Surendra’s photos of rice crops in Japan during the winter.
Most of the small parcels of agricultural land in the high plains of Nagano are given over to growing rice. Many paddies are only about the size of a large back garden in the UK. Their changes through the seasons dominate the rural landscape. In early spring instead of land we have dark, shallow pools of water everywhere. After planting, the black ponds are sprinkled with sprouts of green. Slowly, the green expands and becomes brighter and brighter before the golden colours gradually introduce themselves as the grains mature and the crops grow to their full height. As autumn approaches the farmers prepare for harvesting. Choosing the right time becomes more difficult as the global climate disrupts the patterns of the seasons.
The atmosphere and local, collective emotions are influenced in no small way by what is happening to the rice crop. As the weather becomes less predictable the undulations of emotions take on more dramatic forms. The emotional turbulence is deepened by the significance of this sacred grain. It occupies an important position, representing survival, at the centre of Japanese culture. The Japanese name for a meal, gohan, also means rice; hence asa gohan, hiru gohan and ban gohan designate the main morning, noon and evening meals. There have been famines in the past and rice on the plate, in sacks or growing in the fields gives a reassuring signal that starvation is far away.
This year, towards the end of September, when harvesting was due, unexpected storms drenched the paddies. The drying soil turned back into soggy mud, the mature crop wilted and some of the less resilient strains lay prostrate as though they had totally given up. Not surprisingly, as Amrapali and I went on our daily walks or bike rides we were aware of the collective feelings of this area and our emotions fluctuated with those of the farmers. We were relieved when a few sunny days brought recovery to most of the rice fields but concerned that some rice seemed out for the count, never to get up again.
More rain was on the way so the window of opportunity for the small mechanical harvesters was very limited. By no means all farmers are wealthy enough to have their own machinery. Many rely on renting the harvesters and their operators could not be in many different places at the same time as the storms threatened to return. Some took a chance on unfavourable days but many had to abort as they watched their machines sink deeply into the mud. The pressure was on. A few farmers turned back the clock and reverted to hand harvesting, recruiting younger family members to help. However, with the average age of farmers here at over seventy, many no longer have able family members, at least, not nearby.
This was the state of play when we left this anxious scenario for the last two weeks of October. Miraculously, when we came back, virtually all the rice fields were covered with their typical post harvest stubble like chins in need of shaving. The sunshine had come in abundance and the local schools had given the students a chance to get muddy, much to their delight, and participate in harvesting the rice as part of their education. This year’s rice crop in Nagano was safe.
In November, the temperatures drop dramatically and from January onwards, the rice fields are subjected to a cycle of ice and thaws as the snow piles up and recedes. Colour deserts the scenery and neutral whites, blacks and pale beige dominate, proffering an invitation for black and white photography. Last year, I explored this montage with my square format film camera. On view now are some of the patterns created by the black, frozen furrows and puddles as they emerged from the melting, white blankets of snow.
Surendra started to take photographs at Ko Hsuan in the UK in the early nineties, completed a City and Guilds Certificate in Photography at night school and, in 1994, became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society by submitting a portfolio. He has had exhibitions in various countries including Tokyo. He lives with his partner, Amrapali, in Japan where a local exhibition of 40 prints was held this year. The pictures can be viewed at surendraphoto.com
Farewell to Dartmoor, Hello Japan!