Jan 17, 2003
Subraya Bhatt::Genes Archivist
The drive is through disorienting forests of the Western Ghats. About 23 km away from Sullia, in Dakshina Kannada is Mapalthota—the homestead of a clan of Bhatts since 1908. It used to be 60 rich acres of exotic bio-diversity. A madness that raged across the area in the late 1980s saw people cutting down priceless species of trees. Subbaraya Bhatt is trying to bring back the scattered colony.
These Bhatts moved from Shimoga in 1640 to serve a local king. In 1908 Subraya’s grandfather settled on 20 acres of prime forest. Over the years they acquired 40 more acres and a large settlement of the growing Bhatt clan came up on the land. They were --though Brahmins-- hands-on farmers.
“My father Venkataramana Bhatt was an immensely practical man,” says Subraya Bhatt, now 58. “He was a man of many skills: home builder, master carpenter, cart wright and plant breeder. He would climb trees and milk cows. He would forever bring in ideas. He set up a jaggery mill and brought cows from far Sindh. He craved for new ideas.”
They had 80 heads of milk cattle plus 8 pairs of bullocks. The hardy Bhatts raised 20 tonnes of organic paddy from 20 acres. And yet they were money poor. India was going through a food crisis. The state controlled the food grains market and farmers were raided for their produce and paid unremunerative prices.
Subraya Bhatt became a young man just then. He had completed secondary school and jumped in to help his father. He saw how hard they had to work and how little they had in their hands at the end. He decided he must go ‘modern’. Organic culture was passe; a modern farmer used chemicals. And so unbridled ‘modernity’ entered Mapalthota and neighbouring farms.
“I was determined to reap 40 tonnes from my fields and within four years --in 1980-- did so. But I was just as poor as before. The inputs cost enormously.” Like in other ‘neighbourhood farms, gone ‘modern’, they had begun to cut centuries old virgin trees to plant the money-maker of the times: areca nut. Between chemical farming and plantation crops devastation had set in by 1984. Water levels and quality had fallen, the farm was getting hotter and a strange emptiness crept into their souls. For all that they were not wealthier either.
In 1984 Subraya Bhatt abandoned doing chemicals. Since then he has been letting his remaining acres to its own wild ways. He brings in species that he remembers from his childhood and arranges a home-coming.
He has perfected stone grafting, a method that makes it far easier to breed rare species. In traditional grafting you went to the desired species, made a graft and waited until it struck root. You returned to sever the graft. You often shinnied up rare trees in far away places. Bhatt with his innovation, does the reverse: he brings a rare cutting to his farm and mates it with a common, hardy sapling. He has succeeded every time.
Armed with this technique, every outing of his is a hunt for a rare, dying species. He has so far brought back 80 species of mango and jack-fruit. There are many revived flowering trees on his farm that stifle your nostrils with their fragrances. But he is partial to jack-fruit. He says it is a vastly ignored native Indian. It is long lived and an income generator. It is a vegetable and a fruit. Tens of dishes can be prepared from it. And when it has lived its life, its timber is one of the finest.
He practices his art with the commitment of a wine taster. He will bring a whole jack-fruit from his travels if a sample taste indicates promise. Then investigations begin: first come checks for rarity, look, the size and how it cuts. Then the fruit to trash ratio, weight of pods and other physical arcana are pondered. Next the juiciness, stringiness, sweetness, fleshiness , smelliness and related judgments by the senses. Finally how does it convert in a curry, a dosa, a sweet, a snack? If the species passes muster Subbaraya Bhatt, master grafter will proceed with his operations to prepare a graft for his farm
He has his ‘informers’ all over the south. A description of a sighted tree or an eaten experience will see him ready for a journey. Many are dead-ends though.
“I had been looking for a tree we used to have here before,” he reminisces. “It used to push its fruits at the ground level out of its vastly spreading roots. The ground was full of jack fruit. I have longed to breed it back. Then one day I heard a friend say he saw it in Masanaghatta House in Tiptur. I arrived there within a day with my tools. It was a vast property. The elderly landlord was very welcoming. But soon as I mentioned my mission , his face fell: “I am deeply sorry for you. I have known it all my life and hadn’t realised it was rare. It looked so silly for a fruit tree. We cut it down last week and are building an attic with the timber."”
Subraya Bhatt pauses and takes a deep breath: “We have another ten years I think, to save our diversity. Happily, I find a growing awareness now. We must build on that.”
And then he announces that he had that day received an ‘intelligence’ that a root pusher jack fruit tree was sighted in Kikkeri near Hassan. He hoped to leave within the week.
Mapalthota is 23km from Sullia which is on the road down-hill from Madikere [Mercara, Coorg].
Sullia Taluk (DK)
Karnataka 574 248
Ph: 08257 - 614239