Sunday, December 13, 2015

Co-optex - A sleeping giant awakens

- By Deepa Krishnan
If you're a Tamilian living in Mumbai, there's a pretty good chance your cupboards contain something from Co-optex. Probably a bunch of hand-spun cotton towels. Or a nice cotton veshti. Or a handloom saree. My family has been buying all of these from Co-optex for many years now.

Co-optex is the brand name of the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society. Last month I was invited to attend their lecture-demonstration on the handloom weaves of Tamil Nadu. Although I am Tamilian, there are many small weaving clusters of Tamil Nadu about which I know nothing. So this was the perfect opportunity to meet friends and learn new things.
The lec-dem was very informative. Knowledgeable and experienced staff from Co-optex showed us samples of the weaves, and told us about the diverse weaving traditions of Tamil Nadu. I learnt many new terms and developed a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the weaves.
I was also very impressed by all the changes happening at Co-optex. I have always thought of Co-optex as a slow behemoth. It looks like the behemoth is now alive and kicking and doing exciting stuff. 

For example, they are recreating a range of "MS" sarees. "MS" is the legendary Carnatic singer, M. S. Subbalakshmi, who is a household name among South Indians. Everyone was very excited to see a saree in "MS Blue", the famous shade of blue that M. S. Subbulakshmi wore. "When are you launching these in Mumbai, Sir?", was the clamour in the room!

I bought 4 sarees that day. Two of them were organic sarees, part of a new initiative by Co-optex. For weaving these sarees, they use cotton which is grown without the use of pesticides. The yarn is coloured using only natural dyes / plant extracts. I'm posting a photo of the organic saree which I wore earlier this week. The saree felt light and cool, and it worked really well with my dabu mud-resist blouse.
Here's the third saree, this one is also a lovely saree with green checks. It is from a weaving cluster called Paramakudi, near Madurai. Weavers from Saurashtra migrated to Paramakudi 600 years ago. They wove cotton and silk, and were originally patronised by royal families of Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga. I teamed this Paramakudi saree with a block-printed blouse and silver choker. Lovely combination, no?
Not many people know about the Paramakudi weaving cluster, or about the people who produce such beautiful sarees. Co-optex is trying to bridge the gap, by creating saree labels that show the origin of the weave. 

I learnt, for example, that my saree was woven by a woman named Geetha, and that she is 38 years old. It took Geetha two full days to produce my saree, because each thread was woven by hand. This sort of immense effort is not possible without a certain mental attitude. In fact, handloom weaving is a form of sadhana, meditation, because you need an almost meditative state of mind to achieve the rhythm and become one with the loom. This is why handlooms are a precious part of India's textile heritage.

I've got another beauty from Co-optex to wear in the coming weeks. It is a stunning purple "koorai podavai" from Koorainadu. In Tamil weddings, the main wedding saree is called a "koorai podavai", and traditionally these were made in the weaving cluster of Koorainadu in Nagapattinam. Co-optex is reviving this cluster by bringing new interesting colours to improve the appeal of the sarees. There are just 10 weavers in this society, so there are only a limited number of these Koorainadu-revival sarees. The saree has silk in the warp and cotton in the weft. I'm not posting a photo because I still haven't worn it! It's brand new.

I'm super thrilled that Co-optex is becoming a dynamic and enterprising co-operative. Their facebook page is active, they are reviving and breathing fresh life into handlooms, and they are creating new markets for the weavers. I wish them success in their efforts to popularise Tamil Nadu's beautiful handlooms.

Cooptex showrooms in Mumbai:
Please note, the Matunga one is closed. The showrooms are in Mahalakshmi, Chembur, Fort and Dadar.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In which my dad cuts a ribbon

- by Deepa Krishnan

My brother-in-law Satish has set up a new factory near Pune. On Vijayadashami, we all went for the inauguration. It was such a happy day. Satish's parents came from Chennai for the event. My parents also came. We drove to the venue in two SUVs because there were several of us. The factory is very big, so we drove right in.
One section of the shop floor, with our cars parked.
There was lots of lamp lighting and ribbon cutting and tree planting :) Satish's dad cut the first ribbon, announcing a series of inaugurations of various sections of the factory.

My parents inaugurated the machining section. Appa has a lot of experience cutting ribbons at various events, so he did it like a pro!
Dad and mom inaugurating machining section
Here is Satish's dad, checking out one of the steel rings that the factory produces.
We all got a basic understanding of the products, the markets, prices, etc. It was very interesting.
On the outside of the factory, a series of Ashoka trees were planted. I hope they all grow beautifully. I pray for the success of the business. It is such a big venture. We are first-generation entrepreuners!
Lunch was festive, with puri-shrikhand, jeera rice, dal, matki, paneer, various types of deep-fried bajjis/pakodas, koshimbir, chutney, and dahi-rice. I forgot to photograph my plate :) So this is the only photo I have. This is also the only photo I have of Satish's mother. You can see her sitting (behind the handbag), talking to my mom.
We returned to Mumbai by 5:30 pm, a little tired, but very happy. We all missed Aishwarya, who is currently in Lucknow. She would have loved the food :)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Inside-Out Vada Pav at Marine Lines (2)

- By Deepa Krishnan

I had written earlier about "Inside-Out" Vada-Pav in Dadar. Yesterday near Saifee Hospital, I saw yet another version of it. This one is flat in shape. The pav is sliced in half, like how you slice a burger bun. Then the two open tops are layered with potatoes (with the usual spices, green chillies, etc). The whole thing is dipped in besan batter and deep fried. 
Ready to be dipped in batter and fried
The flattened shape of the end product.

I'm always happy when I see street-food inventions :) :) Obviously, this version of the vada pav also makes good economic sense for the vendor! An entire "ladi" of pav, which can make 24 such vadas, only costs the vendor ten rupees. Way better than making large potato vadas. Have you seen the vegetable prices these days!

I've only begun to see these vadas in Mumbai in the last 2-3 years. Have you seen them earlier? Where? 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How my lane has changed

- By Deepa Krishnan

When I was growing up, this lane behind my mother's house used to be empty.
The neighbourhood boys would play gully cricket here. We used to have sports events in this street. We made friends with all the children from other buildings on the street. We celebrated Ganpati. We hosted movie showings by rigging up cloth screens, and everyone came to watch.

Nowadays there are cars parked on both sides and the road has become narrow. We don't see any street games these days in this part of the road. People don't talk much to others in the street, because everyone is busy watching TV. Kids from all the buildings in this street don't know each other.

I was happy to see this girl cycling. It reminded me of my childhood, the old Bombay, in an era before cars multiplied.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Sharda Cinema, Dadar: Are single screen cinemas surviving in Mumbai?

- by Deepa Krishnan
I went to Parel with my mom and sister, and on the way back, I photographed this building with metal grille-work. This is Sharda Cinema, Dadar; and the grille-work represents Sharada, the goddess of writing, the arts and all creative efforts.
Sharda Cinema has been around for four decades now. This architectural style - do I call it Bombay Deco? - was popular in the 70's, and perhaps even the 80s. But I don't think it continued into the 90's. 

Sharda is a single-screen cinema. The arrival of multiplexes has seriously threatened the survival of single-screens in Mumbai. The multiplexes are more expensive, but they have a wider range of films on show, and they are co-located in malls, making them attractive leisure destinations.

Most single-screen cinemas are struggling. Many old city icons like Strand and Minerva, have closed down. Some like my neighbourhood Rupam Cinema in Sion have converted into multiplexes.

But some - like Sharda Cinema - have survived in the single-screen format by adopting digitization. Going digital means they can screen "first-day" releases without waiting for the old-fashioned analog movie prints to eventually arrive at their cinema (high costs of analog prints means that the distributor only produces a limited number of them, and they cannot reach all cinema venues, so smaller cinemas lose out on the attractive first-day or first-weekend business).

When I saw Sharda Cinema, the poster was showing "Brothers", a mixed martial arts Hindi movie with Akshay Kumar. The movie had been released that week, and was being screened for 3 shows each day of the week. Alongside this, for the 3:30 pm show, the theatre was also showing a Marathi film "Double Seat", another new release. Sharda also shows some hit Bhojpuri films. Clearly they understand the working class clientele of this neighbourhood in Dadar East. Sharda has 1150 seats and according to an article I read in Outlook, they're managing to keep their head above water with 50-60% occupancy. Good for them.

Will Sharda survive? Will the other single screens in the city survive? The jury's still out on this one. Many of them are still open only because they cannot be converted into an office complex, or a mall (the space was granted to them specifically for a cinema/arts venue). The only thing they can do is convert themselves into more vibrant theatre/arts venues and see if that will work.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bazaar Treasures - Monsoon Special (3) - White corn

- by Deepa Krishnan

Among Mumbai's many monsoon delights is this - white corn. It has small, dense, white kernels, which are satisfactorily grainy and chewy. It is leagues bettter than the sweet yellow variety that has flooded the market these days. 
The masala-bhutta that is made with the white variety is a true delight. The starchy non-sweet white corn really works well with the lemon-chilli-salt rub and makes a big difference in taste. Once upon a time, the thela-walas only sold bhuttas of white corn. But now they've switched to yellow, and very few of them sell white corn bhuttas any more. I was lucky to find this guy near my house; he had both varieties on offer. No prizes for guessing which one I bought.
But really, a few exceptions aside - white corn has more or less disappeared from the market now.  There are only a few pockets in the city where they are available - I've seen them at Matunga Market, Bhaji Gully, and BB Dadar.

There are many reasons why the white variety has lost out to the yellow one. The sweeter taste of the yellow corn is popular with everyone. The yellow variety can be grown all through the year; the white one grows only in the monsoons. The white one has only 1 cob on a stalk; whereas the yellow ones, they have multiple cobs on a stalk (increasing the farmer's yield per hectare). The yellow ones are larger in size and heavier - and they also are more consistent in size and weight - so they offer better returns for the farmer. 
So what's wrong with the yellow one, you ask? It creates dependence on the seed companies, that's what. Seeds from one year cannot be saved and used for the next year. This yellow variety is "one time only". Means the farmer has to buy seeds each year.

Sigh. I think soon this white one will go extinct. Unless there is customer pull, to bring it back to the market. Join me, won't you? Every time I go to the market, I ask for white corn. So that the shop-keepers know that some people still want it!

Monsoon Treasures Series:
For those who want to see the two previous entries with more monsoon treasures: here are the two links:
Part 1 of the story
Part 2 of the story 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

We've come a long way, people

- by Deepa Krishnan

Today I went to the independence day celebrations at my school. And I learnt what freedom means. The girls from my school presented an energetic, physically demanding - and very liberating show. The audience - students ranging from 5 years to 15 years - shouted out their encouragement. The mutual energy was infectious and electrifying.
In an exhilarating flash, I realised something: this generation of girls has a sense of personal body freedom that my generation simply did not have. We would not have leaped with so much abandon. We would not have tossed our heads back and postured so defiantly; and if we had indeed done so, I don't know if the audience would have cheered us on so wildly. The background music was a patriotic song - a soldier's song, a man's song, really. But the girls gave it their own interpretation.
My photos really don't do justice to what I saw. These girls were not doing the usually Bollywood dances with sexualised poses. They were showing the world that they had attitude and spunk. That they were something to be reckoned with. I cheered with the rest of the audience, and wished there were more girls like these. And as I came back home, I realised something else: Change is here. Whether the old guard wishes it or not. Change is here.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Elephanta: Shiva as Kalyanasundara, the beautiful bridegroom

- by Deepa Krishnan

The rock art of Elephanta has a sublime beauty that speaks to people of all cultures. To me, it is even more appealing because it follows well-laid out rules for iconography, allowing me to find and exult in the little details.

Today I thought I'd write about Kalyana Sundara, Shiva as the sublimely beautiful bridegroom. This aspect of Siva - so different from his usual appearance as an ascetic - is a major motif in the rock art of Maharashtra, appearing both in Elephanta as well as Ellora. 

Wedding of Shiva-Parvati, Elephanta
Take a look at this larger-then-life panel from Elephanta. Through image size and composition, the sculptor has made it obvious that this is a story about a couple. Equally, it is clear that the male half of this couple - the hero of the sculpture, so to say - is someone very grand. Even if you don't know any legends, you can still easily guess that this is a divine or royal couple, and you feel awe and curiosity about who they are.

This beautiful sculpture has unfortunately been broken by vandals. We are told that Portuguese sailors/soldiers took potshots at the carvings, using them for target practice. If the piece had been unbroken, it would have been obvious that this is actually a wedding in progress - because this is the panigrahana moment, the moment in the wedding where the bridegroom takes the bride's hand in marriage (pani = hand, graha = to take). They stand united as a couple, his right hand holding her right hand. 

Here's a photo from the cave at Ellora, showing the panigrahana moment. You can see the depiction more clearly, because Ellora was spared the kind of vandalism seen in Elephanta.
Wedding of Shiva-Parvati, Ellora, Wikimedia Commons
But now - returning to Elephanta - take a closer look at the primary figure, Siva. At Elephanta, Siva is far more beautiful than the depiction at Ellora. See the graceful tilt of the head, the noble countenance, the elaborate head-dress, the sublime curve of the torso. The Divine Bridegroom is depicted as serene and resplendent on his wedding day. Standing next to him is his bride. See the modest downward bend of her graceful neck, the downcast eyes and the curved hips. She is the classical Indian beauty, personified and celebrated in stone. But frankly, he is more beautiful than her. It is in his figure, that all the lyrical energy of this sculpture is concentrated.
Closer look at Shiva-Parvati, Elephanta
I wanted to read more about the Kalyana Sundara, the beautiful bridegroom. So I looked up Encyclopedia of the Saivism by Swami Parmeshwaranand, for a description of the bridegroom. 

The Enclyopedia says that in the Matsya Purana, there is a section describing how all the gods assisted in adorning Siva for his wedding. The sun (Surya), the moon (Chandra) and fire (Agni) became the lights in his three eyes. Kubera the God of Wealth gave him a necklace of great gems (maharatnas), and Varuna the Sea God gave him a garland of unfading flowers. Chamunda, the fierce form of the goddess, gave him a kapalamala, a garland of skulls. Indra the King of Gods gave him an elephant skin to wear, and Vayu the Wind God decorated Siva's bull Nandi. 

When Siva was thus beautifully arrayed as Kalyana Sundara, the seven oceans formed a mirror in which he was pleased to see his own splendid form reflected. Can you imagine this? The great god, Siva Maheshwara as Kalyana Sundara, his beauty reflected in all the oceans of the world? What a powerful concept!

Apart from Siva and his bride Parvati, there are many supporting figures in a typical Kalyana Sundara panel. There are several scriptural texts (collectively called the Agamas), which lay down rules for the appearance of Siva, Parvati and these supporting figures.

In a typical Kalyana Sundara scene, there is a four-headed Brahma at the foot of the panel, usually depicted performing the homa (offering to the fire). Brahma is the priest at the wedding. There is Indra, depicted standing behind Brahma. The Brahma and Indra at Elephanta are very damaged. The one at Ellora (the right side of the panel below) gives us a better understanding.
There are usually two standing figures behind Parvati, who are giving away the bride. Likely to be Himavan, father of Parvati, and his wife. There is also a third male figure, carrying a kalasha, a pot. Check out his hair-style. It's like a judge's wig!
Now we come to the host of divine and semi-divine creatures that are witnessing the grand wedding event. They are shown flying in the sky, amidst clouds. 
The Agama texts suggest that there should be several different types of flying creatures depicted in a Kalyana Sundara scene:
  • Vidyadharas - these are groups of supernatural beings, spirits of the air, often described as strewing flowers upon events happening below. 
  • Yakshas -  nature-spirits, caretakers of things hidden under the earth
  • Gandharvas - similar to a yaksha, usually male, usually accomplished musicians
  • Astadikpalas - the guardians of the 8 directions
  • Siddhas - men who have achieved enlightenment, or perhaps just acquired merit or powerful capabilities through sadhana (meditation, penance or prayer)
  • Rishis - sages
  • Matrikas - the mothers, a group of goddesses 
  • Other gods and goddesses
Next time, I'll write about some of the other panels at Elephanta. Each one is very interesting. I hope you will take a closer look at the wedding of Shiva and Parvati the next time you go to Elephanta. I'm sure you'll discover small details that delight you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Specialty idlis at Rama Nayak's Udipi Idli House

- By Aishwarya Pramod

I thought I knew idlis. I thought they were a tasty, healthy staple, if a little boring at times. But recently I visited Rama Nayak's Udipi Idli House, and tasted idlis in a very new way. Who knew idlis could be so exciting?!

Here are the dishes we ordered:
Masala-idli with sambar and chutney
Oondi Dalitoya
The oondi is a steamed rice dumpling (like idli). Dalitoya is a type of simple but delicious dal flavoured with lots of hing (asafoetida). I love hing, so I loved this dish.
Jackfruit idli (fanas muddo)
This was my absolute favourite. It was sweet and rich, especially with all that butter on top. A bottle of kesari juice is behind the idli.
The menu
 The menu was wide-ranging (click for larger view). Maybe I'll try pepper idli and rava idli next time
The two tpes of podi with oil just make everything better.

All in all, a good meal was had by all. If you haven't been to this cafe, you're missing something!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My article in Mid-Day today: How to make Mumbai the top tourist city in India

- By Deepa Krishnan
As part of their 25th year celebrations, Mumbai's popular newspaper Mid-day asked me to write about how to make Mumbai the top tourist city in India. Here's my article. 

Recently I read a report by MasterCard, listing the top 20 cities which received international tourists in 2014. London topped the list, with 18.9 million visitors. Mumbai had only 4.9 million and did not make the top 20 list. Neither did any other Indian city.

Common sense suggests that a large chunk of the arrivals into Mumbai are business visitors. Although many meetings and conferences are held in Mumbai, we are not among the world’s most popular conference venues. Why? I think it’s because conferences are not just about business - they’re also about entertainment. And Mumbai, despite being the entertainment capital of India, has no entertainment for tourists. 

In other countries, people queue up to fork out significant amounts of money to see professionally run movie-studio tours. A VIP experience of Universal Studios costs $300; and a regular-Joe tour costs $80. The studios actively promote these tours. They make money, not just from entry ticket sales, but also merchandise sales, restaurants, bars, performance show tickets, etc. But Mumbai has nothing comparable to offer.

I think it will completely change the Mumbai tourism industry if Mehboob Studio or Film City makes a great studio tour, with movie history, dance, music, dining and other entertainment options. Just think about the possibilities! What if the entire Kapoor clan promoted an R K Studios tour? I’m told they still preserve all the costumes from their sets! What if the Bollywood Khans became ambassadors for Film City tours? 
Hall of fame in Mehboob Studio
I think Bollywood can make Mumbai not just a prized conference venue, but the number one leisure tourist destination in India for both international and domestic tourists. But none of the studios in Mumbai seem to share this vision. Forget studio tours, there is not even a daily song and dance show on offer based on the movies. What a waste of Mumbai’s potential as an entertainment hub!

Apart from entertainment, we also need to revitalize and improve other aspects of the city. We have a great art district in Kala Ghoda, which could be made into a pedestrian plaza with cafes, boutiques and art galleries, much like central Amsterdam or Brussels. It could become an attractive place to showcase Maharashtra’s unique crafts and cuisine.
Kala Ghoda Art District
Kala Ghoda Festival
The nearby Ballard Estate, with its old-world charm, can also become an extended part of this tourism zone. It would inject life into this heritage zone, which otherwise goes creepily quiet after 6:00 p.m.
Ballard Estate
I’ve always said that Mumbai’s heart lies in its bazaars and neighbourhoods like Bhuleshwar, Bhendi Bazaar, Lalbaug, Dadar, Matunga, Bandra etc. Each locality has its own charm. These neighbourhoods are tourism assets and part of our living heritage. Walking tours conducted by locals to highlight the architecture, culture and cuisine of these neighbourhoods, will not only attract tourists, but also result in a sense of civic pride and provide impetus to local heritage conservation efforts.
My article in Mid-Day
Spice Market at Lalbaug
A major part of our effort has to be towards cleanliness. Mumbai’s street food is legendary. But does it have to be so unhygienic? Why should international tourists coming to Mumbai have to constantly worry about falling ill? In Kuala Lumpur you can eat authentic food from small street carts and not get sick. The municipal authorities provide space for stalls, ensure hygienic water supply, and conduct regular inspections. We can learn from this.

Public toilets and good public transport – these are two major areas where we need to focus if we want to become a tourist destination. It’s a miracle if you can find a clean public toilet in Mumbai! The shameful reality is that tour guides in the city are constantly scrambling to solve toilet emergencies of tourists.

Elephanta Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the clunky ferries that take tourists to the island have rickety motors, untrained staff, unsafe boarding practices and no life-jackets. I have personally been stranded aboard a ferry, drifting out to sea with 20 panicky international tourists. We had to be towed ashore by a second boat. The entire infrastructure around the Elephanta experience needs a major overhaul.

Lastly – I don’t think we can talk about promoting tourism in Mumbai without talking about how to develop the potential of nearby areas. Only if Maharashtra becomes an attractive destination, will more and more people consider coming to Mumbai. Maharashtra is blessed with a long coastline, great trekking potential, world heritage sites, sacred pilgrimage towns, unique craft traditions, and great cuisine. We need to raise awareness of everything this state can offer.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Delicious chhole-puri in Mumbai's Punjabi enclave

by Aishwarya Pramod

It's often said that Delhi beats Mumbai hands down in terms of Punjabi food. I tended to agree with that statement, but recently I began to change my mind. That's after I visited Manjeet Puri-Chhole Wala for a delicious breakfast of puri-chhole. For the rest of the day, I kept thinking back to that meal and smiling to myself - it was so good! The shop is in Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar, Sion

Sea of chhole next to gulab jamuns
The have a very simple menu. Chole is of course, the star of the show. You can have chhole-puri, or chhole-bhatura. They have a tandoor where they make varieties of stuffed parathas, kulchas etc. There's dal, gulab jamun, lassi and chhaas. All simple but delicious dishes.
Two bhature served with chhole, onion, pickles, dahi (yoghurt)
and fried green chillies
It's a no-frills, non-descript place. Unless one pays attention, one may not even realize there is an eatery there!
Some customers waiting outside the shop for their parcels
Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar (GTB Nagar) is a Punjabi enclave of Mumbai. The area was settled by refugees from Punjab right after the Partition in 1947, and again in the 1960s with the threat of war at the Pakistani border areas. Hence the Punjabi food here is authentic, mouth-watering and not too expensive.

If you ever crave puri-chhole, this is the right place to visit! Note that Manjeet Puri-Chhole Wala opens in the early morning and closes around 2:00 PM.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Nachni and Food Security - a village meal in the Palghar district

- by Deepa Krishnan

A few days ago, I had lunch in a small village home in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. The people who live in this village are tribal agriculturalists, practising subsistence farming.
One of the families cooked lunch for us. We ate sitting on mats on the floor. I was super-hungry and wolfed down my meal in minutes. Our hostess brought endless servings of everything, until I was fit to burst. Here's a photo of what I ate:
Everything on my plate was grown locally. There was rice, which is grown during the monsoon season on the nearby hill slopes in small terraces. There was bhendi (okra / ladies finger), chowli (black-eyed beans), tuar (pigeon-pea) dal, two types of home-made papad and a home-made mango pickle. All of it came from nearby farms and fields. 

But the thing that delighted me most was the dark brown roti, called nachni bhakri.  

Nachni (finger millet) is one of the healthiest things you can eat. Loads of calcium and iron. Lots of fibre. Slow to release sugar into the system, great if you're fighting a battle against weight gain. It's gluten-free too. I ate it with the spicy black-eyed beans, and it was delicious.

Nachni is a critical nutritional element for this kind of village. That's because nachni is a tough and flexible plant. It can grow in diverse soils, with varying rainfall regimes, and in areas widely differing in heat and length of daylight availability. It is hugely pest resistant. It doesn't even need chemical pesticides. So while a rice crop may fail for many reasons, a nachni crop is far more dependable, and can literally ward off starvation. 

In addition, nachni is easy to store. Once harvested, it is seldom attacked by insects or moulds. The long storage capacity makes it an important crop in risk-avoidance strategies for poorer farming communities.

In fact, not just nachni, all traditional millets are important for rural India. In the nearby Vikramgad weekly rural market, I photographed one of the stalls selling different types of millets and pulses. The dark coloured one on the right is nachni.
This area of Maharashtra has lots of rain in the monsoons, but goes very dry later. There is no irrigation. Here is how the land looks in the monsoons.
And here is how the area looks in summer:
There is no cultivation in summer, probably because the existing water management systems don't husband groundwater resources adequately for irrigation. For drinking and bathing, the government provides well water. Since there is only one main monsoon crop (rice), the dependence on that crop is very high. If that crop fails, the entire economic backbone of area will collapse. It is therefore sensible to divert some land - even 'warkas' land (low productivity land) is ok - to grow nachni and other millets for food security.

When I was researching this article, I read this very interesting and informative article on why millets are so invaluable. I highly recommend you read it too. After I read it, I've decided to start eating more millets. I'm going to reduce my intake of rice and wheat, because really, from all points of view, it looks like the smart thing to do.