Don’t roll your eyes next time you see that annoying Vicco ad about foreign tourists traipsing through fields to see a "real Indian village" and its real Indian headman with the impossibly strong teeth.
It turns out the ad was just being prophetic. The M.R. Morarka GDC Rural Research Foundation in Rajasthan has one-upped it. Its farm tourism not only takes you to a real Indian village, you actually get to live in it and do all the things real Indian villagers do – milk cows, make chapatis in clay ovens, and play kabbadi. And here’s the clincher of authenticity – when the electricity goes they sit and wait for it to come back like all the other regular villagers. Now that must make for a riveting dining table story back in Brussels. Obviously khap panchayats issuing diktats about love and marriage are not on the itinerary.
This is a win-win says the foundation. Foreigners love it because they have an insatiable appetite for authentic India. Villagers love it because these homestays have raised their income by 75 percent. And the Morarka Foundation love the idea so much they got IBM to conduct a feasibility study about it according to The Telegraph.
As a born-and-bred city dweller, I have to confess I am bemused. My musical knowledge of farms was limited to Old McDonald's one. My book knowledge of farms were the cute English ones I’d read about in my Enid Blyton books where even the pigs were squeaky-clean and baby-pink. My film knowledge was defined by Sholay where the good villagers sang and danced and tangewalis cantered down and dakus menaced. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was luminously beautiful with its lily ponds and white kaash fields but the grinding poverty and the pneumonia didn’t exactly scream “Home stay.”
The Morarka Foundation wants to change that image. “We give them complete know how of setting up the complete project and make a project report for them” Mukesh Gupta, the head of the foundation told Merinews in 2011. “It is like a cultural exchange program for tourists coming from abroad.”
The irony is that popular culture in India has long lost exchanged the village for the metro. The multiplex has lured the urban middle class, which had abandoned the movie theatre for TV, back to films, Shyam Benegal said in an interview a few years ago. But one of the casualties has been that rural India, even the gaon ki gori type rural India Bollywood once favoured, has "fallen off the map". Benegal didn’t think an Ankur or a Manthan could happen now. And Akshay Kumar’s Joker probably does not quite fill the gap that Benegal was talking about. “The rural experience is no longer interesting to the audience,” said Benegal. “Especially with almost 40 percent of revenue sometimes coming from overseas, it’s influencing the kind of films being made.”
If popular culture isn’t interested in villages anymore, neither is mainstream news. Rural India usually makes news for grim reasons – farmer suicides, rising vegetable prices, or rural migration to the cities. “It is silly to attempt to develop 600,000 villages because it cannot be done,” writes Atanu Dey in an essay about India’s urbanisation. “The future is deserted villages because people vote with their feet when they get the chance to move to a city. Only in very rich economies do people have the resources to live comfortably in villages. India cannot afford to live in villages; it is not that rich.”
But the rich can visit an Indian village. The village can stay as a sort of Disneyland of bucolia complete with camel rides and asli ghee.
“There is one Mr Patrick, a professor in France, who keeps visiting off and on,” Kan Singh of Katratkhal village told The Telegraph. “All my guests are served food from our farms, cooked in ghee prepared by our family members.” (Read the full story in The Telegraph here.)
Gandhi once said that the future of India is in its villages. Who would have thought that the future of villages would be in foreign tourists? And why stop at villages? We can do the Gangs of Wasseypur style staying in an real coal mafia don’s home, a 3N/4D experience complete with a pipe gun shoot out, vote rigging and laundabazi.
Granted this isn’t like the infamous slum tourism of Dharavi that caught so much flak recently. The Morarka Foundation also does a lot of good work on rural entrepreneurship, organic farming, vermiculture and other worthy ventures.
But as it looks to expand its homestay programme from 10-12 farmers to at least 50 more spots it should keep in mind that village life does not have to be all about bracing walks in fresh air and tractor rides. In fact, if it looks to venture outside the Shekhwati area it can promote an authentic “dangerous Indian village” experience for the more intrepid foreign tourist.
They could just come to Bengal and ask CM Mamata Banerjee an unwelcome question about fertiliser prices.