Popularisation of Agricultural Science in Travancore: Context and Ideas
*PhD student, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; email@example.com
Abstract: This paper draws attention to the popular science writings on agriculture published in Malayalam periodicals from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The context of the study is the history of science popularisation and the institutionalisation of scientific agriculture in Travancore. It highlights the role of the princely state of Travancore and the Malayalam-speaking intelligentsia in science popularisation. The literature shows that the dissemination of popular writings on agricultural science was intended to achieve the modernisation of agriculture, and was informed by concepts of regional and national development. The paper adds to the scholarship on the history of science popularisation in India by drawing attention to the history of science popularisation in the history of princely states.
Keywords: Popularisation of agricultural science, agricultural modernisation in Travancore, princely states, vernacular popular science, science popularisation in Malayalam
Since the 2000s, historians of science and technology have begun to pay more attention than earlier to the history of agricultural science and agricultural institutions in India. The development of scientific agriculture in colonial India, discourses and models that drove colonial investment in agricultural improvement, the institutionalisation of agricultural research and education, and the perceptions of local intelligentsia about agricultural change, have been studied extensively (Arnold 2005; Sen 2010; Borthakur 2013; Raha 2012). Different aspects of science and modernisation in agriculture, including the parts played by colonialism and nationalism in the debates on agriculture, have also received attention (Kumar and Raha 2016). A focus issue of Review of Agrarian Studies underlined the importance of popular science literature in understanding agricultural modernisation in various regional contexts.1 In his Introduction to the issue, T. Jayaraman makes a case for greater attention to be paid to the history and popularisation of agricultural science in colonial India (Jayaraman 2016). Despite the stagnation of agriculture and production under colonial rule, the colonial period was marked by the introduction of new crops, implements, and methods of cultivation, and, in general, by modern agricultural science in the subcontinent. The colonial government and the local intelligentsia participated in the popularisation of these modern methods of agriculture. Other papers in that issue of Review of Agrarian Studies underline the significance of regional and regional-language contexts for the history of agricultural science and agricultural modernisation (Baksi 2016; Baksi and Kamble 2016; Roy 2016).
This paper is a study of the popular science literature on agriculture in Malayalam; it attempts to understand the different representations of science and agricultural modernisation in the Travancore region (Raina and Habib 2004). Much of the writing in the field is centred on the Presidencies and other major centres of British India. The regional contexts of princely states that lay on the margins of colonial rule have received very little attention. Their relative autonomy in administrative matters enabled the princely states to serve as agents of regional modernisation (ibid.). It helped them envisage a modernity that was “less convulsive” (Raina 2001, p. 5) than the modernity in many other parts of India under direct colonial rule, and more in tune with the aspirations of the emerging local intelligentsia (Cleetus 2018). In many princely states, agriculture was a significant factor in economic and social development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, in the princely state of Mysore, the development of irrigation, the introduction of new crops, the setting up of rural industries, and the opening of agriculture schools were an important part of the agenda of development in the early twentieth century (Raina 2001). Similarly, the princely state of Baroda recognised the importance of modern scientific agriculture and set up a Department of Agriculture as early as 1887 (Raina and Habib 2004). Despite these important contributions, the history of science or agriculture in India has not paid sufficient attention to the institutionalisation and development of modern scientific agriculture in the princely states.
The scholarship on the regional history of agriculture in Travancore and Kerala mostly approaches agriculture from the standpoint of economic and agrarian history (Jose 1977; Kooiman 1991; Kurup 1988; Ravindran 2016; Yadu 2017). The institutionalisation and popularisation of science in agriculture, which were crucial to agricultural modernisation, are largely overlooked (Namboothiri 2008; Vadavathoor 2001; Balakrishnan 2007).2 In this paper, we try to offer a fresh perspective on the history of agricultural science in a region with a predominantly agrarian economy.
As stated earlier, the paper explores the popular science writings on agriculture published in Malayalam agricultural periodicals and general interest periodicals from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, in order to understand the ways in which scientific agriculture was construed in the social imagination of the time. What were the ideas associated with the modernisation of agriculture, and how did they relate to other dominant ideas of the period? How was the introduction of new knowledge and technology conceived and negotiated?
The first part of the paper presents an overview of the establishment and development of the Department of Agriculture in Travancore, and its contribution to the popularisation of modern scientific agriculture. The second part draws attention to the popular discourse on scientific agriculture in Malayalam periodicals. The discussion explores the representation of scientific knowledge and the functions envisaged for it in popular writings on modern agricultural science.
Development of Scientific Agriculture
From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the influence of modern science was increasingly seen on socio-cultural life in Travancore. The period witnessed the establishment and growth of government departments that dealt with sanitation and vaccination programmes, agriculture, fisheries, veterinary science, geology, and technical education. Modern scientific institutions such as a hospital (1817), astronomical observatory (1836), museum (1857), and public gardens (1859) were also established. The government of Travancore played an important role in the production and circulation of popular science material in Malayalam. In 1866, a Textbook Committee was formed for producing school textbooks with modern, scientific content (Namboothiri 2008; Vadavathoor 2001; Balakrishnan 2007). A Public Lecture Committee was also started in 1887 with “a view to afford facilities for the instruction of the public of Trivandrum in agricultural, sanitary, historical and scientific subjects” (Travancore Government Gazette [hereafter Gazette] 1910, p. 729).
The period is also marked by the development of modern education and the popularisation of print. The emerging reading public was influential in the popularisation of science. From the second issue of the periodical Paschimodayam (1847), science accounted for an important part of popular literature (Mohandas 2011). Although the dissemination of popular science writing in Malayalam was initiated by Christian missionaries who started periodicals from the late nineteenth century, intellectuals were also active in publishing several cultural and literary periodicals in Malayalam. Many of these periodicals encouraged science writing in Malayalam as an effective means of language development and the spread of modern scientific knowledge among the people (Namboothiri 2008; Vadavathoor 2001; Balakrishnan 2007). By the early twentieth century, specialised periodicals such as Dhanwantiri (1903) on health and Krishikkaran (1909) on agriculture were started. Numerous general interest periodicals also featured popular science. The institutionalisation of modern scientific agriculture and its popularisation were part of a larger process of social and intellectual change in the nineteenth and twentieth century in Kerala. A reading of popular science writings needs to be contextualised in the history of these larger intellectual developments.
The Department of Agriculture was established in 1908 in Travancore, but the modernisation of agriculture on scientific lines began much earlier. The Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Madras (established in 1835) sent seeds of crops such as cotton and nutmeg to Travancore (Chandranna 2003). From 1887, exhibitions and cattle fairs were conducted in the region, and Travancore was represented at agricultural and industrial exhibitions in nearby cities like Madras and Mysore (Pillai 1940a).
In 1894, an agriculture demonstration farm was set up at Karamana near Thiruvananthapuram. It was started on a trial basis as the first step towards establishing a system of agricultural education and demonstration (Report on the Administration of Travancore [hereafter TAR] 1893–94). B. S. Narayanaswamy Aiyar, a diploma holder in Agriculture from the Saidapet College of Agriculture, Madras, was appointed the farm’s superintendent. The farm aimed to introduce modern and improved means of cultivation, and new crops in the region, and to demonstrate their use and relevance to the local farmers.
The Travancore State Manual of 1906 notes that the demonstration farm at Karamana was very popular among cultivators (Aiya 1906). The farm introduced the iron plough, and new crops such as groundnut, castor, maize, cotton, and indigo. Its success encouraged the government to start agricultural training classes at the farm in 1896. Primary Vernacular Agriculture Schools were started in different parts of the region (ibid.). Diwan Sankarasubbier was instrumental in developing this scheme, which suffered a setback after his retirement. By 1903, the scheme was abolished (Pillai 1940b).
Studies in other parts of the subcontinent, such as Bengal, Bombay, and the United Provinces, show that by the end of the nineteenth century, the local intelligentsia had begun to demand state intervention in the modernisation of agriculture (Raha 2012; Jayaraman 2016; Baksi 2016; Baksi and Kamble 2016; Roy 2016). In Travancore, too, the state’s enabling role in agricultural modernisation was discussed extensively (Vadavathoor 2001; Pillai 1940b). The Department of Agriculture was eventually formed in 1907. In 1908, Dr Kunjan Pillai, who had studied Agriculture on a Travancore government scholarship at Edinburgh (BSc) and Leipzig (PhD), was appointed Director of Agriculture (Gazette 1908). Kunjan Pillai initiated the scientific study and planning of agriculture in Travancore, thus playing an essential role in institutionalising scientific agriculture in the region. The Department of Agriculture conducted a survey and assessment of the total area under cultivation, the cultivable land area, and the acreage of principal crops cultivated in the region. These data, prepared with the help of the Revenue Department, were utilised to direct further research in agriculture and publish a forecast of important crops that could boost the economy (Gazette 1911).
The Department of Agriculture soon expanded, incorporating scientific sections such as agricultural chemistry, entomology, mycology, and botany (Pillai 1940b). Several new experimental and demonstration farms were opened in different parts of the region. The scientific study of coconut, silk, pepper, paddy, different fruit varieties, cattle breeding, and poultry gained momentum in Travancore in the first half of the twentieth century (TAR, various issues, 1910–30). The Department introduced new crops such as cotton, maize, sun hemp, soya beans, jute, and linseed (Gazette 1911). New implements were introduced, including the Climax plough from Madras and the Meston plough from the United Provinces, and the locally developed Pallikkal plough and Alwaye plough (Pillai 1940a). Demonstrations of the use of tractors were also conducted (TAR 1921–22).
Soil surveys, analyses of manures and the introduction of artificial manures, and research on pests, weeds, and diseases affecting various crops were different aspects of the penetration of modern science into local agricultural practices. The Department of Agriculture played a significant role in developing industries such as sugar manufacturing, sericulture, and apiculture (TAR 1928–29). It initiated the modernisation of animal husbandry and introduced modern veterinary science, poultry science, and fisheries in Travancore. Agricultural education was also strengthened. Initially, Agriculture was introduced as an optional subject in primary and secondary Malayalam-medium schools. Later, between 1920 and 1930, three agricultural schools that taught in Malayalam were started, which offered two-year diplomas. Agricultural colonies were set up for the students who passed out from these schools.3 Further, the Department encouraged the formation of agricultural cooperative societies to overcome problems of credit flow (Pillai 1940b).
After Kunjan Pillai took over as Director, the popularisation activities of the Department of Agriculture became more systematic and extensive. Department officials toured the region widely (TAR 1928–29); delivered lectures, often supported by magic lantern illustrations, on new and improved means of cultivation; and visited landlords and farmers with suggestions on cultivation (Nair 2004). The lectures were printed and compiled, and made available to farmers at minimal cost or free of cost. Leaflets were also distributed among landlords and farmers (TAR 1909–10). Department officials published articles in popular Malayalam periodicals and scientific journals (Pillay 1908; Pillai 1912).
The agricultural demonstration farms were popular among the farmers. In the report of the Agricultural Department for the year 1909–10, Kunjan Pillai makes particular mention of Oachira Farm, which was established in 1910 and which, within a few months, attracted several thousand visitors. The farm was strategically situated near the venue of the religious festival that takes place twice a year at the Oachira temple. Kunjan Pillai notes that in the first festive season after its establishment, more than 10,000 people visited the farm (TAR 1909–10).
Demonstrations and experiments were conducted on private land as well (TAR 1909–10). The Department of Agriculture worked towards forming agricultural associations at the village level, which were envisaged as intermediaries between the state and the farmers. They assisted the Department in popularisation and extension activities. For the farmers they served as forums to raise doubts and concerns about various aspects of improving agriculture (Gazette 1911).
In 1913, the Department of Agriculture brought out a quarterly called Thiruvithamkore Karshaka Thrimaasika (Travancore Farmers Trimonthly) (Vadavathoor 2001). The magazine published circulars and pamphlets of the Department, and featured small essays on various issues related to agriculture. Information on imports and exports, rainfall data, and commodity prices at the Cochin and London markets were permanent items in the magazine. Farmers were encouraged to share their experiences with respect to the use of modern methods of cultivation. The magazine was published for about six years (ibid.). In 1920, another periodical was brought out by the Department, called the Thiruvithamkore Krishivyavasaya Maasika (The Travancore Agro-Industries Monthly). It served as a mouthpiece of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Industries, and the Cooperatives Department. The editorial in its first issue stated that the economic uncertainty caused by the First World War called for cooperation between different government departments, and that the new magazine would be a bold step in that direction (ibid.). The magazine carried informative pieces on scientific agriculture, the possibilities of developing regional small-scale industries, and the benefits of cooperative societies for social and economic development. It published excerpts from newspapers and periodicals from different parts of the subcontinent, including Mysore Economic Journal, Textile Journal, Daily Express, Madras Mail, Indian Scientific Agriculturist, and Sugar Journal (ibid.). In 1922, the magazine was brought under the newly formed Development Board, which had members from the Departments of Agriculture, Industries, Forests, Joint-Stock Companies, Geology, and Cooperation. It also included some non-official members. The content of the magazine changed after 1922. Its last available issue was published in 1924. After that year, we do not know of any periodicals brought out by the Department of Agriculture until 1953, when it started publishing Kerala Karshakan (The Kerala Farmer) (ibid.).
The Department continued its other extension activities. In 1936, the Travancore government revamped the agricultural popularisation programmes with an increased focus on rural areas. For the effective organisation of such programmes, the state was divided into three agricultural divisions: southern, central, and northern. A Divisional Agricultural Officer headed the planning and execution of all experiments, demonstrations, and other extension activities in each division. The agricultural divisions were further divided into four agricultural ranges, a range becoming the administrative unit for agricultural popularisation (TAR 1938–39).
The emphasis on popularisation in rural areas was perhaps the result of the government’s association with the Imperial Council for Agricultural Research in India. From 1934 onwards, when Travancore became a member of the Council, the Council’s policies influenced the research and development of agriculture in the region (Pillai 1940a). Travancore also participated in different national-level research programmes, like the All-India Marketing Scheme in 1935. The Council extended financial assistance to various studies conducted by Travancore’s Department of Agriculture (Pillai 1940a). Even before gaining membership of the Imperial Council, the Department of Agriculture in Travancore was part of a vast intellectual and institutional network connected with agriculture departments in other parts of the subcontinent. Officials from the Department were sent for training to various institutions in different parts of the country and abroad. For instance, K. Parameswara Pillai, an agricultural chemist, was deputed to Edinburgh for advanced training (Gazette 1923), and T. Padmanabha Pillai, a mycologist, went to Switzerland for training. From time to time, officers from Travancore also underwent training at the Imperial Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa, Bihar, in areas like soil bacteriology and mycology (Gazette 1919, 1923). Fisheries inspectors were trained by Sir Fredrick Nicholson at the Madras Fisheries Department (Pillai 1940a). The Travancore Department of Agriculture also depended on the Presidencies and other Indian provinces for expert consultation and technology transfer. Thus, Travancore was well connected to the extensive network of agricultural research and training in colonial India.
The Department was reorganised yet again in 1936, when a Board of Agriculture was created with the Director of Agriculture and Fisheries as chairperson (TAR 1938–39). This Board was short-lived, however: in 1941, the Department’s fisheries branch was separated from it and moved to Travancore University (established in 1937) (TAR 1942–43). Similarly, research sections of the Department, which included biochemistry, entomology, mycology, and economic botany, were brought under the Director of Research at Travancore University in 1940 (TAR 1939–40). The Travancore Department of Agriculture merged with the Cochin Department of Agriculture in 1949.
The extension and educational activities of the Travancore Department of Agriculture thus laid the foundation for the popularisation of scientific agriculture in the region. However, it must be pointed out that the picture of the contributions of the Department as presented in this paper is based mainly on government documents, and is, to that extent, somewhat one-sided. As a little studied area in the history of Kerala, there is a dearth of secondary literature on the topic. A comprehensive picture drawing on all the sources, including those pertaining to specific crops, is outside the scope of this paper. The above discussion of the formation and functioning of the Travancore Department of Agriculture is intended to set a context for reading the popular literature on agricultural sciences.
Agricultural Sciences in Popular Literature
The first agricultural periodical in Malayalam, Krishikkaran (The Farmer), was published in 1909 from Ottapalam by I. C. Govindan Ezhuthachan. In his editorial in the inaugural issue, Ezhuthachan reasoned that people need to be healthy to engage in economic activity. The health of a population is determined by the food they eat, which in turn is dependent on the agricultural practices of that society. Agriculture, he wrote, provides the raw material for other sectors of the economy, and for that reason, people had to have all available information on agriculture (Vadavathoor 2001, pp. 97–98). In 1913, another agricultural periodical, Krishi Vyavasaya Darpanam, also called The Industrial Mirror, was started. In this monthly edited by A. Sivaramakrishna Iyyer, articles were published both in English and in Malayalam (ibid.). The periodical presented articles related to agriculture, industry, and commerce. It published an almanac, had a popular question–answer section, and a separate section for advertisements for various products from different parts of the subcontinent.4 A few other periodicals followed suit.
As mentioned earlier, health and agriculture were two specialised areas in which popular periodicals first emerged in Malayalam in the early twentieth century. However, unlike in the field of health, we do not know of any organised collective effort on the part of the local intelligentsia towards the popularisation of modern agricultural science.5
The only organisation that I have come across which was engaged in popularising science was the Kerala Jenmi Sabha (The Kerala Landlords’ Forum), an organisation of landlords in Malabar. In 1907, the Sabha started a periodical called Jenmi (The Landlord). The title page described the periodical as “THE ONLY ORGAN OF THE MALABAR LANDLORDS.” The contents of Jenmi mainly related to the activities of the Jenmi Sabha. The discussion on agriculture was restricted to revenue policies and agrarian relations. The periodical’s focus was less on agriculture and more on the welfare of the landlords (Jenmi 1907).6
Besides agricultural periodicals, popular science writings on agriculture featured in most of the popular general interest periodicals of the period. Numerous such articles were featured in periodicals like Vidyavinodini (1889), Bhaashaposhini (1897), Rasika Ranjini (1903), Kerala Chintamani (1904), Mangalodayam (1908), Kerala Kesari (1915), and Vijnana Ratnakaram (1913).7 Many periodicals had sections devoted to essays on agriculture and allied areas, and coverage of agricultural news worldwide. Kerala Kesari had a permanent section called Krishi/Krishi Karyam (Agriculture/Agricultural Affairs); Vidhyabhivardhini had Karshika Pankti (Agriculture Series); Kerala Chintamani also had Krishi Karyam; and there was Krishi Vishayam (Agricultural Matters) in Mangalodayam. Agriculture was also featured in women’s magazines like Lakshmi Bai. Articles from English journals, including the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and Indian Forester, were translated and reproduced (Anonymous 1913a, 1914a).
Pamphlets of the Department of Agriculture were reprinted in popular periodicals (Anonymous 1915). Although rare, informative articles were presented in verse form as well (Vaidyar 1913; Anonymous 1913).
Following a common practice of the period, many of the articles were written anonymously, and a few were signed in initials or pseudonyms. Generally, authors belonged to various sections of the emerging intelligentsia. Many of them were associated with the Department of Agriculture. For instance, N. Shankara Pilla, who wrote extensively on agriculture, was an Agriculture Inspector. Kunjan Pillai, Director of the Travancore Department of Agriculture, contributed to popular periodicals like Bhashaposhini and Vijnana Ratnakaram. Authors trained in scientific agriculture were encouraged to write. Women authors marked their presence in women’s magazines (Parukutty Amma 1927)
Two Themes: Agricultural Science and Agricultural Progress
Discussion in the popular literature on agricultural science in Malayalam periodicals centred on two themes, krishi shastram (agricultural science) and krishi parishkaram (agricultural modernisation). Krishi shastram mostly covered descriptive, informative essays on various aspects of agriculture. Krishi parishkaram discussed what can be described as the modernisation of agriculture. Parishkaram in Malayalam, in this context, refers to change, improvement, reform or progress mainly associated with western modernity.8 A review of the literature used for this paper shows that krishi parishkaram is used to refer to the improvement of agriculture through modern scientific practices. For instance, an essay titled “Krishi Parishkaram” in Vidyavinodini discussed the improvement of agricultural practices by applying scientific principles of manuring (Maarar 1889). Several essays followed on similar lines (Iyyer 1897; Nayanar 1889). Thus, krishi parishkaram and krishi shastram emerged as overlapping themes in scientific agriculture. Discussion of agrarian relations, or on land, labour, and revenue, was either absent or marginal in these essays. It is important to note here that this paper approaches the popular literature on agriculture from the perspective of the history of science popularisation. Resources used for the paper are restricted to the science-related popular literature on agriculture. A close reading of the literature related to other aspects like land, labour, agrarian legislation or agrarian social relations may offer a different understanding of the Malayali intelligentsia’s perception of krishi parishkaram.
Popular literature on agricultural science provided scientific explanations for various aspects of farming, and popularised basic principles of chemical and biological sciences. For instance, an essay titled ‘Krishi’ (Agriculture) gives a detailed explanation of soil formation (Anonymous 1913). Various types of soil are described, and compatible crops listed. According to the anonymous author, the success of any agricultural endeavour depends on the farmer’s ability to distinguish between different soil types and their nutrients. Knowledge about compatible crops would help to avoid wastage of resources and disappointment, the author explains. An article on earthworms discusses the anatomy, life cycle, and physiology of earthworms, and explains how they are helpful to farmers (Yohannan 1916). The merits of scientific manuring are explained in a similar article (Anonymous 1914; Maarar 1889; Nayanar 1889).
Many articles on krishi shastram are descriptive-informative pieces about various crops. Some of the essays provide guidelines about familiar crops, while others introduce new or less popular ones. Some of the crops discussed are arecanut, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, sugarcane, cocoa, and cotton (Pillai 1900; Mapila 1913; Nair 1908; Pillai 1913; Anonymous 1919; S. V. 1906; Anonymous 1922). The authors discuss suitable soil conditions, seed preparation, sowing seasons, best sowing practices, irrigation, manuring and weeding, and the best time for harvesting and preserving produce. Essays introducing new crops often provide information on per capita yield and the status of the crop in the commodity market, in order that farmers may be helped to choose crops that have better marketing prospects (Department of Agriculture 1913; Anonymous 1912; Namboothiri 1930). More elaborate articles present a background to the cultivation of the crop. For example, an article on sugarcane traces the history of sugarcane cultivation worldwide. It then narrows the discussion to the history of the crop in India before discussing crop varieties, and giving a detailed description of its cultivation process and jaggery manufacturing (Vaani Daasan 1900).
Animal husbandry and poultry farming were also popular themes. A shared lament was that farmers in the region did not pay much attention to the quality and health of their cattle (N. K. T. 1912). There were articles that highlighted the significance of healthy cattle for preparing land for agriculture and manure collection. Many articles introduced high-yielding breeds and instructions for animal husbandry and poultry farming (K. K. T. 1903; Anonymous 1913; Anonymous 1913; Salgurunathan 1929). Diseases affecting cattle was a recurrent topic (Pillai 1899; K. K. T. 1903). The rearing of cattle and poultry were presented as profitable business opportunities, especially in the wake of fluctuations in paddy prices and its decreasing yield (Anonymous 1913; K. C. K. 1913).
Knowledge of scientific agriculture was considered highly rewarding as a significant proportion of the population depended on agriculture for their livelihood (Anonymous 1919; N. K. T. 1912). The practical knowledge of farmers was considered insufficient; it had to be supplemented with specialised and systematised knowledge. Such sentiments were evident in articles like ‘Krishi’ (Agriculture). The author, N. Narayana Pillai, commented on the “attitude and general laziness” of those who practise agriculture, as they think they know all about it because it is a part of their daily lives. They actually don’t know about it, Pillai wrote, because they don’t reflect on it (Pillai 1920, pp. 92–93). The farmer, he argued, should have knowledge on
… soil types, agricultural implements, seeds and cattle. In other words, a basic knowledge of geography, biology, chemistry, veterinary science and astrology is necessary. Otherwise, when the crop fails, he will blame god. One blames god only when he is not able to give a reasonable explanation for the event. If one has enough knowledge of important topics, he will not succumb to such errors. (Ibid., p. 98)
Another commentator underlined the need for scientific training in agriculture as follows:
Our farmers have acquired their agricultural knowledge through ages of practice. I do not wish to argue that one can be competent in agriculture only by scientifically studying it. However, if a farmer has a scientific understanding of agriculture, he can be competent in agriculture much faster than those who do not have the scientific knowhow. With scientific knowledge, understanding the soil type and finding suitable crops or fertilizers becomes easy. This reduces the wastage of time and other valuable resources. Farmers should attempt to attain the maximum possible productivity with the least effort. In this endeavour, scientific training helps a great deal. (N. K. T. 1912, pp. 382–83)
Farmers too participated in the discourse on scientific agriculture. They shared their experiences of modern farming, and sought explanations and clarifications on modern methods of agriculture in the periodicals. A good instance is the essay “Oru Karshakante Anubhavam – Banku Nellu” (A Farmer’s Experience – Banku Paddy) (Anonymous 1915), where a farmer narrated his experience with a new variety of paddy provided by the Department of Agriculture. The unsigned essay presented a detailed picture of the cultivation of Banku paddy, pointing out the challenges and possibilities involved. Korapathu Raman Menon, a reader of the periodical Kerala Kesari, wrote to the periodical for clarification on a range of issues pertaining to scientific agriculture, including the use of various types of manure, and new methods in coconut and paddy cultivation (Menon 1919). He stated that information and clarification provided through the periodical would benefit numerous other farmers like himself.
Thus, for both the intelligentsia and the farmers, the aims of the popularisation of agricultural sciences were clearly laid out. The history of science popularisation in India tells us that by the end of the nineteenth century, science was understood as a vehicle of progress by the emerging western-educated intelligentsia in the country, who took upon themselves the task of disseminating modern science in society (Raina and Habib 2004; Sangwan and Mahanti 2000). In other words, impressed by the prospects of agricultural improvement on modern lines, the intelligentsia performed the didactic role of popularisation of scientific agriculture. Popular periodicals served as an effective means to achieve this end. For the farmers, popular science served as a source of information that could be utilised to achieve agricultural improvement.
Almost all the early articles on agriculture underlined the necessity of krishi parishkaram. The need for improvement was justified within a discourse concerning declining agricultural productivity; in this discourse, there was the notion of an earlier productive period when nature was more bountiful. The geographical and climatic conditions of Travancore were considered most conducive for agriculture to thrive (Nair 1913). However, several socio-economic factors had resulted in a decline in agricultural productivity. Lack of enterprise among the people, reluctance to adapt to modern technology, depletion of soil fertility due to years of unscientific cultivation, disregard of soil types or of proper manuring, fragmentation of land, lack of irrigation facilities, lack of cattle, lack of access to capital, the exploitation of moneylenders, and a growing perception among educated people of farming as a lowly job – these were among the many reasons for this decline (Nair 1913; Pillai 1913; Anonymous 1909; Maarar 1889; Nayanar 1889). In this scenario, improvement of agriculture and economic progress were deemed possible only through the application of western science and technology.
The argument in favour of scientific agriculture was not, however, presented as an outright criticism of local practices as being irrational or deficient. The need for improvement in agriculture was presented as a contemporary concern driven by local economic, political, and social conditions. There was an understanding that traditional agricultural practices had been productive and profitable in earlier times because they had catered to the needs of a smaller population and therefore a limited economy. Traditional cultivation could not but fail to meet the demands of the contemporary economy and society. Over the years, with a rapidly growing population and developing economy, the pressure on land increased, and productivity declined. As a remedy, farmers were urged to adopt scientific agriculture, which would help maximise output with a minimum input of resources (Nair 1913; N. K. T. 1912). This Malthusian idea of an increasing population and its impact on resources was similar to the colonial discourse on agricultural improvement and famines (Robb 1988). An essay titled “Keraleeya Krishivalanmar” (The Farmers of Kerala) explained this clearly, suggesting that the decline and neglect of agriculture was the cause of famines in different parts of India. Scientific agriculture was suggested as the best means to prevent famines in the future (N. K. T. 1912).
Krishi parishkaram was also articulated as a necessary condition for regional and national development. Farmers were urged to contribute to national development by expanding their agricultural activities. Increasing the area under cultivation, adopting novel farming methods, and taking up the cultivation of new crops that would generate more profit were some of the suggestions that were made to achieve economic progress of the region and the nation at large (Namboothiri 1930). Some essays published in periodicals argued that such practices would contribute to the nationalist struggle. An article on rubber cultivation that featured in Mangalodayam hoped that the information would encourage people to take up rubber cultivation and end the European monopoly in rubber plantations (Anonymous 1912). The idea of swadeshi was also evoked, and agriculture was encouraged as a means to attain economic self-reliance (Namboothiri 1930). Decreasing reliance on imports by increasing agricultural and industrial production was suggested as a goal (Anonymous 1913; R. K. I. 1913; A. S. I. 1913; Anonymous 1914).
In this nationalist narrative, krishi (agriculture), kachavadam (trade), and kaithozhil (handicrafts), designated in Malayalam as kakarathrayam (the three Ks), formed the cornerstone of rural development and economic regeneration of the nation (Oru Swadeshi 1908). Improvement of agriculture, revival of old industries and trades, development of transport, provision for the supply of seeds, supply of fertilizers and implements at low cost to the farmers, ensuring the availability of easy and low-interest credit for farmers and small-scale industries, and creation of conditions for the profitable sale of agricultural and industrial products were deemed necessary conditions for the economic welfare of rural areas (George 1928). Revival of the manufacturing industry was seen as an opportunity to expand the market for agricultural products, which in turn would bring down the prices of products (Anonymous 1913). Essays were published that focused on agro-based and other small-scale industries that were less capital-intensive, and could readily utilise available natural resources and raw materials. Some of the industries discussed were drying and preservation of fruits, manufacture of scents, glass manufacture, and soap-making. Information regarding the economic prospects of these industries, the procurement of raw materials, machinery and equipment, and their processing and marketing, were all laid down in detail (Anonymous 1913; Anonymous 1909; Anonymous 1909; Anonymous 1913; A. S. I. 1913).
We noted earlier the increasing demand from the public for government intervention to improve agriculture as represented in Malayalam literature, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. Writing about krishi parishkaram in 1897 in Bhashaposhini, P. Subramania Iyyer noted that around 60 per cent of the people in the country were dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, thereby making it one of the largest revenue-generating areas for the government. Hence state intervention in the form of a separate department of agriculture was presented as the need of the hour. The benefits of such government intervention and the progress made thereafter in countries like Prussia, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium were highlighted. The necessity for a similar arrangement in the Travancore region was proposed (Iyyer 1897).
Essays related to krishi parishkaram repeatedly voiced the demand for agricultural schools and colleges (ibid.; Anonymous 1913). Inclusion of Agriculture as a compulsory subject in all schools and setting up a school for practical training were also part of the demands. School gardens were considered helpful for inculcating curiosity about nature and observation skills among the students. Again, examples from nations like Norway, Italy, France, and Germany were cited to support the argument for agricultural education. Demands for government support were also made to establish agricultural banks, and form cooperative societies and agricultural associations that could provide easy credit access (Anonymous 1913; George 1928). Agricultural associations were considered necessary for the popularisation of scientific agriculture (Anonymous 1913). Government support for the organisation of industrial and agricultural exhibitions to encourage farmers was demanded (N. K. T. 1912). The state was also asked to publish information on the chemical composition of the soil in different parts of the region, and a list of compatible crops. Such information was deemed necessary for the selection of the most appropriate crops to achieve profitable agriculture (Anonymous 1919).
However, agricultural modernisation was understood as a process in which both the princely state and the people had a part to play. While the state was responsible for institutionalising scientific agricultural research and education, the onus was on the farmers to take advantage of the government’s policies (N. K. T. 1912; Anonymous 1913). People were urged to cooperate with the efforts of the Department of Agriculture (Nair 1913; Iyyer 1897). Resistance or reluctance towards improvement of agriculture on modern lines was condemned. These were seen as the result of a lack of education and the dominance of a fatalist attitude. One commentator, P. N. Raman Nair wrote,
Even when the government promises to provide new, more improved ploughs, some insist on using the same plough they have been using since the time of Parashurama. This is nothing but a sign of a lack of education. (Nair 1913, p. 85)
An essay titled “Keraleeya Krishi Valanmaar” (Cultivators of Kerala) commented that people make an excuse of the financial burden involved in adopting scientific means of agriculture, whereas they spend lavishly on marriages and other rituals. Farmers were asked to divert the money spent on such rituals towards agriculture which, according to the author, was also a means of social and economic welfare (N. K. T. 1912). In other words, successful agricultural improvement was considered possible only with the people’s collaboration, which was conditional on their awareness of the scientific ways of agriculture. We thus see how the local intelligentsia sought to popularise scientific agriculture through the medium of popular periodicals.
Gender and Caste
As mentioned earlier, Malayalam women’s magazines of the period also featured writings on agriculture. These included articles related to botanical knowledge, animal husbandry, and problems in agriculture (Kesavan 1926; Parukutty Amma 1927; Anonymous 1916). Handouts of the Department of Agriculture were also published in these magazines (Venkitasubbahyyan 1920). Gardening was a frequent theme. Generally, agriculture was construed as a domestic activity rather than a commercial enterprise in these periodicals. Kitchen gardening and cattle rearing were encouraged for their impact on the nutrition and health of the family (Kurup 1933; Salgurunathan 1929). An essay titled “Gorakshana” (Care of Cattle) explained:
It is important to take good care of the cattle, as after mothers, cows are the most important source of nutrition for children. Cow milk is indispensable for babies, the sickly, aged, and youth. (Salgurunathan 1929, p. 478)
Thus, the author joined the rhetoric of agricultural and national development to the discourse of domesticity and engendering. Despite women being an essential part of the agricultural economy, the discussion on scientific agriculture did not point to any serious engagement with the question of gender. A report of the Cochin Industrial Exhibition mentions that the last day of the exhibition was reserved for women (Anonymous 1908), suggesting that women were also considered as participants in the process of popularisation of agricultural science. Other than this, there was a lack of reflection on gender in the agricultural literature.9 Women’s magazines published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in India represented the cultural and political notions embedded in the ideal of modern women, and played a significant role in the reinforcement of that identity (Bagchi 1993; Orsini 1999; Sen 2004; Devika 2007). Literature related to agricultural sciences in Malayalam women’s magazines mirrored this discourse.
Similarly, we do not see any discussion on caste even though agriculture as an activity is deeply embedded in the caste system. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed increasing commercialisation of agriculture in the Travancore region. Removal of import–export duties, introduction of European plantations, and increasing adoption of cash-crop cultivation changed the economic and social relations of agriculture (Jeffrey 1992). Slavery was abolished in the mid-nineteenth century in Travancore, and this had significant implications in terms of the availability of labour for agriculture (Kooiman 1991; Mohan 2015). The commercialisation of agriculture favoured certain communities like Syrian Christians and Ezhavas, making them more prosperous and enabling them to acquire more power in socio-political relations (Jeffrey 1992). Thus, agricultural development offered different experiences of mobility for different castes and communities. Some of them, like the Ezhavas, identified agriculture, commerce, and industry as crucial modes of mobility. The popularisation of scientific industry was among the important activities of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) (Balakrishnan 1954). The Ezhavas organised the first major agricultural and industrial exhibition in 1905 at Kollam, as part of its community mobilisation.10
The abolition of slavery changed the nature of agrarian labour and the lives of castes like Pulayars, once an agrarian slave caste. Increasing literacy, technical education, and agricultural development enabled a transformation of social consciousness and mobility among Dalits in Kerala (Mohan 2015). Besides, local knowledge among the Pulayars was utilised during the reclamation of wetlands in Kuttanad in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (ibid.). Nevertheless, we do not see any discussion on caste and agricultural improvement in the popular literature. (A study of the popular literature on the subjects of labour, land and agrarian relations may present a different story of the relationship between modernity, agriculture, and caste, but that is outside the scope of this paper.)
In the popular science writings on agriculture discussed above, we can see that the discourse of modern science was articulated in the language of economic and social progress. Modern science in agriculture was advocated for the economic and social benefits derived from its application in cultivation. These public discussions legitimised scientific agriculture and simultaneously established its authority. Interestingly, the primacy given to science remained dominant in the debates on agriculture perhaps until the late twentieth century, when the problems created by the Green Revolution led to a critique of modern scientific agriculture in India (Saha 2013). In Malayalam popular literature, even in the late 1940s, when the destructive capabilities of science and technology came under a critical lens for their disastrous impact on society after the Second World War, scientific inputs in agriculture were praised and held up as a testimony of science’s contribution to humanity (Namboothiripad 1947).
The history of science and technology and its popularisation in India shows that economic progress and social reform were two dominant themes that influenced the colonial intelligentsia’s support for modern science (Raina and Habib 2004). Science and technology were seen as an independent imperative of development rather than a “western import.” This enabled its legitimisation in society (ibid.). In other words, science popularisation in the vernacular during the nineteenth century was based on the instrumentality of science and its inevitability as an agent of progress (Habib 2000; Virk 2000). As Sangwan points out, the popularisation of useful knowledge itself was a form of “philosophical rhetoric,” and “reflected the progressive idealism of the age” (Sangwan 2000, p. 18). The belief in science as a vehicle of progress and its popularisation by the local intelligentsia clearly suggest that earlier frames of the history of science, which looked at colonial science only as a tool of empire, are inadequate to understand science in society during the colonial period. The history of science in the colonial period demands a more nuanced understanding in the light of the local intelligentsia's perceptions of science and its popularisation, as Raina and Habib have rightly pointed out (Raina and Habib 2004).
Further, the discussion above shows the many layers that constitute the process of how science was enabled and legitimised in a particular colonial context. The idea of a bygone golden age was a popular trope in the discourse of science among the local intelligentsia (Panikkar 1992; Prakash 1999; Raina and Habib 2004). As a part of varied responses to the intellectual and cultural encounter with modern science, some sections of the local intelligentsia sought to revive and revitalise this golden age. The revivalist frame sought a recovery of this golden past based on learnings from the ancient Indian knowledge corpus. Another section of the intelligentsia who turned to the past stressed the assimilation of relevant aspects from both Indian traditional knowledge and modern science. In both these discourses, the idea of a unified Indian nation with a Hindu past became predominant (Prakash 1999). However, in the popular writings on agriculture, the idea of an ancient golden age was not essentially connected to the classical Hindu texts. Besides sections on agriculture in different Vedas and Samhitas, texts like Krishi-Sukti and Krishi-Parashara offered detailed commentaries on agricultural practices in the ancient period (Randhawa 1980). However, we do not see the utilisation of these texts to develop an argument for indigenous agricultural knowledge as in the case of medicine, where local medical knowledge was presented as an alternative to western science (Panikkar 1992; Cleetus 2007 and 2018; Girija 2017a and 2017b).
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the state of Travancore was invested in the institutionalisation of modern agricultural research. Through its educational and extension activities, the princely state popularised scientific agriculture in the region. For the state, science was a means for reforming agriculture to achieve economic development and social progress. Through its popularisation efforts, the intelligentsia performed the essential didactic task of inducting the larger population into the discourse of agricultural improvement and modernity. Drawing together the discussion on the development of the Travancore Department of Agriculture and popular literature, we see that the popular discourse on agriculture and the institutional discourse informed each other. The popular science writings on agriculture deliberated and justified the need for agricultural improvement and the means to achieve it. The cultural authority of science played an essential role in the legitimisation of these ideas in public.
Although a more detailed study is needed to assess the tangible impacts of the introduction of modern scientific methods on agricultural production and commerce, an overview of the agriculture-related literature in popular Malayalam periodicals shows that state intervention in the modernisation of agriculture was highly appreciated. The scientific agriculture and modernisation supported by the Travancore Department of Agriculture and the intelligentsia influenced agricultural practices and implied the diffusion of modern science in the experience of modernity. It thus popularised and reinforced social imaginaries of science informed by the discourse of modernity and progress. Approaching the history of agriculture from the vantage point of the history of popular science enables us to move beyond conventional definitions of agricultural modernisation that focus narrowly on economic aspects and agrarian relations. Including science and its popularisation in the discussion helps us connect the history of agricultural development to the very pertinent discourse of science and modernity in colonial India.
2 For a review of the literature on the history of agriculture in Kerala, see Prakash (1987). Also see, Tharian and Tharakan (1986), who briefly consider the significance of technological innovations in their discussion of the development of tea plantations in Kerala.
3 Three hundred acres of land were allocated for these agricultural colonies. Each student was allotted a plot of 10 acres on lease, which they were to bring under cultivation gradually. The students were expected to cultivate at least five acres by the end of three years, seven acres by the end of five years, and the entire plot in 10 years. They were provided with an initial capital of Rs 500, which they had to pay back in 10 equal instalments. The repayment started only after three years. In addition, the first three years were also rent-free and tax-free. After successful cultivation of 10 acres and repayment of all dues, the ownership of the land was transferred to the students for a small amount (Pillai 1940).
4 Vadavathoor (2001) notes that this was a short-lived periodical. We do not know when its publication stopped.
5 From the late nineteenth century, institutionalisation and modernisation of indigenous medicine was under way in Travancore and other parts of colonial Kerala. Several organisations such as the Arya Vaidya Samajam (1903) were formed as part of the process, and they gave a great impetus to popularisation of knowledge on health and medicine (Panikkar 1992).
6 In fact, Vadavathoor (2001), who has worked on the history of farm journalism in Malayalam, is of the view that Jenmi cannot be considered an agricultural periodical.
7 In his survey of magazines that contributed towards farm journalism in Malayalam, Vadavathoor (2009) also lists Nair (1902), Vyavasaya Chandrika (1915), Atma Poshini (1913), Deepam (1930), and Kuttanadan (1928).
8 For a discussion on the different meanings and usages of the term parishkaram, see Antony (2013).
9 Baksi and Kamble have observed the same for the agricultural literature in Marathi (Bakshi and Kamble 2016).
10 The exhibition was organised at the second annual meeting of the SNDP, an organisation set up in 1903 for the collective social and economic mobility of Ezhavas.
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Date of submission of manuscript: November 11, 2020
Date of acceptance for publication: January 20, 2021