Saturday 09 March 1996
The secret of Krishnan's success lay, of course, in the quality of his photographs. They were not slick, not the kind that take your breath away, but they had a clarity, a purity; they were the closest thing to the original. The uncompromisingly accurate texts that accompanied his pictures, fortnight after fortnight, in the English-language newspaper the Statesman of Calcutta, were another triumph. His column "Country Notebook", begun in 1950, ran continuously for 45 years. The last entry appeared the day he died, making it the oldest surviving column in Indian journalism. 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.
Some of Krishnan's popular writings were put together in a fascinating book, Jungle and Backyard (1963, published in Britain in 1993 and still in print), which tells the story of a man who belongs to that margin of life where the human and animal worlds are not, after all, so separate. It is illustrated not by photographs but by ink-drawings. Krishnan was an extraordinarily gifted sketcher, and the book ranks with the best in English lay writing on nature, but without compromising his first principle: total accuracy of observation.
In the mid-1960s, Krishnan was given a Fellowship by the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund to do an ecological mammalian survey of peninsular India. He carried out the assignment with matchless skill, monumental patience and unremitting labour. His unique understanding of animal behaviour helped. Be it the dhole (wild dog) at Periyar (Kerala), the elephant in Mudumalai-Bandipur (Tamil Nadu-Kerala) or the tiger in Kanha (Madhya Pradesh), Krishnan understood, Blake-like, the immortal hand or eye that entitled him to frame its fearful symmetry. Describing how he photographed a tigress from the top of an elephant at Kanha, he wrote:
I was positively anxious not to do anything that might panic her, as the impossibly contrasty lighting, with the overhead sun casting patches of dense shade and brilliant highlights all over, presented quite sufficient photographic problems without the added one of the subject bolting. However, in an attempt to get her to raise her head and open her eyes fully, loud clucks with the tongue were tried, to no effect. Every time the elephant was moved, the noise of its feet on the litter-strewn ground made her open her eyes partially, for visual confirmation of her hearing, and I was able to get her to raise her head and stare sleepily only by making the elephant shuffle its feet without moving.
His illustrated report India's Wildlife (1975) is a rigorously scientific document, perhaps the first and last of its kind to be produced in post- independent India. It is also Krishnan's magnum opus.
Krishnan's forest visits were frequent and seemingly interminable. He was away on one of his indefinite absences in a remote forest in 1970 when his wife, Indu, opened a telegram seeking Krishnan's willingness to receive the President of India's decoration of Padma Shri. Indu wired "his" acceptance at once; she knew her husband. He could take months returning or, equally likely, decline the honour as patronising. In fact, he rather appreciated the presidential gesture because national and international awards were the only kind of recognition he was likely to get: he was too proud to seek professional awards or enter contests, to lobby critics or the press.
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.
Even as younger and more successful cameramen whizzed from forest or "ethnic" site to exhibition venues in the western hemisphere, Krishnan's travel remained confined to where his subjects were - in the dappled forests of India. Except for field trips, he rarely left Madras, visiting Delhi a few times perhaps, and never once going abroad. Neither did he hold photo exhibitions nor publish "coffee-table" books. 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.
Krishnan's camera took in the non-animal world too, although warily. He did some remarkable photography, in the mid-1970s, of the little-known monuments of Pudukkottai, a former princely state near the town of Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu. Using long exposures and no flash he captured the 12th- century fresco secco murals in the Jaina cave at Sittannavasal for the Pudukkottai District Gazetteer. Krishnan knew that his photography of the fading Sittannavasal murals reproduced in the Gazetteer would be invaluable as a historic record, which is perhaps why he allowed me to photograph him operating his camera - a rare privilege.
Encouraged as a youth by his father (the novelist Madhaviah) to become a lawyer, Krishnan did obtain the degree. But while this gave his no-nonsense mind an additional weapon to engage income-tax and other government agencies with, he never adopted the profession. He was a serious scholar of early Tamil, inheriting the skill from his father. He enjoyed quibbling over the two-looped as opposed to the three-looped "n" in that ancient script. More recently, he attempted writing a Tamil detective story.
Never guilty of underestimating his own exceptional talent, Krishnan nonetheless lived a life of self-imposed obscurity. When not in the forests, he hibernated in the bush cover of his home-cum-studio in Madras. Krishnan's reclusion was notorious. He would meet callers only if he approved of them; others ran the risk of being dismissed without ceremony. If you were among the lucky ones, Krishnan would emerge from his darkroom bare-chested, barefoot and in none-too-fresh a lungi, to regale you for an hour or more with an acerbic monologue. Reference to some official's stonewalling of a forest project or the jejune writing of an ecological "specialist" would ignite the guru. "What do they know?" was a favourite riposte.
And generally Krishnan would be right. Even those who knew a great deal managed to lag behind Krishnan in knowledge of the field. The impaling of his bete noire over, he would return to his studio, very much like the Indian porcupine he has described:
Apart from the noise made by the rattling of the hollow tail quills, when surprised the porcupine bristles out its body quills at once, with a swishing sound, suddenly growing large and indistinct: its getaway is marked by sharply angled turns, and when it has put some distance between itself and what alarms it, the quills subside suddenly, so that the animal becomes much smaller, darker and harder to see.
Madhaviah Krishnan, wildlife photographer and writer: born 30 June 1912; married (one son); died Madras 18 February 1996.
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