Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Chronicler of the Cotton Country

The Chronicler of the Cotton Country

An interview with Ki Rajanarayan

A Rangarajan

The senior Tamil writer, K Rajanarayan or Ki Ra as he is affectionately called has come to occupy a niche of a genre that draws deeply from oral traditions and narrative forms of story telling. Building on these traditions, his literature combines a rare psychological penetration and that has helped him charter his own course on the Tamil literary canvas of the present day. Ki Ra has a sizeable following and an ever widening circle of readership. In his 86th year Ki Ra could easily see himself as a complete writer grounded in life and experience. He had been a farmer and a freedom fighter, a communist and an activist, a great classical music enthusiast and a man of letters. Set mostly in the black soil region of Tirunelvely and adjoining parts his stories and novels have come to be deeply evocative of the lives these folks. Legends and lore combine with travails and tasks of every day living to weave stories rich in imagination that are rooted in a rare authenticity. Drawing mostly from hagiographic traditions Rajanarayan is almost indifferent to historic corroboration of the events that are central to the back drop of his narration., insisting that oral traditions carry peoples memories in an intimate manner shaping and making their worldview. That is why his adoption of the rural dialect for his narration blends in so well. When least expected, his stories could turn riveting transporting one right into the middle of the setting. You are no longer reading, you are actually witnessing! Ki Ra often writes about a bygone era and his writings preserve a slice of our memory. When his stories and novels were serialised in Ananda Viketan and other mazaines, circulations swelled bring him much acclaim. Following this success he was invited by the Pondicherry University to be their visiting Professor of Folklore in . Ki Ra went on to publish a dictionary of folk usages in Tamil ( Vattara Vazhakku Chollakarathi) and started compiling collections of Folk tales from many parts of the State. A pursuit that is keeping him busy even to this today. The Sahitya Academy Award honour was conferred on him in 2001 brining him into an elite circle of writers.

You have been writing for a very long time and. Kathavu was published in 1965 a small circle of readers have been admiring you ever since, yet it was Karisal Kattu Kadithasi that catapulted you to unprecedented popularity. What to do you think was behind this appeal.

I think it may have to do something with my style of writing. I adopted a very oral style and an earthly manner of narration. Further the subjects and characters I presented were new to Tamil writing. I suppose there was a novelty that drew the attention of readers. My good friends and fellow writers were not happy that I abandoned chaste Tamil when it came to writing. We have always had a dichotomy when it comes it to oral narration and written presentation in Tamil. I think I kind of broke that barrier. But then you should know before I started writing stories and essays I was an ardent letter writer. I would write long letters to my friends. I adopted this style of writing for my letters and later moved it to my creative pieces as well.

I wish to dwell on this question of Classical literature and Folk Literature. What do you think constitutes the essential difference between the two and with increasing urbanisation is Folk Literature on the wane as, by definition, Folk Literature is much localised and the urban phenomenon flattens out local contexts.

This is indeed a complex subject. But then if you look carefully and with some insight the differences between the two are less than what is apparent. The form in classical literature is well laid out and established. The language and narrative rules are clearly known. While the form is important for any literature, it is the content that is at the heart of it all. You will find human frailties are universally dealt with in both forms of literature and that is where there appeal become so powerful. And if you see our Indian traditions even otherwise perfect Gods and Goddesses assume human forms and are very much in the grip of all emotions and shortcoming that we as humans are often caught in. They do not come in as infallible gods in the realm of literature. Folklore too deals with these same frailties but then the treatment is different. Moreover again in our context, often folklore provides the nucleus on which classical literature is built. On loss of localised paradigms, it is true that with the passage of time so many things go. I remember as a boy in the village we had our games especially for the rainy season. We had such specific facets that marked the rhythm of time and season. Not many remember that agricultural activities by night in the pre-kerosene era were restricted to the few days of moonlight we had in a month! Those were different times and so many stories of that era have been forgotten and they are no longer in circulation. While we could lament this loss, we cannot overlook the fact that change is a constant phenomenon of life. I do believe folk literature is taking newer forms even in the electronic era!

Question :

AK Ramanujam, hailed the awarding of the Sahitya Academy to you as a great recognition for all those who work on the folklore space. He was from the world of Academics quite known all over the world. You too had your brush with that world while your were quite unconventionally invited to be a visiting Professor at Pondicherry University. It must have been a unique experience. How did you like it?
It was a different world but then I did not do anything differently. I shared by experience with students encouraged them to do the same and I conducted my interaction with the students under the trees! I compiled and collected folk tales, encouraged people to talk about them and continued my writing. It was interesting work and I was invited to do things I liked doing and in that sense it was a unique opportunity while being an honour at the same time

Rise of Right in Europe

This too is an old article written in 2002.

Rise of the right in Europe

While the success of Jean Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections in France caused a major political storm and hogged the head-lines for two weeks, there have been other unmistakable developments in Europe that seem to have a pattern. The two weeks that spaced the interval between the first and second rounds of the French Presidential Elections has indeed attracted attention to a certain trend that now has engulfed a lot of Europe- the rising popularity of the Far Right. After the September 11th tragedy the first country to go to early polls with a predominantly anti-immigration debate at the fore, was Denmark. The Social Democrats lost power and the ant-immigration People’s Party emerged as the third largest political force. The peoples party in Denmark was not only anti-immigration it was also anti-European Union. So is Le-Pen. Le Pen tried making a symbolic journey to Brussels, in the two weeks when he was basking in the limelight, to outline his plans for pulling France out of the EU, if he were to be elected to power. That he was booed there is a different matter. Le Pen has company in the Dutch Political scene as well. Netherlands’s Pim Fotuyn asserts that the Schengen concept of a borderless Europe has to be re-examined and if needed, challenged. The right wing Vlaams Blok in Belgium considers Fortuyn as an ally, with whom forces can be combined. While once the appearance of Joerg Haider in Austrian mainstream politics looked like an aberration, today’s political kaleidoscope of Europe is a far cry. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi heads a coalition of right wing parties that includes amongst others, the National Alliance, which has its beginnings amongst the fascists of Mussolini’s days. The Pro-Euro Foreign minister in Italy had to step down; unable to feel comfortable amongst the hawks that dominate his party. When Jose-Maria Aznar came to power, the political spectrum was shifting to the right in Spain. The writing in the wall in Portugal, the BNP phenomenon in the UK and the developments in Scandinavia show that there is a wider picture emerging that needs close analysis.

There were a number of issues in France that contributed to the election imbroglio. The rise in crime (or the rise in media hype about it) contributed to a sense of insecurity. It was easy to associate crime with the huge North African population that lives in France. . This dangerously simplistic picture of hatred was easy to paint and easier to agree with Crime indeed has risen and it is reported that with incidents of thefts, armed robberies and even rape crossing the four million mark annually for the first time. The reasons and patterns remain unclear. Increasing unemployment was a genuine factor that was contributing to disgruntlement. Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac had run lacklustre campaigns. If Jospin appeared outright dull, Chirac’s scandals had put his personal integrity in bad light. There were so many shades of the left contesting that Jospin ended being the victim of the proverbial split vote. And of course there were many French who cast a punishment vote, sending warning signals to the mainstream politicians urging them to get their acts together. It is said that French have a two round system for people to unload the burden in their chests in the first and the second is reserved for a calm thought out choice. Le pen was an orator who could choose words that could home the message into people’s minds and hearts. With all this sensation, in reality, Le Pen had not polled considerably more votes than his last election showing. The whole French election Drama in the end had an anti-climax for its finish with Chirac ending up having a landslide victory. The fact the left wing news paper Liberation urged its readers, in the election eve, to vote for ‘Cholera Chirac’ instead of ‘ Plague Pen’ (obviously alluding to the lesser evil) says it all, as regards the strangest of endorsements Chirac had had en route to his landslide win. In the mid-round days when Le Pen’s pictures were splashed across the papers in Europe, fears of dangerously divisive fissures surfaced and the French people were jolted into thinking hard. The Le Pen phenomenon had sparked an intense debate and had sharpened language all across Europe. But it would be unwise to dismiss the Le Pen factor as a passing thunder. It true that while most French voters were treating the first round casually Le Pen’s supporters were exercising their franchise with seriousness and zeal. They were all out there, voting for him. And amongst them, were considerable numbers of the unemployed. They were not trusting the Left parties any longer to take care of them; they were taking their bet on a far right leader. There was anger there. Globalisation and European unity were seen as processes that were taking away employment opportunities to distant lands.

When Fortuyn shot to prominence with his spectacular success at the Rotterdam local bodies’ elections he had amongst his voters insecure youth who felt that the employment scene was increasingly becoming the privy of the well educated and well groomed. Fortuyn has since (in the two months or so that has made him a national force to reckon with) jettisoned the Leefbar Nederland (Livable Netherlands), the party that romped home riding on his charisma, to form his own and has even named after himself. It is called the List Fortuyn. The timing in the Dutch context is extremely intriguing. In the last eight years, the coalition that has been in power had done a great job. Unemployment had fallen from 11% in 1983 to all time low of 2% in 2002.Measured by GDP per head, the Netherlands ranks fifth today where it was 15th in 1991. Government’s fiscal surplus is comfortable and the economic engine is well oiled. The Dutch welfare system and social security was serving the people well. There has been no sharp or sudden rise in crime rate calling for this dramatic shift in politics. All this, against the backdrop of the traditional disposition of Dutch pragmatism that has sublimated into a characteristic tolerance, makes the rise of the right a difficult phenomenon to comprehend. Perhaps while there are common threads that can be identified in the French, Danish and Dutch parts of this story of the far right, each has a different set of ground realities as well. The Dutch perceive that their health care system is in bad shape and that in can be doing better. The Rail services and several other public amenities are held as inefficient. In reality it could be said that with all these services the quality in Netherlands is higher and better than several other European countries. The notion that there is too much bureaucracy has gained currency with the public at large. Fortuyn charges that Polder Model or the policy of functioning with consensus has led to a lot of compromises. He asserts that what is needed is a dose of confrontation. He is against Islamic influx, holding that after years of co-existence, the values of Islam do not assimilate into modernity. The Netherlands has a large population of people of Turkish and Moroccan descent The post Sep 11 world has altered political equations and perceptions in most significant manners. Wim Kok’s eight years coalition rule is accused of not dealing firmly with the issue of illegal immigration. The issue has reached a sensitive point with the Netherlands having nearly 10% of its population being of foreign origin. This is higher than Britain or France. All this has proved to be a right recipe for causing dissatisfaction and disgruntlement in the minds of the Dutch people. The personality of the man himself contributes to the drama that is unfolding. Openly gay himself, he is flamboyant and extremely articulate. He throws political correctness to the winds and does plain speak all the time. Being impulsive and confrontational makes him come out natural and not contrived. He sees Islam bringing in a lot of threats to much of the openness the Dutch cherish – including homosexuality. The central message of the man is outlined in his books titled,” Against the Islamicisation of our culture” and “ eight years of ruin under the purple rule” (Purple stands for the coalition between the right and the left). The lines that divide the traditional right and left have now blurred in the minds of the Dutch voter. A host of issues now worry and cause concern for the Dutch voter. Ideological positions don’t seem to matter. Fortuyn stands for more spending on the military and police and firmer control of borders. He also opines that it is not more spending that can improve public services but more competition and privatisation can. It is possible that prosperity had become the problem that throws problems and perceived problems out of perspective. This combined with lack of excitement that has given Fortuyn a prominent place in the Dutch political arena. Some believe that mainstream politics had skirted many vital issues and has evaded taking firmer stands and the far right has forced mainstream politics. Alternately some believe that a deep dissatisfaction (almost not fully understood) is at the core of this current unrest that finds solace in the confrontational stance that Fortuyn spins.

What ever be the regional dimension of the European story that is playing itself out, the far right has shed the reluctance to openly articulate the ultra nationalistic stand. They don’t seem to fight shy of the prospect of being likened to the earlier fascists of Europe. There is an acceptability and space for these extreme positions. The European Union is considering expansion and the prospective member countries that are waiting for the golden gates EU to open for them are mostly from Eastern Europe. These developments and rumblings surely would be offering resistance to this. It is time that the Pan –European policy makers and politicians start taking the people with them. Perhaps they may have been too elitist and have been ignoring the voices and sentiments from the streets leading to these tensions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It is actually a clash of epistemologies

It is actually a clash of epistemologies ‘

An Interview with Professor Antony Black
By A Rangarajan
Professor Tony Black is Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee where he occupies a special Chair on the History of Political thought. His academic work included topics such as sovereignty, and the origin of the state. Professor Black has guided courses and researched extensively on Islamic Political thought. His 2001 book ‘The History of Islamic Political Thought from the Prophet to the Present’ was translated into Turkish and was published in Pakistan as well in 2004. His book ‘A world History of Ancient Political thought ‘was published in May 2009 and has been nominated for the Mackenzie book prize that is awarded by the Political Studies Association of UK. This title was preceded by ‘The West and Islam: Religion and Politics in World History ‘and was published in 2008. Both books have attracted worldwide attention for the comparative approach.

Q. Professor Black , Samuel Huntington has indeed stirred a hornet’s nest with his article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ and later with a book that expanded the theme of ‘ The clash of Civilizations’. He proclaimed that the dominating source of international conflict from now on would be cultural. He wrote ‘the fault lines of civilizations are the battle lines of the future’ implying a finality on the irreconcilable differences between the West and the Rest. After a life time of work on the comparative history of political thought what are your views on this topic of some urgency, given the conflicts around the globe?
I would proceed to examine this question within the frame work of relations between the West and the Islamic world. In order to understand the differences one would have to go back a little into the past. The Central theme that possibly could lie at the heart of the differences is to be found in question of keeping secular governance and religion apart or together. The question of legitimacy of power. It is often forgotten that since their respective beginnings Islamic and Western worlds have criss crossed their positions on this vital question. The Caliphate and Holy Emperor or Caesaropapism are similar institutions. Holy wars and Jihads are similar ideas. With its beginnings rooted in austerity, shunning of the state and power, Christianity took a completely different turn by the 4th Century C.E .when Emperor Constantine founded the Holy Roman Empire. Islam on the other hand after early years of intense fighting came to phase where it came into an era of Political quietism by the 8th Century and as the great scholar Patricia Crone puts, ‘Muslims saw themselves belonging to two different communities one religious and other political one the umma and the other the secular kingdoms into which into which it was divided’. The renowned Mulsim thinker Ghazali put it pragmatically – men living in close quarters where given to envy and antagonisms therefore law was needed to order things. This also meant an enforcer of law was needed. So the question of legitimacy to use coercion has been a key question in this debate. In the West conflicts between the Church and Kings followed by Protestant revolution and the contribution by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke led to the separation of the sate and religion. Largely the West had come to regard that that legitimacy came from people themselves and not from Divine sources. Whilst in the Islamic world from the 12th century onwards, influences of theologians like al Mawardi have been pronounced in reassertion of the politico – military character of the religion. It is often not recalled that in this respect Eastern / Orthodox Christianity had more in common with Islam as the throne and the altar remained wedded till the twentieth century. As in political philosophy questions like the source of ultimate knowledge about the world and human existence are central here. Do we find them in divine sources or through reason, empirical evidence, science and philosophy? I therefore see it not as ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West but only as a ‘Clash of Epistemologies’ within Islam and within the West or for that matter within any culture.

Q. Coming closer to the present day and looking at the role played by the West in the post Ottaman era in the twentieth century in the Middle East it has been one of excessive interference either in the name of containing communism or pursuing geo-political gains . The fate of progressive leaders like Mossadiq in Iran and other similar events are bound have their own influences one would assume. How do you see these later day developments?
Yes the case of Mossadiq in Iran in the 50s is a classic instance where a secular socialist ruler came to power and was ousted by the West for two reasons. One because of the fear of communism to which you have alluded, and the other being that of oil. The oil situation has clearly bedeviled the relations between the West and the Muslim majority counties. In Syria, Egypt Iraq and Iran people had shown great enthusiasm for Socialism and modern political discourse. Interferences of this kind have not allowed an internal debate in these counties to play out fully. And this made many in the Muslim majority world harden their positions. It seems that even into the twenty first century these mistakes have been repeated leading to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan showing little understanding of the peoples and their realities. All this has contributed to the state of affairs as they stand today along with other factors like the creation of Israel etc.

Q. What can academics like you recommend as ameliorative measures to bring more trust back into the situation?
I think the onus is on both sides to correct the balance. The West should give up its moral high ground of spreading democracy etc and give up remnants of its imperialist ways. Just as religion, philosophy cannot be forced. In the Muslim majority countries there has to evolve a leadership that can reinterpret the texts and scriptures. It could be true that early days of the religion were influenced by the warlike situation that prevailed. A reinterpretation to suit the altered context of the present day is a need of the hour. In a way the contextual and the universal has to be understood and separated. That is perhaps the principal challenge Islam has to address in the present day and that has come from within. Relating to people of other faiths and even non believers in Muslim majority countries should be based on humanistic values. Academicians can bring perhaps help by bringing to focus various chapters from the past when various view points on text and contexts have been debated.

Q. Two important books of yours on political thought were published recently. What is the new insight you bring in, after all history of Western Political thought is over documented.
The fresh perspective I bring stems from the comparative element. You can better understand characteristics of western political thought when you compare it with, say Islamic political thought. You can understand better the role played by the by Philosophy in both Western and Islamic intellectual traditions. The other way around Western political thought throws light on the characteristics of Islamic political thought. My more recent book explores political thought in other civilizations such as the Indian and Chinese.

Legacy of Omar Khayyam

This was written originally as a curtain raiser article of the conference.

International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam.

A Rangarajan

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hands labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d---
‘I came like Water and like Wind I go’.

Magical quatrains such as these have become etched in the minds of men ever since Edward Fitzgerald rendered them into English from the original Persian. Rubaiyat is now seen as a treasure that belongs to all of mankind and people have found immense solace in its philosophy when pondering on the human condition. It was 150 years ago that the first edition of this translation was published in January 1859. Commemorating and celebrating that occasion an International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam is being jointly organised and hosted by the Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Cambridge University in the UK. The conference would take place in two parts. On the 6th and 7th of July at Leiden, the sessions would focus on Omar Khayyam, the Mathematician, Astronomer, Philosopher and Poet. From 8th and till 10th July the Cambridge session will focus on Fitzgerald. Scholars and academics from all over the world are slated to present papers and contribute to the ensuing discussions on this rich legacy. There papers are also expected to explore Omar Khayyam’s legacy from their respective cultural perspectives. For the Leiden part of the Conference four Scholars from Tehran University are expected to participate and other Iranian scholars are presenting papers at the Cambridge edition as well.

Omar was a mathematician who wrestled with square roots and cube roots, complex algebraic equations and conic sections. He spent delightful hours working in the observatory making keen astronomical observations and as a philosopher he wrote treatises on Avicena and Aristotelian contributions. The world remembers him best through his melancholic poetry that is so rich in meaning and metaphor. That is why it makes him a unique and enigmatic personality explains Dr.Asghar Seyed-Gohrab of the department of Persian Studies at the University of Leiden. Khayyam’s legacy is seen through various glasses and some call him a materialist philosopher- a non believer whilst others call him a hedonist. Yet others see him espousing strict predestination & determinism and many saw him as a figure of resistance challenging established order of the day. While admitting that it was Fitzgerald who helped Rubaiyyat to catch the world’s attention and imagination on such a scale and intensity as we know today, Omar Khayyam has been quoted and revered in Persia and Iran starting with the 13th Century work of Shirwani titled Nozhat al-Majales and others through the centuries adds Dr, Syed-Gohrab, one of the organisers of the conference. This said work dealing with love & separation has a chapter titled’ the essence of Khayyam’. While the quatrains of Rubaiyat lavish praise on the pleasures of life as perhaps is all that we have to hold on to in this brief sojourn, they have been interpreted as being deeply mystical and allegorical in the Sufi traditions and even in Indian spiritual contexts, adding yet another twist to the mystery that surrounds it.

Edward Fitzgerald, for his part, was born 31st March 1809 thus making this conference a bicentennial celebration in his honour as well. Fitzgerald went to Trinity College in Cambridge and that is where the second part of this Conference would take place. While Fitzgerald as a writer and poet lived in relative obscurity until his translation of Rubaiyat hit the scene. Even then it was slow to evince interest – it took nearly 29 years for the second edition to be printed but there after it took the world by storm with generations memorising these quatrains and reciting them. To date some 650 editions have been run including a 1862 Madras edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The last paper at the Trinity College will talk about this specific edition. Over hundred artists have contributed to the various ornately illustrated editions of the Rubaiyat and about one hundred composers have set it to music and it has been widely translated into more than 50 languages all over the world. However, in modern day Iran, Omar Khayyam does not enjoy a place of pre-eminence that is accorded to other great poets. For instance, the mausoleum of Omar Khayyam was not given due attention and it went into neglect and it was President Khatami who changed that and accorded the attention that was accorded to other mausoleums like that of Hafiz and other great poets of Persia.

It is hoped that this conference will enrich our understanding further and help us appreciate better the significance of Rubaiyat as a great work of literature and philosophy to be cherished by all humanity.

Monday, June 29, 2009

M Krishan- The Versatile Naturalist


"The Statesman", the Calcutta- based newspaper in its Sunday edition dt.12th April 1996, added a small inclusion in Italics, below the 'Country Notebook’ column which read like this: "This is the last instalment of "Country Note book by M.Krishnan. A weekly feature by PJO Taylor will appear from next". For the casual reader it would appear like one of those changes that happen regularly with newspaper columns. The Country Notebook was not any other newspaper column; it was the longest personal column ever to have been written in the history of Indian Journalism and possibly in the history of the Press itself. From 1950 this fortnightly column appeared without a single break and it was written by M. Krishnan, the great and versatile naturalist from Madras. He had passed away on 18th Feb, 1996. M. Krishnan was many things at the same time; an ecologist, a great photographer, a skilled artist, a nature chronicler par excellence, a conservationist and much more. He had a deep and abiding interest in Tamil Literature. Those who are familiar with Krishnan's work know that he was truly a colossus. Philip Crosland, who had introduced Krishnan to this ‘Country Notebook' column, when he was editing the Sunday Statesman's magazine section in the early forties, wrote. “Krishnan wrote splendid English: not a word ever had to be changed in any of his articles. His achievements as a photographer hardly needed enlarging upon. He was a fine artist too, in a number of media – colour wash, scraper board, pen & ink and line drawings."

The ‘Country Notebook’ is just a convenient entry point to get into the many worlds of M.Krishnan. For it surely tells us how erudite he must have been to write continuously for 46 years on India's wilderness and natural history. This rare erudition, singular insight and first hand knowledge was the result of his innumerable field trips to the various forests of this sub-continent. It was the result of intimate observations, meticulous field notes, photo-documentation supplementing observations, sound scientific knowledge and constant reading. Above all Krishnan was passionate about India's natural regions and countryside. He felt so intensely about them, that he was rightly called an 'ecological patriot.' The column that appeared on Feb 18, 1996, the day he died, was providentially titled “Exclusively Indian" and in it he wrote, "The identity of a country depended not so much on its mutable human culture as on its geomorphology, flora and fauna, its natural basis." Krishnan was eager all his life to share with his readers the wonders of our woods. To have been able to tell something worthwhile for four and a half decades and engage the reader ably testifies the scholastic grasp the author must have had on the subject he was handling. And to have done that without a break for 46 years shows the sense of discipline and diligence that must have gone into the making of the man.

M.Krishnan was born on June 30, 1912 in Thachanallur, a small village near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. His father was the famous Tamil novelist of yesteryears, Madhaviah. Krishnan was the eighth child and he was named so (after the Lord) as was customary in Tamil families those days. Krishnan learnt botany under the famous plant taxonomist and authority on the flora of peninsular India, P F Fyson, during his M.A. (Botany) course at the Madras Presidency College in the early thirties. Fyson was a great influence on Krishnan. He went on to take a degree in Law from the Madras Law College in 1936.

Characteristically, after graduating in Law, Krishnan commenced his career as a commercial artist! And gave that up too, shortly afterwards to join the All India Radio. That too lasted only for a brief while.

Krishnan for the next 9-1/2 years worked in the small, forested princely state of Sandur (now in Karnataka). He started this innings first as a schoolmaster, then became a publicity officer and was a judge before finally becoming the State of Sandur's political secretary. There was never a dull moment in Krishnan's life. He was a keen cricketer too, playing and teaching the game. He was a commentator at a Ranji Trophy final in Madras. After the merger of princely states with the Indian Union in 1949, Krishnan was offered the IAS which he promptly turned down to remain a freelancer for the rest of his life. Krishnan would easily find a place amongst the greatest freelancers of all time: writing, sketching, carrying on independent research; publishing and so on.

Krishnan’s monumental contribution to wildlife research in India was made between 1959 and 1970. He carried out a detailed ecological survey of the mammals of the peninsular India during that period. He was awarded the first Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship to do this work. The results of his survey were published in the Journals of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and in a popular book titled "India's Wildlife from 1959 – 1970 “, again published by the BNHS. Krishnan had carried out this survey with great devotion, faultless planning, unmatched skill and singular patience. The photographs he made in the course of this survey added to the legend he had already become. Krishnan's photographs were so famous because they trapped some aspect of the natural history of his chosen subject. Sambar sitting close to cinders from burning forest wood is a famous example. His pictures were the closest to the original anybody could get to.

Krishnan often put together his own camera to produce those candid pictures. E.P.Gee one of India's pioneering wildlife photographers wrote in his famous book "Wildlife of India". “"Every hair” must be his motto, for his pictures show the finest detail of coats of gaur, sambar, chital and the like and every wrinkle on the skin of a wild elephant. The camera I once saw him using in Guindy Park, Madras, was a large composite affair, with the body of one make and the tele-lens of another and other parts and accessories all mounted together by himself”. Krishnan called his contraptions with such intriguing names as 'ponderosa' and ' super-ponderosa'!

When Krishnan was a school boy, he frequented a zoo in his holidays. Seeing his keen interest, he was given the privilege to stay for long hours and getting close to animals. Overcome my curiosity, he wanted to hold the barking deer firm and part its jaws to verify if indeed the barking deer had extra long and sharp canines. In the process the deer jerked and inflicted a deep gash on his arm. The scar remained with him till the end and Krishnan with characteristic humour concluded,” Barking dogs may not bite but barking deers do”!

Krishnan invariably mastered everything he was studying or handling. He could not tolerate shoddiness, incompetence or sham. His summary disposal of people and issues not meriting his attention, as judged by him, was a celebrated side of his personality. Krishnan berated pomp and show-off. He would show no mercy if you did not measure up to his exacting standards and bureaucracy has often borne the brunt.

The eccentricity belied the genial person that he was. He was a simple man. A youngster would get all the attention and if lucky, Krishnan would take him to his many fascinating worlds. It could be authentic natural history in ancient Tamil poetry; Krishnan would recite long verses from memory and explain his point with a rare aplomb. Or it could be the indigenous conservation traditions that are truly Indian. He would tell you the edicts of emperor Ashoka commanded his subjects to protect rare birds and animals and almost immediately, mention that the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary was the result of another great tradition where people by custom and religious conviction protected nature on their own. We have had both the top-down and bottom-up conversation traditions, he would say.

I recall fondly the many afternoons when I, sitting in the veranda of his simple house, have been regaled by his all round wisdom, pointed and honed. He once told me, "The First thing you learn in photography is that the camera lens does not see like the human eye and the last thing you master in photography is making the lens see like the human eye." Krishnan was a great artist too. His sketches and drawings of birds and animals were equally masterly, evoking boundless admiration from his wide circle of ardent fans and even discerning outsiders.

But it is as a nature chronicler that Krishnan has earned a unique place in the roll of honour of excellence. He could make the Indian jungle and countryside come alive in his writings. Not only the magnificent tiger or the majestic elephant occupied a place of pride in his writings, he lavished as much attention on monitor lizards, the partridge, the pangolin or the Indian fox. Krishnan's first hand intimate knowledge combined with his mastery of the English language helped weave those almost magical pieces of prose. The pangolin would be addressed as the 'animated pine cone'.

Talking about the small raptor 'shikra' Krishnan writes, “Ordinarily the shikra is not given to high jinks and public appearances, for it lives by thuggery and thugs do not proclaim themselves. It lurks in obscuring foliage waiting for the unsuspecting victim to approach before pouncing down on it……” Continuing this piece he writes about its frequent 'ki-kiyu' call during the breeding season, in the following manner. “To human ears few bird calls are more expressive of tantalized impatience at the slow, tedious progress of love imposed by nature"! The opening lines on an essay on the grey partridge transports you directly to the Indian country side. "The millet stands nine feet in the fields, and the heads are ripening in the sun. The scrub has a fresh, newly washed look after last weeks downpours, the skies are clear, and air crisp. Each morning the brave, resounding calls of partridges answer one another in the fields around, and at sunset they call again. November is here." The reader would be treated further to an uncommon delight. “There was a time when I used to wonder why a bird with amber and buff plumage, pale mottlings on the back and pencilled black bars across the breast, brown pinions and red legs, should be called grey partridge. I know the reason now. The 'grey' of course, does not specify colour, but denotes the indistinct broken-toned appearance of the bird – a certain lack of sharp entire shape." Krishnan saw and shared the grandeur in things seemingly simple”. Krishnan was an authority on the Indian elephant. There are delightful pieces on it (besides telling pictures), on the gaur, the leopard, wild buffalo, the rhino and others. One has to read them oneself to know what an experience it could all be. ‘Nights and Days ‘, 'Jungle and Backyard' are two books that made Krishnan immensely popular. The Kodak Photo company held a special photo-exhibition of his pictures in his honour. He was placed in the Global 500 roll of honour and given the Global 500 award for trying to inform and stimulate interest in the public on the heritage of the wild flora and fauna of our country. This was in 1995. He was awarded the Padmashri in 1970. His wife Indu, apprehensive of her eccentric husband’s unpredictable ways, wired the acceptance telegram herself when Krishnan was away in some faraway forest!

As mentioned earlier Krishnan had spent considerable time studying the elephant and he did so in an era when modern aids like telemetry were unheard of. His scientific acumen and years of observations led him to put forth the theory that elephants used stomach rumblings to communicate with herd members. Years later, it was proved that indeed low frequency communication is used by elephants. Krishnan and achievements are testimony to the fact that science is not so much about gadgetry as it is about commons sense observation and devotion to the chosen subject.

Krishnan was quick-witted with a keen sense of humour. He once told me that he decided to study the elephant because he had an enlarged heart (smoking). Seeing the perplexed look on my face, he went on to explain, “Should an elephant decide to give the chase and should I succumb, I will have no regrets because even the guy with the best heart stands no chance, if an elephant decides to get after you”. “Philip Crosland went and settled in native England in the sixties and his daughter Susan became a great admirer of Krishnan's and exchanged letters with him till his end. Krishnan wrote to her and here children illustrating his letters with sketches and drawings with undiminished enthusiasm for natural India. And in one of those letters Krishnan (written in 1990) drew an elderly man in a checked lungi, bald and bespectacled with cigarette in hand and asked in the letter. “And who is this disreputable – looking man in panchromatic rags?" And went on to answer it, "My dear Susan, that is me – my goodself" as my old –fashioned bank manager would say – "Dear Sir, we much regret having to inform your goodself that your account is again overdrawn. " For all the greatness that had come to be associated with him, Krishnan never lost the common touch.

He served on the Indian Board for Wildlife and on a couple of State Boards too. He applied his mind constantly and gave pointed recommendations to which most politicians never paid the attention they deserved. Nevertheless, Krishnan fulfilled his obligations to the best of his abilities, even when frustrating junctures confronted him. They had their lighter moments too. A hurried telegram summoned Krishnan to Delhi for a meeting. He got there and with no specific instructions about the venue, Krishnan searched the ministry's buildings. And he came across one where a meeting was in progress and the seat marked Tamil Nadu was vacant. Krishnan went in and occupied it. He heard a member saying something in a language he quite did not understand. Presently, the mystery was cleared up. The Chairman at the end of the presentation congratulated the member on the excellent rendering of an Oriya verse. Then he went on to invite the 'gentleman' from Tamil Nadu to recite a Tamil poem. After realising that Krishnan was sitting in the wrong meeting, he cleared his throat and started reciting. At the end of it everyone congratulated him on his very rhythmic verse. It was only later did Krishnan admit that he had uttered the multiplication table for four in Tamil!

Krishnan usually planned his field trips meticulously keeping in mind the subject to be studied and photographed; the time of the year and the forest conditions were always factored in, in these plans. And on a certain field-trip unexpected rains confined him to the guest house for several days throwing his plans out of gear. Undeterred, Krishnan saw that there was a bat in the guest house and he proceeded to master bat photography (coping with frequent and fast flights in closed spaces) and produced some fine photographs of bats. His resilience and ability to see the uncommon in prosaic situations set him apart from others and added a certain unique dimension to his multi-dimensioned personality.

It is no easy task to present the colourful personality of the stature of M. Krishnan in a few words. India's wilderness was an all-consuming concern all the 83 years of his eventful life. He was sad to see the destruction of and onslaught on Wild India. If things continue the reckless way they are going, sooner than later Indian's forests would all be gone.

Should we come to that dark and distressing juncture, writings and pictures like Krishnan's will all be what we will have to experience vicariously and long nostalgically for the charms and mystery of India's unique Natural Heritage.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Choice to Start a Blog has been made.

The Choice to maintain a Blog seems Natural now

I have been writing, rather sporadically, for some time now. Some have been published and some not. I have realised that when I sit down and write on a given topic I benefit the most out of this exercise. I end up taking a good look at the subject at hand and the research I engage in brings issues and perspectives into such sharp focus, that I often wonder it may be not be possible otherwise. One has to sweat to get to that vantage point. At times others who read my articles say they enjoyed reading them and learnt a thing or two.

I sat and wondered why not put all these pieces together on a blog. May be some one finds it worth the while to read my posts and articles. Particularly the unpublished ones. There is nothing a like a word of encouragement and this will help me in sustaining that discipline that is central to all writing. Inspiration does not stay all along. The gas from the aerated soda quickly subsides. It has to give way to hard work if we are to complete the task that gets started by something inspiring. I think it was Bertarand Russel who said discipline is living up to the resolves that we make during moments of insipration and working on them long after the inspiration is gone. Writing is a lot about discipline.

When you are not published you are naturally dissapointed and perhaps the Blog will do someting to overcome that and that I will continue write hoping I can publish it in my Blog even if the piece finds no publisher. A mechanism to make myself dissappointment proof.

When I post published artilces in this blog I will acknowldge the publisher. Over the course of time I will add and enhance this introductory piece till it is clear and complete. Some time later I will write about the caption I choose for my Blog - Moonsoon Meanders.