Day 99: From ‘camera to pen’

Anji, Wardha. July, 2020


Day 99

This morning was a fast paced ride to a reservoir beyond Saldara. It sits at the base of a hill and has no human activity around it. Makes a good place to watch birds and early mornings. It has been  a good month of nature walks and cycle rides. On the ride back, I began thinking of natural history and nature writings that I have read earlier. Pradeep Krishen Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters was the most recent one that I finished reading during an afternoon at Champaca Bookstore.. I thought of Loren Eisely’s essays too. The morning ride had set the day. Later, the afternoon was spent reading M Krishnan’s writings and column ‘Country Notebook’ that ran in The Statesman. The man lived a life obsessed with nature and wildlife. The last entry for his newspaper column was sent on the day he died. It remains one of the longest running columns on wildlife, nature and natural history in an Indian newspaper. “Country Notebook”, began in 1950, ran continuously for 45 years. It had a cult following, and was read by ecologists and lay readers alike for its accuracy and authenticity, and for the quality of his English prose. Recollecting his life and contributions, Gopal Gandhi wrote these in his obituary

Krishnan refused to accept, much less adapt, to new technology. Modern technology outpaced his hand-assembled camera; his developing and printing techniques seemed to belong to a bygone age. For him the function of the camera was to record without bias. His lenses were never in competition with the subject; for Krishnan, nature always came before the art and science of photography. Self-adjusting light and distance mechanisms, for him, were shortcuts unworthy of forests.

The camera for Krishnan was an instrument recording without bias. It has come far away from it in these times, in the arms race like equipment hoarding and in what they record now. I would like for wildlife photography to return to the spirit that 20th century Indian naturalists held it in. 

In this month of nature exploration around the farm and hill ranges, I have felt a lack of taxononomic understanding. Thise days at the university, we gave little importance to taxonomy. And, now I find myself unable to even venture forth into attempting basic classification of the biodiversity I come across.

Krishnan could be scathing about the fast-spawning school of “nature writers”, pointing out their scant attention to detail. In his opinion, you had to know about the taxonomy, the morphology, the behavioural patterns, before you wrote or took “pitchers”, as he called them.

Krisnan’s  brilliant articulation of the state of affairs with respect to environmental education, lifestyles and general spirit of exploration and enquiry stands as relevant today – 

The average educated adult knows little or nothing of the teeming plant and animal life of the country, and cares less. Livestock does not interest him, and the world is to him a place which holds only human beings. He can never make friends with a hill or a dog, and if he has no one to talk to, no book to read, and no gadget to turn and unturn, he is quite lost. School education is solidly to blame for all this.

Krishnan has sent me down the road to reading naturalists and wildlife conservationists that India produced in the 20th century. In his book India’s Wildlife History: An Introduction, Mahesh Rangarajan includes a chapter titled ‘From Gun to Camera’. This is a narrative of the phase when Indian wildlife conservation efforts were taking shape. The likes of Jim Corbett and ‘man-eaters of Kumaon’ were in their last phase. The field moved from use of guns to wielding the camera. With this began a prolific period of photographing, cataloging and writing in popular media about various facets of Indian wildlife and biodiversity. 

Right now, the move we need and which would be an area of personal interest is, from ‘camera to pen’. We do not write enough, if one considers the sheer scale and expense of India’s biodiversity, landmass and the range of climatic zones that make this country.

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