SOAS University of London

Department of History

Semiotics of Rice, Food Campaign and the Popular Culture of Poverty: Bengal 1942-50

Dr Sanjukta Ghosh

Date: 14 January 2014Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 14 January 2014Time: 6:30 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B104

Type of Event: Seminar

This paper draws upon the methodological divergences that stemmed from James C Scott’s publication of The Moral economy of the peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Scott’s argument in favour of a grand design of Asian School of scarcity and risk has created an intellectual imperative to look at the obligatory roles of the national elite, which seek to safeguard the grain producer in times of distress, in the context of peasant subsistence rights. The paper conforms that such an explanation of a societal response to economic distress is restricted to the norms of subsistence expectations with no bearing on what Paul Greenough terms the ‘cultural meaning of subsistence’. The paper describes the production and consumption of rice as forming the core element of peasant’s subsistence -- an area of economic activity that has been intimately linked with their social and religious duties, as embodied in Bengal’s textual and oral traditions. A study on the semiotics of rice in the context of Bengal famine (1943-44), food supplies, and the parallel campaign to ‘grow more food’ (1942 onwards) identify the changing nature of subsistence mechanisms and the varying degrees of famine experience that impacted on the victim’s legitimate claims to subsistence. By looking at the survival strategies of the poor in relation to food supplies, the paper dislocates the semantics of rice from a literature of distress and anxiety to understanding decisions within the economic unit of a household. This argument is broadened in the public realm. Here, rice as a value-laden agricultural commodity was used in the political campaign against hunger, to reinstate the moral role of the male householder with the larger issues of rights and justice. The paper concludes by looking at the implications of such appropriations for poverty relief.

Organiser: Dr Roy Fischel and Dr Shabnum Tejani