Featured Photography — 08 November 2017

Surendra observed the growing of the rice in Nagano, Japan and documented his findings with his new digital camera, saying that “This year has seen a leap from many years of black and white photography into colour.”

Rice Field with Trees
Rice Field with Spider Lilies
Rice with Black Grass
Rice Grains
Rice with Lady's Thumb
Rice Field after Heavy Weather
Rice Marker for Harvester
Rice Fields Cut and Uncut
Rice Fields with Cosmos
Drying Hand-cut Rice
Cut Rice Field with Bales
Gathering of Rice Straw Bales

It happened unintentionally when I introduced a good quality digital camera into my kit this spring. It was to replace my 35mm film camera that finally died its death ten years ago in the heat of Thailand. The idea was to have a more portable, technically advanced camera to augment the larger and less sophisticated equipment that had become the mainstay of my work. Monochrome was still to be the end result. Rather than go directly to a black and white setting in the camera, I decided to convert the shots to monochrome later. In this way more information is preserved giving many more options for exactly how the conversion from colour to black and white eventually looks.

Inner and outer are one

It was not only changing my approach, it was changing me. Black and white seemed all about elimination. After colour had gone out of the window, to fully utilise the impact of black and white, I kept compositions simple and stuck to the rules. In doing so, this ‘me’ embodied restriction. Inessential details were avoided in favour of the stark. As I worked, I became less frivolous, more serious. Then came an inclination towards abstraction where the subject itself lost importance. Images began in realism but ended in mystery. The noise, chaos and activity of the world moved further away from the picture and from me. It was about meditation: a movement towards the void, a settling into silence and stillness.

My approach to colour felt buoyant and full of life. I sensed myself to be more outgoing, appreciating the subject and its function. I became less fussy. First about focus, dropping the ideal to have it all sharp from front to back, even choosing blur in some places. Secondly, about composition and placement, inviting more of the peripheral elements to intrude. All photography has to be about selection but instead of rigorous elimination, my pictures became more about inclusion. In the process, I became more open. My vision widened and I enjoyed being out in the world amid the sounds of insects and movements of the wind. I was dancing with nature instead of penetrating its essence. At this point, I feel that while black and white plumbs the depths, colour is a celebration. Naturally, both have a place and change is always on the horizon.

The rice crop

It took around six months to find the material for my first full portfolio in colour. This year, unlike others, I was in Japan for the whole summer and autumn. My regular morning bike ride took me through numerous paddy fields. I saw the fields being flooded black, then planted with sprouts of green. The green took off into taller plants and in summer they gradually turned yellow. As the crop deepened to a rich gold, it became ready for the harvest. But storms created havoc. Witnessing the daily details of these changes was an invitation for my camera and for shooting in colour.

As the weather becomes stranger each year, the rice farmers have to learn to drop their routines and go with the flow. In the past, within a week or two all of the rice within a particular locale in Japan had been harvested. This year, in Nagano, I witnessed the process going on for two months. Those who were quick off the mark were able to make use of a dry spell in August. Most of the rice was not quite ready then and tradition, anyway, prompted farmers to wait. As a result, a lot of the rice got flattened by storms, either partially or throughout the whole paddy. A few fields retained upright crops in spite of the weather. This could have been due to the choice of shorter stemmed varieties, unique geography, or less use of fertilisers that can make the plants bolt.

Not to worry, farmers here have managed to find ways of harvesting flat plants. Cutting with a small hand scythe is one obvious technique from the past. With this approach, the rice grains are left on the stalks and hung on racks to dry. Instead of cutting by hand, other farmers use small hand-held machines the size of pushchairs. Then there are the combine harvesters that range from mini to large. Farmers often hire the use of a professional with one of these expensive machines. Two or three bunches of rice are cut by the farmer, to make sure the crop is ready and then left lying near the road as a marker for the harvester.

Rice in a wet and flat field is difficult to gather but the skilful manage. The cuts are made only in the direction the rice is lying and the machine has to be reversed at the end of each row. The cutting bars have to get under the crop and scoop it up while the operator stands up, peering over the harvester to the ground, carefully directing the blades. Sometimes the soil proves too wet for the heavy machines and fields are left partially cut in hopeful anticipation of a dry spell.

Weeds grow vigorously in the hot, wet weather and the edges of the paddies are festooned with grasses and wildflowers such as blue dayflowers and pink lady’s thumb. Many farmers add their own cultivated flowers around the edges of their land, especially those facing the roads. Occasional passers-by can then enjoy this wonderful splash of colour. Cosmos come to flower by the time the rice is ripe and are the most common adornment of paddies. Red spider lilies and lobelia are other frequent choices.

Farming in Japan

The extraordinary thing about Japanese paddy fields is their small size. The average paddy in this part of Nagano is about half the size of a tennis court, or 130 square metres. Immediately after World War II, land reform in Japan demolished a class structure based on landed gentry. Tenanted farms made way for small fields that working farmers could afford to buy. A comprehensive irrigation system spread the water from the mountains through a series of channels and concrete-lined ditches. They were equipped with gates at every field to regulate the flow. The amount of land owned, though it could amount to several fields, was usually not enough to fully provide a living. Members of the family supplemented the income by working outside.

In recent years there has been much political discussion about modernising the system into large units that can be worked by fewer people with bigger machines. The small farmers, however, are traditionalists with a powerful voting lobby. Ironically, many farmers in the developed nations, anticipating an age of zero fossil fuels have been calling for smaller farms with crop diversity to make each village more self-sufficient. That is just what we already have in the rural communities of Japan.

Fukuoka There is the issue of high use of chemicals in Japanese agriculture. One saving grace is that they are not allowed towards the end of the growing phase and chemical residues in finished products are carefully monitored. Organic farming was the norm in Japan before World War II. The American occupation afterwards ensured the widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Now, slowly, there is an organic revival underway. The ingenious use of flightless ducks to both fertilise the paddies and eat up the weeds and pests is one example. The work of Manasobu Fukuoka who advocated non-doing farming is also gathering interest and is practised by one of our neighbours. Osho’s comments about Fukuoka have implications for our lives in all respects.

“You have been asking about a Japanese farmer who has not been using any scientific technology in cultivating. He calls it no-cultivation. It is in tune with the Zen idea of effortless effort, of no drama.

His cultivation is just an extension of a meditative state of consciousness. He has found harmony within himself, and he has found harmony with nature.

Once you have found harmony within yourself it is not difficult to find harmony with nature. You are part of nature. You are nature. Nature is a bigger you; you are smaller nature. There is no difference, no demarcation line….

He has come to such a silent merger, to such a silent meeting of love, to such an orgasmic experience with nature that it is not nature growing, it is he himself growing. There is no cultivator, there is no cultivation.

You have heard only one thing, no cultivation. Remember there is no cultivator either. There is a silent communion, no division between the doer and the doing – both are one, totally one. In their total oneness, the miracle is happening….

That poor man in Japan is showing something immensely great, far more important than nuclear weapons – because nuclear weapons can destroy the whole world, still they are not important. This man is showing a harmony which can save the whole of life, can fill the whole of life with new juice, with new love, with new dance, with new song, and that is far more important.”

Osho, The Osho Upanishad, Ch 10, Q 1 (excerpt)

Surendra TN sSurendra is a regular contributor – surendraphoto.com

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