Panther in the paddy: Indian farmer adopts Japanese art form in his rice fields

Shrikant Ingalhalikar, an engineer with a green thumb, has created an image each year since 2016 after discovering Tambo Ato

Shrikant Ingalhalikar looks at his image of a leafbird, created with growing rice plants, on his farm in western India. Photo: Shrikant Ingalhalikar
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In a stretch of paddy fields among the lush green foothills of India’s Western Ghats, a giant artwork appears from time to time — usually of one of the animal species to be found in this ecologically diverse region.

The images, created with rice plants of different colours, are the work of Shrikant Ingalhalikar, 73, a mechanical engineer-turned-farmer who was inspired by the Japanese paddy art known as Tambo Ato.

“Each year I create a different image … it is a laborious task that takes one month of planting and three months of watching it grow and take shape,” says Mr Ingalhalikar, who cultivates 320 hectares of land near the city of Pune in Maharashtra state.

“I am trying to depict rare species of Western Ghats, some animals or birds, so that they become known to the people.”

The mountain range, which runs parallel to India's west coast for 1,600km, is one of the world’s eight “hottest hot spots” of biological diversity, according to Unesco, and is home to at least 325 species of threatened plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish.

Mr Ingalhalikar, who runs a factory that manufactures machinery for making synthetic fibres, began farming out of passion three decades ago. Ten years after starting with organic crops on a small patch of land, he turned his passion into a full-fledged business.

He began creating pictures in his rice fields seven years ago, after discovering Tambo Ato.

The art form originated in Inakadate, Japan in 1993 when villagers experimented with using their paddy fields as a canvas to honour the region’s history of rice cultivation, and created a giant picture of Mount Iwaki, a volcano in the region, with four different-coloured varieties.

More artworks followed and, by 2006, the village was drawing about 200,000 tourists annually to see the images created in the paddyfields.

Mr Ingalhalikar liked the idea, but finding rice with coloured leaves proved difficult. Although India has about 6,000 varieties of rice, most of them have green leaves.

Finally, after some research, he stumbled upon “nazar bath”, a local variety of paddy in Maharashtra that has black leaves.

“I am a first-generation agriculturist and botanist. I started agriculture 32 years ago but I wanted to do something innovative while also trying to conserve rice species in western India,” he says.

He says he discovered the nazar bath variety of rice while looking for different strains in remote areas. “I had seen the Japanese paddy art images and it suddenly struck me that I can do it with two colours,” he adds.

Mr Ingalhalikar created his first paddy artwork, an image of the Hindu deity Lord Ganesh 40 metres across, in 2016 and has made one every year since: a black eagle, a panther, an emerald dove, a pit viper, a gaur or Indian bison and a leafbird — all natives of the Western Ghats.

He has erected a five-metre platform next to the field where he grows all his artworks — a patch about 50 metres long and 25 metres wide — and uses it to check the progress.

But the process is laborious, Mr Ingalhalikar says.

Unlike in Japan, where the farmers work together to create the artworks, Mr Inhalgalikar’s paddy art is the harvest of his lone efforts.

“I draw the design on paper then enlarge the drawing to the shape and size of the field using graphics on the computer. Then I divide the design into squares, like pixels or mosaics,” he says.

“Each pixel will have a particular colour, either green or black, and according to that I plant the rice to replicate the design from the computer on the ground.”

He plants about 500 seeds of the black and green varieties of rice on a separate patch and then transplants the seedlings to his “canvas” according the layout of his grid.

“When they grow and become mature the colours come out.”

Mr Inhalgalikar’s artworks last for about three months before the rice is harvested. They have made the nearby village of Donje a popular spot for visitors and also go viral on social media when he posts photographs of them each year.

“People come to view it but because of the laborious work involved, no one has yet offered to join me,” he says.

“As I am alone, I try to make simple images. Somebody has to join me, at least some landscape designers. I hope some day this will happen.”

Indian engineer creates huge black panther shape in paddy field

Indian engineer creates huge black panther shape in paddy field
Updated: April 15, 2023, 7:58 AM