Long before self-help groups came into play, Punjabi women were already resorting to trinjans — forums where women would share their knowledge on farming, food practices and the likes with each other.
By Akshat Rawal
One thinks that that an article on Punjabi women would mostly be about girls preoccupied with the glamour world, young women waiting to get married to NRI mundas (men) and older women being silent witnesses to social evils like female feticide — stereotypes formed despite the best of efforts.
For people, who have been working to change the current intensive agriculture models in Punjab to sustainable agriculture, because of the serious environment and health crisis developing in the state thanks to agro-technologies like pesticides, even getting rural women to engage in a dialogue on this with the men has been challenging. They simply say that they have nothing to do with farming and that it is better to speak with the men only.
But this lack of interest in village activities was not always the case. What is not well known is that long before NGOs came up with the concept of self-help groups (SHGs), village women across Punjab used to be part of trinjan - forums where they would share their knowledge on farming, food practices, spinning, stitching and healing with each other. Their families and community would, of course, largely reap the benefits of this exchange.
Did the men ever object to their wives being a part of trinjan, like they do when women want to join SHGs? “Why would they object? We used to have all-night trinjan, too, and the men would not even mind,” recalls Harbhajan Kaur, in her late fifties, from Dhaba village. Elsewhere, when women express the desire to become part of a local SHG and participate in its meetings, most men initially dissuade them from doing so. Only when they start reaping the benefits of their work do the men relent and start respecting the “SHG activities.”
Even though Punjabi women had been way ahead of the SHG movement, these collectives gradually got dissolved due to the onset of the Green Revolution and subtle changes in lifestyle over the years. With the trinjan vanishing so did the use of traditional food and cropping systems. “I don’t recall when was the last trinjan that I took part in — we seemed to have slowly stopped holding them without anyone realising why and how. I think it was because we got used to buying everything from outside,” says Sarabjit Kaur (60) of Seerwali village. Sarabjit is an amazing treasure trove of knowledge of traditional healing practices that women in Punjabi households used to follow.
Several things changed, paving the way for trinjan to become history. Some say that the Green Revolution left its impact on these spaces; some believe there were changes in the types of crops grown that affected this practice. For example, a change in the type of cotton grown meant that they could not spin yarn on the charkha any more. Some experts of Punjabi culture feel that the concept of “private spaces” was the end of trinjan — enclosures and the closing of doors on individual houses meant that women no longer walked into each other’s homes with the same degree of comfort as in the past. In addition to trinjans, other women’s activities too vanished. Many do not recall when they stopped saving their own seed; and younger women hardly have any knowledge about traditional food systems/practices.
While these collective spaces disappeared and the roles of the women in society diminished some decades ago, the crisis unfolding across Punjab today, connected to agri-technologies, has set the stage for their comeback.
Realizing the need for reviving traditional food systems (mainly organic), cropping systems as well as re-tapping into the knowledge base of older women, trinjans are now being re-established in some villages, albeit in a slightly different form with help of groups such as the Kheti Virasat Mission and Pingalwara Charitable Society. Traditional food festivals are being celebrated in villages where the women are keen on recreating new age trinjans, which are like melas, where older women pass on their wisdom and knowledge to the younger ones.
One such state-level trinjan was organized in Amritsar recently. Around 800 women from different parts of Punjab congregated to be part of this day-long trinjan centered on the idea of “Back to Nature, Back to the Knowledge of Women.” Even people from the city as well as the nearby villages came to the mela(carnival)). The event also marked the death anniversary of Baba Bhagat Puran Singh, the founder of the Pingalwara Society for the destitute and marginalized.
Traditional food and healing practices, local seed diversity, the adverse impacts of pesticides and genetically modified foods, especially on women, were the themes for the mela. Women were also seen spinning yarn on charkhas brought by some participants. Led by Bibi Amarjeet Kaur, women of Bhotna village district supplied delicious traditional foods, such as mot-bajre di khichdi, jowar di roti, makke di daliyan and bhoot pinne, to the visitors. In fact, many older women exclaimed that they were eating some of the food preparations after nearly 20 years!
Those who participated in this trinjan went back inspired, wanting to do their bit for their environment. Many young women participants promised to revive traditional food systems and also get involved in ecological farming and developing chemical-free kitchen gardens. Some women also came forward and expressed the desire to hold a trinjan in their villages as well. As a result, two village-level trinjan melas were held - one at Jida village on September 23 and the other in Chaina village on September 31 last year. The start has been encouraging. Now it remains to be seen whether this first step would lead to trinjans, once again, becoming forums where Punjabi women will be able to showcase the power of collective work and of sharing knowledge and resources, even as they regain their own status in society.