Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Of birds and birdsong

Of birds and birdsong. 2012. New Delhi, India: Aleph Book Company. Hardback (15 x 23 cm), pp., [1–10], 11–328. Editors: Shanthi & Ashish Chandola. 

It was my friend, Shiva, who introduced me to the writing of M. Krishnan, pointing me to his iconic fortnightly column, ‘Nature Notebook,’ in The Statesman. We were starved for nature writing in the early 1980s, and though, frankly, a wait of fifteen days between each hungrily-devoured column was surviving on starvation rations, it brought inexplicable succor to those who yearned for a glimpse into the familiar-unfamiliar world of urban and suburban wildlife; into the entirely unknown universe of forest life; into the mysterious realms of animal behaviour; into the elemental earthiness of natural history—all of which existed at a pace that defied the clock, but communicated by Krishnan in a style of writing that has endured tick-tock’s inexorable march through the decades of our lives.
There was no other naturalist of his day, as ‘compleat’ in his métier as Krishnan—writer, photographer, artist, conservationist, visionary, critic, and litterateur.
I was left dumbstruck one Wildlife week, when I entered the celebratory hall and was confronted by a life-sized monochrome enlargement of a gaur, gazing at all those who entered with the still deep eyes of a creature not chained to the concept of time. Only Krishnan’s consummate skill in jungle craft could have allowed him to take that picture.
Krishnan’s pen-and-ink sketches had the character of rustic woodcuts that encapsulated the essence of the creature he depicted. He had the knack of using surroundings to enhance the grain of that essence to great effect.
Krishnan’s dry humour was legendary. When the candid Krishnan met the redoubtable Sidney Dillon Ripley Jr., he purportedly confessed, “Mr Ripley, frankly I do not know whether to believe you or not,” punning with telling effect on the syndicated column.
What is it about his writing that it has endured the fickle vagaries of time, endearing itself over the years, to a larger, hungrier readership? Krishnan’s quill was steeped in an inkpot of “quiddity”; it spoke from the leaf-littered jungle floor, it wafted from the mango-blossom scented recesses of deep shaded groves, it thrummed from the toad-croak-rippled reedy swamp margin, it swayed from the wind-swept grasslands of the Deccan Plateau, with the conviction of first-hand knowledge gained from hours spent with his wild subjects, wherever they chose to reveal themselves, be they animal, plant, bird, insect, amphibian, reptile; or be they commensals—endemic canine breeds, or cattle, or poultry.
He absorbed the living non-human world, through senses sharpened during jungle forays, when he entered realms where the only skill that mattered was alert stillness. He honed that essentiality and used it with telling effect in his art.
The editors of this delightful anthology, Shanthi & Ashish Chandola, no newcomers to Krishnan’s work, have here compiled 87 essays on birds, and summed up the collection with two biographical reminiscences on Krishnan. They deserve the birding brigade’s gratitude for resurrecting this fascinating array of Krishnan’s avian wrenditions.
To quote him, to paraphrase him, to try and improve him, are all foolish pursuits deserving MK’s caustic reprimands. All you have to do is to sit down, and read this wonderful collection of his essays on birds, where every page shines with joyous insight! To me, this beautiful volume, caped in scarlet endpapers, is as essential on my birding bookshelf, as are the field guides.

[Published in Indian BIRDS]

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