The only pan-Indian festival with its roots in the solar calendar is the Makara Sankranti. It is celebrated on the day the Sun moves into the Makara (Capricorn) constellation as seen from the Indian sub-continent. We differ from the British perspective of seeing the Sun in Capricorn on December 22, immediately after their Winter Solstice. Makara Sankranti is like Christmas in India, the return of the Sun and the hope of longer days filled with light. It is known as Bihu in Assam in the East and it is the time for the Uttarayan in Gujarat on the West. In South India, it is Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Suggi Habba in Karnataka. In most parts of India, the winter crops have been sown or transplanted and it is the time when the farmers can take some respite from work, socialise, celebrate and bond as a community.
What better crop is there than maize or corn to roast the cobs over the glowing coals of fire made to keep warm on the chilly nights during winter? From cornflakes as breakfast cereal to makke-ki-roti; sweet corn soup; baby corn salads; popcorn; and butta of corn cobs, fresh, boiled or roasted; maize is a fun cereal. The young and the old enjoy the easy to digest and protein rich grain. Maize originated and was domesticated in Mexico. Not surprisingly, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, CIMMYT, is located in Mexico and Norman Borlaug’s hybrid dwarf wheat came along with maize varieties to Punjab from there. Corny as it may seem, the change in our dietary cereal from rice to partly include wheat, has maize involved in it. Wheat was not a crop in pre- and post-colonial kingdoms that now form the country we call India.
Walls may not have ears but a maize plant has more than two ears. It has nothing to do with the textiles, but its cluster of multiple stigmas emerging from the cob is known as ‘silk’ and its male inflorescence is known as ‘tassel’. Maize has male and female flowers on the same plant but it is not self-pollinated or self-fertilised. Maize is a ‘model organism’ for study of developmental biology and genetics. In 1983, researcher Barbara McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for successfully using the ‘knob markers’ to validate her ‘transposon’ theory on ‘jumping genes’. It helps to understand genetically modified plants and also to identify where gene jumping has taken place between plants of different varieties. About 92 per cent of the maize in USA and Canada is genetically modified (GM) as against 33 per cent worldwide. The genetically modified crops in this case mostly have only maize genes with their sequence re-organized for drought, pest or disease tolerance or herbicide tolerance. Some GM varieties (or ‘events’ as they are known) like ‘Starlink’ are approved only use as animal feed and not for human consumption.
Maize is a C4 plant and can withstand moisture stress. It can be grown in marginal soils, without irrigation and with little care. It is grown for both grain as well as a fodder crop. Besides human consumption, maize is used as dairy, piggery and poultry feed. It is also used to produce ethanol alcohol for various applications including car fuel.