air-conditioned car). The fields on either side of me are worthy of Bollywood dance sequences and #nofilter Instagram posts – products of the monsoon in all its glory.
I am 80 kms north of Mumbai on my way to the Phulora festival, which is taking place in a village called Bhopoli in the Vikramgadh district. Organised annually by the M.L. Dhawale Memorial Trust, the festival brings together people from the Warli tribe to showcase their culture through food and dance. It is also an occasion for the Trust to share the work it undertakes in the region, which encompasses four main areas – healthcare, education, organic farming, and self-help groups for women. I am ready to be greeted by a small gathering of locals, eat good food, learn about the Trust, and leave. What I wasn’t expecting however, was an opportunity to practise my French. And yet running into two French people in a remote area in Maharashtra was just one of the many surprises the day had in store for me. What I found is a community of people, many locals, but many from the city, who have come together to celebrate the monsoon’s bountiful forest produce.
We line up behind a fast-moving queue of people at the entrance and upon registering, are greeted with sonchafas, sweet-smelling orange flowers. I later find out that the perfume Joy by Jean Patou—named the ‘Scent of the Century and second only to Chanel No 5 in terms of sales—derives its scent from these same flowers, found in abundance in Palghar’s timber forests. I walk ahead to see a crowd of people listening to Venkat Iyer, who is just one of the many remarkable people I would meet that day. Iyer, affectionately (and confusingly, for me) called ‘Ravi’ by his friends, is the author of a book titled ‘Moong Over Microchips’. The book trails his journey leaving behind a corporate job at IBM to become an organic farmer, a journey which later led him to set up a cooperative of farmers growing organic vegetables.
Inside an adjacent hall, the forest vegetables—or raanbhaji, as the locals call them—are on full display. As someone whose weekly diet of green vegetables doesn’t go beyond methi and palak, I’m in disbelief at the spread before me. There are at least twenty different varieties of leafy vegetables—among them shevga, mordina, karadu, and nal bhaj—that have been used by the tribe for centuries, both medicinally and as food. The special thing about these vegetables is that every monsoon, they are found growing naturally in the forests, completely free of human intervention and without being sown or cultivated. The Warli tribe has for centuries had a harmonious relationship with nature and their surroundings, worshipping a forest god they call ‘Hirwa Dev’. To this day, the vegetables grow undisturbed, only picked out when they are perceived to be ready by the discerning eye of one of the locals. At the end of the season, they vanish just as abruptly as they appeared. For the festival, local women belonging to the Trust’s self-help groups have collected and cooked the vegetables themselves. On three long and adjoining tables, paper plates with the cooked vegetables have been laid out with the raw leaves alongside. A medical student who is volunteering for the festival shows me around as I take my time tasting them all. I am surprised at how mildly spiced they are—most seem to be cooked just with a bit of salt—but this allows the unique flavour of each of the vegetables to shine through.
For lunch, we are served steaming hot home-style pulav with carrots, beans, and cloves. Of course, there are more greens – this time too they are cooked with nothing more than mild garnishing and a cardamom paste. Bamboo features in two items on the plate – a deliciously sour sabzi made of bamboo shoots and a paste that, together with the nachni bhakri, is almost reminiscent of pita bread and hummus. There was also the traditional alu wadi and a crisp salad of cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. Later, with a stomach so full I’m struggling to move, I find out about the medicinal properties of each – how the leaves of kharshingh, for example, are used by the tribals to treat scabies, dermatitis and asthma.
Underground, there is an ongoing exhibition of all the other projects undertaken by the Trust. It is here that I meet Bhauram Dhangada, who is explaining the educational programs of the Trust with infectious passion and excitement. He has developed unique solutions to resource-constrained education. For instance, the English alphabet is taught using augmented reality applications that make drawings on paper come to life. I watch in amazement as he points one of the donated tablets to the alphabet B printed out on a piece of paper, along with an illustration of a bird. On the screen, an application that Dhanagada says he discovered on Youtube makes the bird look three-dimensional.
Dhangada says the students have taken very well to his creative methods. But the Trust’s work hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Dr. Chandrashekhar Goda, one of the co-founders, tells me about the time almost 30 years ago when they first began their medical camps in Vikramgadh villages. Having conducted a week-long camp with 30 to 40 homeopathic doctors from the city, he returned to the site only to find that the patients had dug a pit outside their village to dump all their medicines, complaining that they were all given the same medicine for different problems. “That was an eye-opener for us,” he says, “We had to tell them that though homeopathic medicines look the same, there are different medicines put in them.” Now, the locals call him and his fellow doctors as ‘sabudana goli wala doctor’.
At the far end of the exhibition hall, Warli artists have put up a display of products showcasing their art. When I ask them how they learn the trade, they shrug as though it was the most natural thing in the world. One of them grabs a paintbrush and a coaster and gets to work demonstrating this, his fingers moving deftly to finish a pattern within seconds before my eyes. Next to him, a girl who cannot be more than 6 years of age is busy painting her own chef d’oeuvre. I move to the opposite side of the hall where farmers are allowing people to taste the two pickles that are being sold. I’m told they are made from bamboo and kharshingh. Having never tasted either of these before, I tentatively take small bites of both. While the bamboo had an almost olive-like flavour, the kharshingh was more bitter – definitely an acquired taste, I decide.
For 10 months of the year, these men and women have taken to organic farming. They have come a long way since 2009 – when they were just a group of four. Now, the co-operative boasts seventy members. Iyer, who set the process in motion in 2009, tells me that how they worked backwards with the pricing – first asking the farmers to decide the price of the vegetable regardless of market price, and then adding other costs such as transportation. Through trial and error, he says that the venture has finally started to become profitable in recent years, inspiring confidence among the farmers. They now sell their organic wares in Mumbai, thanks to a vehicle donated by the owner of a distribution company who was moved to help after reading Iyer’s book. Although the model is far from perfect, it’s a step in the right direction. As consumers, we are often cut off from the labour that goes into the plate of food on our tables. Behind every meal is a story that started long before the produce reached our homes, and if we love our food, we must respect where—and who—it came from.
The organic vegetables from farmers of the Vikramgadh district can be found from mid-September onwards at the following locations:
Golden Spiral School, Tardeo, on Wednesdays from 8am to 1pm.
Godrej Colony, Vikhroli, on Wednesdays from 4pm to 7pm.
Rustomjee Ozone, Goregaon West, on Saturday from 8am to 12 noon.
Vasant Garden, Mulund West, on Sunday from 8am to 12 noon.
For more information, write to Venkat Iyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.