Ep#30 Season 4 Heart of Conservation Transcript (Edited)
Read or Listen. All paintings-photos courtesy Sudarshan Shaw.
Lalitha Krishnan: I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode #30, season 4 of Heart of Conservation. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us all connected to the natural world.
For someone who has no sense of direction and couldn’t probably read a map to save her life, I have to say I practically drooled over one visually delightful map that I came across on Instagram. It conveyed a spectacular visually-rich story of a place, its people and art and biodiversity on a single sheet. This is one, I would easily put up on my wall permanently. I will be putting them up on my blog, Earthy Matters very soon, so do have a look.
My guest today is not a cartographer by profession but a young, extremely talented visual artist from NIFT, whose keen sense of perception and belonging, passion for depicting, and preserving local art, and love for natural history is tangible in his stunning artworks which go way beyond creating maps. I am speaking to one of India’s rising young, inspiring artists and authors, Sudarshan Shaw. Welcome to Heart of Conservation Sudarshan. Thank you for joining me.
Sudarshan Shaw: Thank you so much for having me on Heart of Conservation Lalitha. It’s an absolute honour to be here.
Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. Sudarshan why don’t we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what influences your work?
Sudarshan Shaw: I was born and brought up in the culturally rich cities of Bhubaneshwar and Kolkata. And I grew up feeding on art forms and colours of all types. And, I have always been a history buff so… all of which came together after I discovered my calling towards wildlife while I pursuing my final year of college. That’s when I visited Ranthambore National Park which was my first ever formal introduction to the wild world. It was also for my graduation project and while the forest look all great and beautiful, I always felt that connection was missing; some sort of connection. Thus, I started to explore more and more regions to understand myself and the situation better and have a better understanding of the wider world.
Lalitha Krishnan: Nice. Let’s talk briefly about all the maps you created. You created more than one for Orissa, biodiversity maps for Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and West Bengal, a special Elephant corridor one for Kerala and other clients like the one for the Shiv Nadar University etc. The first one which is the wildlife map of Orissa- your home state was self-funded. Am I right? What I love about that map is how you incorporated the local tribes and hotspots in the traditional pattachitra style of Orissa. It almost feels like a tribute. So, what made you create this one?
Sudarshan Shaw: Yes, it is a tribute indeed. It’s a tribute to the land, the wild and the cultural heritage of my state. It’s also a tribute to the strong relationship among them that enhances their meaning of each other. I always felt a huge disjoint in the natural and cultural heritage of India and the kind of graphic language the young communicators use in the country. I feel it is heavily influenced by the west and does not have that connection with the native land and hence it’s not acceptable to the masses in a certain way. So, the vibrance and diversity that folk arts have in store have disappeared from the contemporary visual language that we used to in recent time used to communicate our stories. This was my humble attempt to bring it back with all dignity and pride. Another reason would be Odisha itself. Odisha has an abundance of wildlife. We almost know all the stories regarding Odisha but it never found a place, I mean materially in our surroundings.
What I saw is the pattachitra paintings which are quite prevalent in Odisha -which is the folk-art form in Odisha – and it has a place in our homes over here. There are depictions of gods and goddesses and many other folklores on the walls. I thought this could give me an important platform if I drew it in that style and I depicted wildlife in that style. Eventually, it worked out well and the wildlife map found a place in people’s homes. So, they put it up where they used to put pattachitra paintings.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s such an honour. That’s fantastic. What is your creative process? How do you create a map-I don’t mean technically- but I want to know how you think you know, and how long it takes, who commissions these maps. How does it work?
Sudarshan Shaw: The process usually starts with intense research, which is both online and in the field. It’s quite impossible to do justice to ….(lost in translation) with short timelines or deadlines. So, I try my best to gather as much as I can; so more of essence than information. I must say, the internet has negligent information on this so most of the interaction and interpretations have travelled orally with tradition or in folk art forms. So, the idea is to go through and explore as many of these. The next step is where Is it down to innovate a graphic style which is more often inspired but local art and traditions. Then, I design a layout and then spend about one to two months to complete/render it depending on the amount of details. Most of these maps have been funded by the forest departments of various states or other wildlife NGOs if not other private institutions.
Lalitha Krishnan: Great. Being from Odisha, does practising the traditional art of Odisha come naturally to you? Is it something you learnt as a child or is it something that you learnt in art school?
Sudarshan Shaw: Naturally it was in my subconscious because we’d always be looking at these art forms on stone sculptures, wall paintings of different buildings in Odisha and also in homes, as I said earlier. But, consciously I started practising and grasping it after I visited Ranthambore wherein I first had that interaction with Phad paintings of Rajasthan. There are these common folk paintings of Rajasthan, wherein they had drawn stories from the wild in their artworks. For example, in the story of ‘Machhli’ the Tiger, wherein they had depicted the tiger in a very beautiful style in stories from its birth to its death and everything. This was the main reason why I started grasping art forms more and this is how I implemented it. I get a story from one place and try to incorporate the folk-art of that place into it (the art).
Lalitha Krishnan: O.K. That’s very sensitive and thoughtful of you to do that. You have depicted wildlife, for example, the striped hyena, otters etc that are also listed as endangered or vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Tell us something about these. I love the little camera trap you have put along with the ‘Black tiger’, the pseudo-melanistic black tiger painting of yours. I don’t know if the Fishing cat’ (see podcast cover) is part of this series but that too just caught my eye.
8:27 Sudarshan Shaw: The Fishing cat was the first painting that I did for this series but that was also a self-funded one. The main idea always starts with a self-funded one and the Fishing cat was one of those. The idea behind drawing the Fishing cat was–which is also a mud painting by the way—during that time, I heard a lot about fishing cats. You know they are found on the outskirts of my hometown. It was very interesting to know that these kinds of creatures live nearby. So, I started looking at images of fishing cats in Odisha and West Bengal and other regions of India. I found images of fishing cats which are mostly nocturnal. The images were quite similar. Once I got a glimpse of a fishing cat drawn in the Kalighat form of painting in Bengal, and I saw a very distinct flavour to it. That cat was depicted holding a fish, it had a stance of its own and it almost looked like that fishing cat is Bengal and it was very different from that of Odisha or any other region of the world. So, a depiction of that species in that art form you know helped in sensitising the people of that particular region regarding that species. That was my whole idea. To incorporate that style and show the world that all these creatures have their distinct characters from the places that they belong to. That was my main idea behind that. The other artworks: the Smooth-coated (otters), the (striped) hyena, you know, they tagged along, people understood my reasoning behind the Fishing cat and they wanted similar species to be shown in their own characters so that they would help in spreading awareness and in sensitising people about the species.
10:30 Lalitha Krishnan: It’s true when you say, (species) have their own stance, their own character of the place. That’s an interesting take. You know, tigers have been part of the Indian psyche forever and they feature a lot in your paintings. I saw one of The 9 Tigers depicted in different folk styles which tells us so much in one go. I also want to talk about the ‘Tiger Boundary’ piece which is nothing short of mesmerising. I like that you said somewhere that the boundary in the frame instead of blocking in gives you the artist and the subject, in this case, the tiger, free reign. Did I get that right? What do you mean by that? And what draws to the tiger?
Sudarshan Shaw: Absolutely. Apart from being as popular as ‘T’ for Tiger, and one of the epic predators of the forest systems in India, I feel tigers are truly beautiful beings in all senses. They are as gentle as they are fierce, the air of pride and mystery around the creature makes them much larger than their actual size -which is both inside the forest and outside. So, what draws me and the whole forest and nation to the tiger are that it’s like another mystery. I never met a tiger in the wild. But fortunately, I met so many in folk art and in my imagination and they are all different from each other. So, yes, as an artist I always felt conflicted about having boundaries around my artworks. On the face, the borders look like confinements, a kind of limitation but they are very common, if you observe, in all the folk-art forms of India. So, one fine day, during an interaction with a pattachitra folk artist, he was explaining to me why they drew borders on the canvas before they started the painting inside. That was the instance when I thought that is how tigers also mark the territories for themselves in the forest and both the artist and tiger would then paint their minds and live inside it. I could then understand how boundaries set by self, bring a sense of safety, depth of connection and commitment to our responsibility. All of which actually sets us free.
12:56 Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. That’s all I can say. You authored your first children’s book called “When a Forest Wakes up”. Congratulations. The name itself evokes a visual flood but the book is also very magical. Your interpretation of nature… where trees are antlers sending messages and elephants block out the sun and birds fly to flowers in gratitude for the colours and where hills are sleeping rhinos…it’s so wonderous and I can just imagine the wonder and oneness that any child will love. I believe you said, “The basic idea of the book is ‘breaking definitions”. Yes?
Sudarshan Shaw: yes, one of the ideas behind the book was to see beyond rigid definitions that we have set for ourselves. To dive into a world of imagination and the endless possibilities that it has for us. So, another idea behind the book was actually inspired by animism. A belief system by the various ancient indigenous communities in India, according to which everything from the stones to the mountains to the trees and rivers are living forces and beings bigger than us or just like us. All of these live in relation to each other.
I remember how we were taught in our school days that nature is full of resources and had multiple uses for us humans. And the distinction between biotic and abiotic, the living and non-living things. We have been told to see a river or soil as a non-living resource it would be very difficult to respect and have a relationship with them. This book is an attempt to change that perception from a very young age.
If I give you another example, of it, when we ask a child to see towards the sky and the clouds, they would always say the clouds look like different animals or objects and everything. Suddenly, with time, you’d see how the animals and the various objects turn towards being a single cloud. When you ask an adult, what is that they would say, “That’s a cloud. Either it’s going to rain or not going to rain. But when you ask the child, “That is a tiger”. “That’s a leopard…that’s a dinosaur” and whatnot. All those imaginations with time are suppressed and you know, along with the coming of rigid definitions, that ends it for us. So, I wanted to break that stereotype fear out of understanding and definitions.
Lalitha Krishnan: You’re freeing my mind as you speak. So, I believe you have travelled to Uttarakhand–that’s where I live mostly–and walking in the forests there impacted you. How was it different and is that where you got your studio name. ‘Kyari’ from?
Sudarshan Shaw: Yes. Uttarakhand has been like a second home. I have travelled to Uttarakhand quite frequently as much as I could. You know, I was in college in Delhi so Uttarakhand wasn’t so far from there. Living there, you can totally understand how special the land is. It is almost beaming with life and beauty, to say the least, and ‘Kyari’ is a very small village near Ram Nagar in Uttarakhand and my studio name lends its name from it and the meaning of it; you know how kyari is a small nursery kind of thing where in they put up small plants and flowers. Then they grow wild from it. That’s the main philosophy of starting my studio wherein I’d be experimenting with different forms and art styles, and stories and those would be going into the wide world.
Lalitha Krishnan: A nursery of ideas. Lovely
Sudarshan Shaw: A nursery I would say is one of my best teachers of all the ways I see the world and understand the world the studio is a lifelong tribute to that.
Lalitha Krishnan: I’d like to know briefly about the ‘My Pictures of Divinity’ series your visual stories about the turtle and sea, and the vulture and the dead e.g. though steeped in lore and also educating us about the animals’ role in the world and their vulnerability today.
Sudarshan Shaw: Yes, I strongly believe that existence has its meaning in relation and not in isolation. So, my picture of divinity is the search for that godliness that lies in the relationship between the humble life forms that we see and the magnificent ecosystems of sustenance that surround them. So, it is an attempt to override conventional portraits of God that centralised humans while all the legendary powers that they invented were inspired by the ways of the wild. So, it’s a tribute to our true ancestors, the teachers, the deities of the art of thriving and surviving. So, e.g.
I’d say, Uttarakhand and Odisha have been my main source for drawing this series. One story would be the Olive Ridley Turtles of the Odisha coast. If people talk about the species, they talk about the species in isolation but if you actually get to experience that place, you would see how the species is actually a connection between the land and the sea. It’s tying both of them together. That’s the beauty of seeing things in relation and not in isolation. –Sudarshan Shaw
Lalitha Krishnan: Beautifully put. Coming to my last question, could you share a word, concept or something you believe is important—you’ve mentioned a lot of things—something for all of us to know or imbibe.
Sudarshan Shaw: Sure. So, being an artist, I’ll say a few lines on how we understand art and nature. For me, art and nature are two sisters of the same fate. Nature has been an inseparable part of native peoples’ being. Folk art has also been practised routinely by all in different ways and forms. So once, the colonial influences came, they alienated our art as a speciality which was quite pristine, exclusive and polished and very far away from us. They did the same to nature and wilderness which became (lost in translation). Art is the nature of all living beings; we must understand this. And, separating them in our words and worlds may have separated us from our true selves and denied us access to the strongest relations which are nature and art. So, I believe we can turn folk art for the reunion and reassurance for everybody, which is free too, we must draw, sing and dance to ourselves and our surroundings better.
20:14 So true, Sudarshan, thank you so much. You’re going to go a long way and all the best for your journey ahead. I am so touched by everything you’ve said and everything you do. Thank you
Sudarshan Shaw: Thank you so much Lalitha.
Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. Do check out Sudarshan’s artworks. You might want to buy, commission it or gift it to somebody else or yourself. The transcript for this show will be out very soon on Earthy Matters (my blog). You can listen to Heart of Conservation on several platforms so check it out and spread the word, guys. Thanks.
Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.
All photos courtesy Sudarshan Shaw including Fishing Cat. Podcast cover artwork by Lalitha Krishnan
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
Show Notes: Episode #11 Dhritiman Mukherjee. [Edited]
You’re listening to Heart of Conservation, your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host, Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world. My guest today is Dhitriman Mukerjee one of India’s most reputed & sought out, nature photographers. Chances are you’ve seen Dhritiman’s photographs more than once. His work has been featured and associated with Saveus, Sanctuary Asia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times. It’s a long and enviable top-notch list that every photographer would love on their portfolio.
But what most people don’t know about him is that he is also a self-taught photographer, a mountaineer, climber, and advanced Scuba diver. Dhritiman is also of the founding members of ‘Saevus’, one of India’s leading natural history and conservation magazines. Dhritiman’s work is extraordinary but here is a photographer with a conscience. His work impacts you as it creates awareness and evokes a sense of pride and, belonging in this beautiful world of ours. This interview was recorded over Skype.
Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman, Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have you as a guest on my show.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you and I am honoured.
Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman, you’ve been known to jump off cliffs to photographs vultures and get into dry suits and immerse yourself into the sub-zero waters to shoot penguins and seals. Could you describe what attracts you to wildlife in places like this and also explain the process of your photography in inhospitable places? It can’t be easy.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: The way I work; when I discovered people were started working with different subjects. Most people work on easily available subjects; of course, you go to Corbett, or Kahna or Kenya. You can actually drive into the park with a vehicle and see wildlife and shoot them. This is fantastic. Many people are doing this. If I am doing this then it will be a repetition. My point of view was whenever I planned my work, I try to do something which is different- less done or never done- which is actually not readily available to the mass(es). So, what is my goal? Initially, when I started photography, the most interesting part was that there was no better work like this. In wildlife photography life is always beautiful-what more can you want? You get a chance to be in the forest always or the ocean or any interesting landscape. It’s amazing. So that part was initially there. I loved to be in the field because it is away from normal life, which is, of course, good but sometimes….my main point is that I was liking it, I was enjoying it but with addition I realised that I can also contribute to science and you know, social reasons like creating awareness for conservation. For that, I mean, it becomes meaningful. So slowly, along with my enjoyment, I always tried to think about what should I do? Which work can actually contribute to science or create awareness? From that point of view, I always thought of those works that which are not done by many people. That way it becomes exclusive. Exclusive in the sense, whatever I will do, when I share it with people, it will be interesting or contributory. That way I always selected rare subjects, difficult habitats, difficult places, difficult subjects to work with. Because not many people are doing this. Also, my background is I was into outdoors. I was into mountaineering and climbing. I always loved adventure. So that was an added tool for me. So, I thought that I could actually use that tool for my photography, because, that will help in a different way. And, from that point of view actually, I started looking for difficult and challenging places and subjects.
If you talk about jumping into the frozen Baikal or Antarctica or climbing a volcano, or diving with a crocodile or Anaconda, these things I did later. Maybe, in the last three-four years. But there is another reason also. I was mostly working in India, in all landscapes, in all habitats, in different subjects. I worked in most of the landscapes of India—all the states actually— all the states of India. You saw that book I have done, The Magical Biodiversity of India? It was done to show how good our country is from a biodiversity point of view. Because India is amazing.
Lalitha Krishnan: True
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Every time I went out of India, I realised, India is best. It has so much…
Lalitha Krishnan: I agree.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Yes, all kinds of landscapes. It’s kind of a mini-world.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.
Dhritiman Mukherjee:We have deserts, 10000 km of coast, we have the Himalaya, Deccan plateau, rain forests, mangroves, sets of islands. So, you know, everything, like one complete package. So definitely, India was, you know, a most lucrative place for me to work. And the main important point was that when I started not much was done. India has so many life forms but not much was done.
Lalitha Krishnan: Can I interrupt you? When did you start?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I started photography in 1997 but started wildlife (photography) in 2000; end of 2000 actually. In India, I covered most of the landscape and did that book Magical Biodiversity of India. Then, I thought, OK, I have done a little bit in India, if I want to see the world if I want to do something interesting outside India… with that continuation, I thought what can be the concept? So, I thought, let’s go for a magical arch; that was the kind of concept I was following. The world is so big and has so much, I cannot cover everything. So, what I can go for? I decided to work on interesting things, so that’s why I decided to include an interesting phenomenon on earth. Like you know, I climbed an active volcano, dived in Antarctica’s icebergs, in Greenland, diving with the crocodiles. Basically, from one point of view, these were difficult and challenging subjects but many people have worked with it and secondly, they (subjects) are very interesting and surprising and so I planned from that perspective. My main goal is to work on less done subjects so that I can bring those events, species or places to the masses who somewhere they are disconnected with those things. I mean, in the last 10-15 years there’s a revolution is connecting the masses with different things via the internet and you know, different media. People who have access to TV have seen a lot of things but still, there are some things that haven’ reached the masses. So that is one of the goals.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’ amazing and I think it reflects in all your photography. It’s not just a photograph. When you look at it you see so many things. That’s why I think your photographs are so special. And also, you’re talking of different media. The purpose of this podcast is also to reconnect people to nature. That’s great. So, along the same lines, I want to talk about something I just read about and it’s fascinated me. In 2018, you along with 5 scientists went on the iconic Abhor expedition, right? In Arunachal Pradesh. The expedition is one of great significance because of the amazing biodiversity of the area. Abhor was also visited 106 years ago as a punitive mission following the murder of Mr. Noel Williamson who was the assistant political officer of Assam back then. Your expedition almost sounds like a Darwinian kind of exploratory; a once in a lifetime adventure. You travelled into parts unknown, you discovered and recorded multiple new species as well. Can you tell us a little bit about this expedition? Because it’s huge, it’s humongous, and I think everyone should know about it.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is actually super interesting how it started. When I was at WII, I was discussing with my friends. I always thought of this multi-taxa mission because, in India, this kind of thing is not happening in good numbers. At least, I don’t know of any such kind of expeditions where scientists from different subjects participated. So, I always had a dream to go for something like this. I was discussing this there and gave a proposal to all these people, let’s all do something which will be contributory and let’s work in some area which is not explored yet. Actually, Abhijeet gave the idea about the place because he also was thinking about this Abhor expedition which was done 106 years back. So actually, it is a contemplation of the same route and a little more actually. Actually, this area is unexplored so why we called it the Abhor expedition is because that expedition which was done 106 years ago, was the baseline. When we do something in some area, after finishing the expedition, after getting all the data, we can compare the data with the past, available data which was gathered 100s of years back. That helps us see the impact of changes. We can see what is actually not there, if things have improved or what amount of destruction happened; what is the status actually? What are the changes? That gives us some ecological parameters. So, we split this area in where something was done 100+ years back and after that, not much was done. So, we went in one part and travelled along the Siang river then we went to bowling National Park… These scientists are amazing in their own field. So, I was documenting everything. For me, there were two things actually; I could see the entire region which was mostly unexplored and I got a chance to be with five scientists. I got a chance to learn a lot – I always prefer to. And, we got a few new species, new information… But we also got evidence of huge destruction and you know, habitat loss and much more. The final report is about to come but overall it was a very unique expedition for me.
Lalitha Krishnan: it sounds like a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for them and you. You bringing out the beauty of the place combined with the scientific information and discoveries… You said it so casually, “We discovered a few species”. It’s not every day that people discover new species.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: No. The truth is we were expecting more species. We actually failed to give more time in some places. And maybe the timing is very important. We went there in October and if we had gone in May or June, then probably, it might have been much better because for the herpetiform like snakes and other things they are more active during that time. So, I feel if we can do another expedition in the same route in a different time, then, probably we will get more things (species) actually.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK
Dhritiman Mukherjee: That’s the beauty of an expedition. When you go the first time, you will get to know many things you never imagined. After being there you realise OK this can be corrected or we could have done this differently. That’s the best part. So, it will be a good thing if we can repeat the same expedition.
Lalitha Krishnan: I’m going to ask you another question that you’ve been probably asked many times before. The list of cameras, lens, scopes, etc. available in the market these days is endless. How much of photography, do you think, is equipment nowadays? I don’t know if this is a good question. You’re a professional photographer but what would you tell somebody who is sort of mid-way? Is it necessary to buy rather than perfect your art?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: This is a good question actually. A question regarding equipment is a very interesting questioning for others so I would like to share. Equipment is very important for sure but sometimes what happens in wildlife photography is first we buy equipment and then we plan. This should be the reverse. You should plan something and then go for equipment. Equipment is just for your certain need and equipment can’t and shouldn’t restrict your work. Nowadays, everyone can buy equipment, it is all available here. Once upon a time, say 20-30 years back, when very few people had good equipment, the quality was very important for good or bad photography. It defined it. If you had good equipment you could develop good quality photos and people would like it. That was one important parameter. But now everyone has the equipment. People can produce good quality photos. Now what is important is the story in the photo. For me also, quality is OK. If you’re using good equipment or mediocre equipment, there will be a difference in quality but when the story becomes an important factor then, this has no value. If you produce a very interesting story with average equipment then that becomes much more important. The story or the natural history information you are providing – that becomes more important than the quality. At least for me. I take it this way. I have access to most equipment but I am not fussy about equipment these days. Once upon a time, I was very emotional about it. But now, it’s not of much importance for me because the story is the ultimate thing. What I’m showing is very important – what a photo is talking about. That is much more important than how the quality is. People see the quality; it is available actually. You can’t restrict yourself because of the equipment. Sometimes you say, “I don’t have equipment”. Work with whatever equipment you have. Even with a mobile, you can get a great snap.
Lalitha Krishnan: True.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: You can go for different stories that your mobile can take. Wildlife photography is not always about getting some tight shots. I think that time has gone. Now the content is far more important. What you’re talking about and what you’re showing.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great advice for anyone who is into any sort of photography I think, especially for wildlife. They just seem to think bigger is better. This is great thanks. So when I see wildlife posts on FB today, especially, if you go to a certain wildlife group or page, it’s mostly full of tiger surrounded by at least 15 jeeps and photographers carrying huge equipment. And they won’t leave that tiger alone till they get that perfect shot. I’m as guilty. I’ve also gone to national parks, gone in a jeep and tried to click a tiger but it is ridiculous. I have seen people change tires, talk on the cell phone if there’s coverage… But the scale of this in our parks today makes me just feel this is not ethical at all. The way the tiger is cornered, the patience of that animal, it’s tolerance for us…tolerating us humans…I feel it’s no different from the old shikar days when the tiger was hunted. Now we just use cameras and jeeps to hassle them. What are your thoughts on this?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Ah, this is a very complex question.
Lalitha Krishnan: I know.
[Dhritiman Mukherjee: It’s not that easy to explain. Of course, there are issues. I have been to many tiger reserves and I have seen the situation. There are different points of view. I believe tourism is one of the finest conservation tools.If people are not going into the forest, if they are not connected or interested, there will be no lobby for wildlife. We need a huge lobby for all the participants of our ecosystem. Tourism is [word lost in translation] The problem is how we manage it. So, it is not bad if some jeeps are going into the forests. In any case, the tourism zone is not that big. It is a little part of that forest. And in that part, the road is covering 10-20% of that area. In some cases, animals don’t always get stressed. Sometimes, you see photographs of tigers just sitting while many jeeps are standing there. Sometimes it gives way. There is another perspective also. The tiger is a wild animal and it is just sitting in front of the cars. If it wants, it can actually jump 10 feet to be away from everything. But the tiger is not going. It is sitting there. It is not moving. In most of these places or some situations, the tiger can move away from the crowd but they don’t. In tourism zones, these animals are somewhere, comfortable with people. Comfortable in the sense they have accepted the presence of people and are kind of habituated to tourists. Sometimes they just ignore. That is not where you can see the stress level of the animal. But in some cases, there’s a tigress with her cubs, or they’re in a particular area and people are chasing them…sometimes, these things happen. There is no problem with tourism but rather the problem is the way we do it. Some management policies or awareness campaign or something for e.g. when people enter the park and if they can be given some instructions or advise, I think that will be helpful. I feel tourism is always fantastic.
There are some behavioural changes due to tourism that we see in wildlife but I don’t feel it is heavily harmful to animals or for the ecosystem. I feel it is helping rather than it is harming actually. So that way I am in favour of tourism. Of course, it has to be organised and sensitive tourism.
Lalitha Krishnan: : You’re so right. We absolutely need tourism but like you said, the way we do it is more important. Talking about wildlife, nowadays everybody is a photographer. We have our mobile phones and whatever. We all claim we are photographers. What in your opinion is responsible photography? How should or shouldn’t nature be documented? I think coming from you, it will be a lot for people who love wildlife but have no idea on how to be a responsible photographer.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Ok, I always love to talk about the way I work but I would never like to tell you, “you do it like this or you should do this”. I believe everyone is a sensible human being and they can take a call. I cannot suggest to people to somethings but I can tell you what I believe. If that helps then it’s fine. For me, responsibility is the backbone of anything I do actually. The word ‘responsibility’ is a very important word for me. So, whenever I work there are two things actually: Why am I doing this? Why I am doing this is very important. There is an ethical point of view. The ‘ethical’ thing is a function of time and space and the situation. 20 years back what was ethical is not ethical now because it’s changing. What is the problem now? 20 years back you could hand count the number of wildlife photographers. But now, the wildlife photographers are close to a million in India…if you count the hobbyist or the amateur. These numbers are huge. In a narrow road, if there are one or two vehicles moving, it’s fine but if a hundred are moving then it’s not fine. It changes with time or the situation. In a park, earlier when one or two photographers were working it was not a problem. If a hundred photographers are there at a time, it becomes an issue. I am telling you this so you understand the dynamism of the situation. You have to take the call. What I do… I have some experience in the field, I try to understand in the field what I should go for or what I shouldn’t do… I take the call on the basis of the situation, not by something which is provided by someone else. It is always a call of mine on the basis of my experience, my knowledge and the present scenery of the place. For example, when 20 or 30 years back, if we saw an image of a charging elephant, we used to be very excited to see the image. We used to clap for it. We appreciated those images. Now, for me, it is no longer a good image. Because, if the elephant is charging me, it’s telling me that I was in its personal space. Someway, that animal was disturbed by me. It can be disturbed by anything. The main fundamental thing is when I am working in an ecosystem, the impact of my presence should be as minimum as possible. A charging animal shows the huge impact of my presence. That way, for me, it is no longer a good image.
Lalitha Krishnan: : You’re being invasive.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I had images of charging animals before but evolution happens. If I am stuck in the old mindset then it is a problem of mine. We need to move on. We have to take the call. You have to understand that whatever you are doing, you are doing it for them. Why are we doing this (Wildlife Photography)? Because we’re enjoying ——-[word lost in translation]. We are lobbying for wildlife. To connect the masses with animals. And not to disturb them; not to create stress for them. So, as a photographer, I always try to take the call in the field to see to what extent I can go. I take a lot of photographs where I go very close to the subject. But it is not like I’m pushing boundaries. It is based on a lot of experiences. I love to study the individual (subject) before doing anything. So, when I photographed an American crocodile in Mexico-you can see I am taking the photo from one foot away-but it is not like I can do it for every individual. First, I try to understand the situation. If that animal is comfortable with me, it allows me…then only can I do that. I can’t push or stress them with my presence. For sharks also, for all underwater photography, you need to be very careful, or you cannot take good shots. It is more like the animal comes close to me rather than I go close to them. In most cases, you have to be careful how much you can push. Because, after all, they are important. Whatever we are doing is for them. If we are caring about their comfort or wellness it’s not good. For me, it’s always a personal call. When you talk about responsibility, I want to give a different example which is not directly related. I heard many people say—when they talk about their children’s career—they say, “If you go for IAS, then you’ll have a lot of power”. You’ll do your office work but if you are an IAS officer, you will have a lot of power. This is confusing. In our society, this is one type of schooling which is not right. It should be: when you are an IAS officer, you will have a lot of responsibility, not power.
Lalitha Krishnan: : Correct.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: The higher you go you will not have more “power” you will have responsibility. That is one perspective I feel we confuse with many things. Because, I have been into wildlife photography for a long time and I work a lot with many institutions, many conservation organisations, many people and many forest departments, sometimes, I get a little more access than others. Some people can think this is power. But this is not power. The more I get into into all this, the more my responsibility increases. Because I am taking that responsibility. So, whatever I do, the word ‘responsibility’ is the backbone of everything I do. I am responsible for this because I am doing this. From that point of view, it is very important for me to be sensible and responsible in the field. I want to add another thing. There is another kind of issue which I think of which not many people will think of. I don’t know if you’re e going to ask this question…
Lalitha Krishnan: Tell me.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: What is your favourite place or what is your favourite animal to work on?
Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to ask you… you know your photography is making an impact but if there is one project you are proud of for the change it has created? Not…
Dhritiman Mukherjee: This is a proper question. This question is fine but if you ask me, what is your favourite subject or species, or favourite places? If I name some species or place to answer that then I feel I am very much irresponsible.
Lalitha Krishnan: Okay. Why?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: There are some ethical responsibilities what I was talking about; that is how we work in the field where we have to keep this word (responsibility) in our mind. Where we cannot do anything which will actually do harm or damage the ecosystem. That is one part. Then, there is another part – our thought process. Though the process which I am going to tell you now about favourite species etc. It’s like this. You have 10 children and I ask you, who is your favourite? If you mention one, it’ll be a very illogical and irresponsible answer. Because in the ecosystem, every species and habitat is equally important.
Lalitha Krishnan: : True. True.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Whether it’s grassland,——-[word lost in translation] or a mountain, they are equally serving their role. They have their own participants. They are all equally important. If you talk about species, from small insects to bug elephants, they all are important in the ecosystem. They have their own roles. So, you cannot be biased. So, if I am biased about a subject, then I think it is an irresponsible thought process. And you have to develop it. It is not as if when I started, I had these thoughts. Because it is a human tendency, we always love predators. That’s why we love tigers, leopards, birds … that hunt or look ferocious attract us more. It was the same with me but I had to develop This is the part of the evolution of my thought process. I developed that thinking that I cannot be biased about any ecosystem or any species. That becomes irresponsibility. So then, with those consequences you can ask me about certain choices I make: why are you working or selecting these (species)? My thought process is like this. You can have 10 children and you cannot be biased on anyone but there is a chance that one child is weaker than the others and you have to take more care of them. That is not bias. What it is when one species is injured, another is in a good state, you can work on the endangered one or give more time to that species so that it can come out of its current bad state. That is the way of selecting my priorities. It’s not being biased. I work on those subjects or place which actually are in need at that time for different reasons. Endangered species or the habitat has some problems or it is scientifically less documented. So that my way of thinking; of selecting species and places. So, if I have favourites, I think it’s irresponsible for me. This is one perspective I always thought of.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I’m glad you said it even though I didn’t ask the question because I’m sure a lot of people have asked you that. It’s a completely different perspective you’ve given and it makes so much sense and seriously my respect for you has gone up many, many notches because it’s all about being mindful I suppose…and responsible (while you’re) out there photographing.
Lalitha Krishnan: Cool. Now I know how you choose your subjects to photograph. But which photographer has been your inspiration?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I want to add something. Let me answer this at the end.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I initiated but forgot to tell you; I have some problems with the words, ‘best’, ‘success’, ‘failure’… Let me explain a little bit because I think it’s required. It’s similar to “favourite” things we were talking about. People sometimes people say, “Dhritiman is the best photographer”. I am surprised how one can be defined as best because it is a qualitative thing. For qualitative things, you cannot use these words: ‘best,’ ‘worst’. You cannot even say ‘good’, or ‘bad’. Think of the first tiger-photo. If you see it now, maybe you will think: Oh, it is an average photo. But when it was taken it was surprising for everyone because there were no other (tiger) photos before. It was the first tiger photo. Imagine the first tiger-photo when there were no photos at the time, then it was the best photo (available).
Lalitha Krishnan: Right.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is all so subjective. All photos are documentation of some moments, some time and some species. Time, which is already gone so somewhere it is very unique. So, all the photos are unique. It cannot be good, bad or best. So, what do we go for? Basically, what happens is people actually want to see new things. When we mistakenly say it is a bad photo, it’s a ‘seen’ photo, that which we have seen already.
Lalitha Krishnan: Hmmm.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is not surprising you. So, what do we go for? We go for different things, new things. We don’t go for old things that are done. What is done becomes a “bad photo”. But it is not actually a “bad” photo. It was very much a good photo at that time. At some point in time, it was fantastic but now because people have seen it, it becomes a little bit boring and then people say, Oh it is OK or not good. So, you have to understand that this good, bad, best…these words do not exist in photography or any qualitative thing. It has to be different. I mean if you are a photographer, what are you going for? You’re not going for a “good photo” or “best photo” but a different photo. Not what is done but new stories, new events. So, what I’m saying is whether you realise this the word, ‘competition’ does not exist. When you’re out of the competition, your mind becomes healthier.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Then, you’ll be out of all unethical practices where competition sometimes pushes you to do something unethical. These words don’t exist for me. I cannot be the “best” photographer. It doesn’t exist. Rather I would for being a contributory photographer where I can contribute to science or conservation. To answer your question, who inspired me…that way, except for me, all that photographers inspire me. Whatever they are doing, all other photographers inspire me. Even what an amateur is doing is new for me. I am not doing that. That surprises and inspires me. So, what all other photographers, naturalists are doing is equally inspiring. So basically, everyone is inspiring me.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s such a novel way of thinking. Lovely.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: It’s actually a rational way of thinking. For me, the right way. So, when you think like that it’s not novel.
Lalitha Krishnan: Maybe, not novel for you but for anybody else who is competitive for instance? This is just a different perspective no? Makes sense? Can I get back to the question about one project that you’re proud of because of the change it has created or is creating some change while we speak?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: As I told you, I have a problem with some words that I told you.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I try to solve some issues with these eg. ‘proud’, ‘best’, ’worst’, ‘competition’ or ‘achievement’, success-failure’…These words do not work for me. I can be a little happy not proud. The word ‘proud’ has some sort of unhealthiness. People will have different opinions on that I’m sure. Whatever one does actually, for me, I feel it has not been done to the extent it can be done. I have worked on different subjects, like the Narkundam hornbill…you know about the Narkunda island which is the easternmost island in India. The Narkundam hornbill is only found on this island. They are nowhere else in the world. So me and Dr. Rahmani, Dr. Shirish Manchi, we actually went there, stayed there for 18 days. We worked there and got a lot of information on that hornbill…photographed them. So, that was pretty much a rewarding experience. In later days there were issues with the island. The Indian Navy wanted to put a radar station on the Narkunda island. The scientist and others were not happy to know that because you know, it’s such a tiny island and that kind of activity can actually ruin the ecosystem of the island. Everybody wanted to stop that activity on the island. My photos helped to convey those (conservation) messages. Everyone used my photos, even National Geographic News also used my photos. So somewhere those photos were used for conservation. So, I feel it was a little bit contributory but it’s not like a 100% thing done. It could be better.
Lalitha Krishnan: : Yes. But a start.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: I worked on different subjects. The Bengal Florican which was less documented, then, the snow leopard project was very interesting. I have been working on the brown bear which is very less done. I photographed the Western Trogopan in Himachal Pradesh which is the state bird of Himachal. There weren’t many photos of it in the wild. I did different kinds of interesting things but I never feel I did a great job. I did Okay. Sometimes I was happy about how that work helped conservation but it is not like I am satisfied. I need to be more hardworking or more fruitful with my work. I cannot be satisfied with that or proud even. In any case, I have no relation with the word.
Lalitha Krishnan: I love that. But you set very high standards for yourself and it’s actually very inspiring. So, do you have a conservation-linked term or a photography-linked word or concept that you’d like to share?
Dhritiman Mukherjee: There’s a disconnect between the natural world and the masses and mostly I found, many policymakers are also disconnected with the natural world. So, what I am doing right now, what I am very much concerned about or what is very relevant for this time to me, is about ‘inclusion’. Inclusion of our ecosystem, in regular policy, social structure, everything. Because there is a disconnection, it is not included in our social system. So, whenever we see things, it looks like it’s separate. When we talk about development, we feel like nature, ecosystem, the natural world, forests…is a separate world from the word ‘development’. Actually, it is all included or inbuilt. When we talk about development…if someone is doing some deforestation, and we ask, why are you doing this? They say it’s a need for development. Development is about keeping the ecosystem inside. Do everything but keep the ecosystem intact. It is about inclusion. It is inbuilt. So, I feel we have to understand that we have to all of this into our regular system. For that, we have to connect the entire masses with nature. I do photography for this purpose. Photos are the strongest tool to connect to people emotionally. If I speak about some species you have never heard of, you cannot be emotional about it. Only when you know a little bit about it even then you can think of it. So, photos actually do that. It connects people with the natural world. So what I did as my responsibility is to lobby for the natural world or in other words, I can say I am on a mission to create as many as possible voters for the natural world. They will talk for them (wildlife). I am, one by one, connecting individuals with different species, different landscapes so that they will be in favour of them. Actually, it will create a huge lobby for them. For me, it’s one step to the conservation of the natural world. This is what I tell newcomers to wildlife photography. Connect as many people as you can to the natural world. That will be the best step towards other things. Once the lobby is made, then you can play with it. So that’s why I try to show my images to the policymakers whenever I get a chance. Also, students or collages and schools so they will be inspired by the natural world and they will be in favour of it. If something happens where a mass voice is needed it will be easier to get that voice in favour of the natural world. That’s why I make it my baseline responsibility.
Lalitha Krishnan: : That’s a great word and the way to go forward.
Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you for initiating this.
Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman thank you so much. It’s been a really wonderful conversation and getting to know the person behind the lens is quite fascinating. I’ve put you there as a photographer with a conscience and clearly, you are. So, thanks a lot.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. If you know somebody whose story should be told, don’t hesitate to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you, I would love feedback. Stay tuned, Heart of Conservation is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Google Podcast, Himalaya app, Android, or where you listen to your podcasts. Bye for now.