Afriend of mine once asked me whether I had read about the kappa festival. I had, and told him so. It is an annual festival in a village called Misawa in Japan. Thousands of dancers, young and old, join in the famous Kappa-bayashi dance and parade along the street. Then, there is the spectacular dragon fight on the water surface, with teams of players controlling the three dragons from their boats. American servicemen in Japan used to participate—they controlled the red dragon, which generally won.
It turned out what my friend had in mind was not the Japanese kappa festival, but something far more modest. He said there was a Travancore kappa festival in Kerala. “Kappa” in Malayalam means tapioca, more widely known as cassava.
Tapioca is known to have been cultivated in South America for 5,000 years. After the discovery of America, the Spaniards brought it to Europe, and then it spread to other parts of the world.
The aim of the kappa festival is to popularize the tuber as a nutritious staple food and demonstrate the variety of fare that can be made from it. Botanists call it Manioc utilissima, “most useful”. During the difficult days of World War II, it was tapioca that played a key role in saving Travancore from famine and hunger. Maharaja Sri Visakham Thirunal introduced it in Kerala (in the 19th century), and Diwan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer extended its cultivation (in the 20th century).
What the maharaja and the diwan tried to accomplish in the small princely state of Travancore is now being attempted globally by the United Nations (UN). The route that tapioca took from South America to the rest of the world was earlier taken by another vital crop, the potato, which is today globally cultivated and remains a staple food in many countries, along with rice, wheat and maize. The UN has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato (IYP).
Like tapioca, the potato was cultivated 8,000 years ago in South America, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, around Lake Titicaca. In the 16th century, it was introduced into Spain.
Shakespeare has mentioned the potato in Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida. In the latter, there is a hint that the root is a stimulant to lustful behaviour. Modern scholars believe the reference here is to what we call sweet potato, and not to the common potato.
But why should the potato be accorded a celebration?
Robert Collins, reviewing John Reader’s book, Propitious Esculent: the Potato in World History, describes it as “the hardy Andean tuber that almost single-handedly solved western Europe’s food supply problems and helped spur the industrial revolution.” The IYP logo calls it Hidden Treasure.
The spread of the potato as a staple food in Europe suffered a setback in 1845. The Great Irish Famine was caused by a disease called late blight which destroyed the year’s crop. The Irish saw their primary source of food dry up. The famine was called An Gorta Mor—the Great Starvation. One million people died during the blight and its aftermath, from 1845 to 1851.
Among the goals of IYP is the creation of awareness among people about the importance of the tuber as a staple that can fight poverty and hunger in the world.
China is the world’s largest producer of potato and, with India, accounts for one-third of the total world production.
Over the decades, there has been a dramatic increase in potato production in developing countries. The UN’s potato 2008 website informs us that potato output in Asia, Africa and Latin America rose from less than 30 million tonnes (mt) in the early 1960s to more than 165mt in 2007.
IYP provides for full participation of rural women in the implementation of its goals. Latin American women have been known to have expert knowledge of plant diversity. They created several new varieties of potato by cross-pollination of flowers.
The Irish famine was partly the result of the lack of genetic diversity. Irish farmers depended on a small number of genetic varieties and, when the blight struck, the entire crop was destroyed. IYP plans to augment genetic resources and to make the right seed material available to farmers.
English poets, who have sung of daffodils and lilies, of apples and cherries, have chosen to ignore the potato. In English idiom, it generally stands for lethargy and inertia. New phrases such as “couch potato” and “mouse potato” bear testimony to that. Something you have to discard immediately to avoid harm is called a “hot potato”.
But, soon, this will change.
Potato chips have become the US’ favourite snacks. Today, you can find internationally branded potato snacks even in small bus stations in rural India. A teenage party in urban India cannot be complete without potato crisps in their crackling packets. Television advertisements contribute their share to vesting the humble potato with a halo of glamour. You can see an expression of sublime joy light up the faces of models as they bite into a potato crisp.
Three cheers for IYP.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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