From the ground, it doesn’t look like much. In fact, the vista is something commonly seen across rural India: rice paddy shoots in multiple hues of green, rippling in the wind and carpeting sprawling fields that stretch into the horizon. A scenery that is bucolic in its beauty but nothing unusual in a country where 70% of rural households still depend primarily on agriculture.
However, as one ascends to a viewing platform, the patches of verdant green and reddish brown take the shape of impressively detailed tableaus.
Consisting of thousands of rice shoots strategically grown to produce giant-sized 3D paintings, this unique art form (called Tanbo Art or Rice Paddy Art) is why curious tourists are flocking to the tiny Maharashtrian village of Donje Phata.
This imaginative agri-tourism undertaking was started in 2015 by Pune-based engineer-turned-botanist, Shrikant Ingalhalikar, who was inspired by the Japanese village of Inakatade and its famous rice paddy art.
In 1993, the farmers of this Japanese village were looking for ways to enhance tourist inflow and boost the local economy. After exploring a few options, they turned to what they knew best — growing rice.
Using dozens of varieties of rice as their colour palette, they decided to beautify their fields through unconventional landscape designs that took inspiration from Japanese folklore. A tall viewing platform was also erected for visitors.
Their first masterpiece was a simple geometric replica of Mount Iwaki, an iconic volcanic peak in Japan. Over the years, the designs progressively became more impressive, with the village creating images of historical figures (like Napoleon), classical art pieces (like Mona Lisa), pop culture themes (like Star Wars) along with traditional Japanese motifs.
Today, the village attracts thousands of visitors from across Japan every year. Interestingly, Inakadate’s official flower is inenohana (rice flower) that also features in the village song!
Having taken up full-time farming after retirement, Ingalhalikar spotted Inakadate’s unusual art project while researching on the Internet and decided to replicate it on his five-acre rice farm. However, he couldn’t implement it immediately as the import of the Japanese paddy seeds (with coloured leaves) was restricted to India.
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Not the one to give up, Ingalhalikar started researching about indigenous varieties of rice that had coloured leaves. It was then that he came across local varieties with purple and black coloured leaves and decided to use them in his project.
This was followed by the challenging process of creating detailed conceptual drawings that could be used to strategically plant paddy seeds in a field of knee-deep slush. To enable the art to be viewed from an elevated platform, the retired engineer chose a patch of farmland that was located at a relatively lower height that others.
Talking to Mid-Day, Ingalhalikar said,
“This form of art takes a lot of time and effort. I had to get a bird’s eye view of the patch that I wanted the artwork on, then get the images printed and transferred to the space through paddy. It took about a week to complete the design and planting process, and then a month for the artwork to show up.”
The entire process, from designing to harvesting, took about three months. As the image created by Ingalhalikar — a spectacular 40-meter-long Ganesha — began to emerge from the mud, visitors began trickling into the village. Thanks to great reviews by the initial visitors, the village is well on its way to becoming a popular destination for travellers looking for offbeat experiences.
This year, Ingalhalikar decided to draw attention to wildlife conservation by creating the image of a black panther (an endangered species) on his farm.
It can be viewed by visitors till December when it will be harvested.
“The black panther is an endangered animal and I want to draw attention towards its conservation. If we don’t act now, the animal will only exist in books and in children’s stories,” says the nature-loving man who has also authored three books about flowers growing in the biodiversity-rich Sahyadri range.
A strong believer in the benefits of traditional agriculture, Ingalhalikar now plans to use the popularity of rice paddy art to preserve the rural culture of the region while encouraging local youth to take up agriculture.