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Treasures of Indian Wildlife

Treasures of Indian Wildlife is a compendium of articles and illustrations from the past. It tells the tale of an older India, in colonial times when forests were still dense and tigers and lions common enough to be hunted regularly. 
The "book takes us back nostalgically to life in India as it existed a hundred and fifty, or even two hundred years ago," says the preface. Kothari and Chhapgar’s last work, Salim Ali’s India, was a resounding success and Treasures of Indian Wildlife follows a similar path.

It weaves together a text from historical vignettes. The book is divided into two sections. The first part ‘Selections from Books, Journals and Gazetteers’ speaks through a purely colonial voice. It contains writings from such hunters and early naturalists as Sir John Day, S. Eardley-Wilmot and N.B. Kinnear. The pieces vary widely in tone and content. Some are first-person accounts of hunts and observations whereas others are mere notes on reported anecdotes. Starting with the first article, which talks slightly exaggeratedly about ‘Banian’ trees whose circumferences cover five acres and under whose holy shade sit naked Hindu philosophers, the book moves on to first person records of tiger hunts where the hunters are looked on as saviours by the villagers.

We also have such interesting snippets such as the ‘Gond Fable of Singbaba,’ which relates an old Gond legend as a possible basis for Kipling’s Jungle Book. The text works together to give a glimpse into a different India in appearance and in attitude. In the current scenario, the articles on lion hunting and the distribution of lions in India at that time, give interesting insights into the present fate of the Asiatic lion. The second section of the book is called ‘Gleanings from Miscellaneous Notes in the JBNHS’ and is exactly what its title suggests.

It appropriately begins with an extract from an article by Dr. Salim Ali where he talks about the role of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in Indian natural history and briefly traces its story since its inception. Other extracts are interesting articles from the Journal, many of which relate unusual observations and incidents such as the shooting of a panther aboard a ship at sea or organised duels between lions and tigers or the import of African lions into India. This section is a pleasant mix of voices, styles and perspectives and makes for a lively, fast-paced read because of its brief, episodic nature.

In design, some pages of the Treasures of Indian Wildlife can be mistaken for an art book with its full-page colour illustrations. These are taken from collections from all over the world and from books published in the last two centuries. They appear to be the records of foreigners interested in nature and are beautiful in their vivid colours and carefully-crafted accuracy. The majority of the illustrations are of birds (although articles about them are few) but there are also drawings of hunts and of animal behaviour.

Each of the illustrations have detailed captions identifying and giving information about the species or explaining the circumstances depicted. Treasures of Indian Wildlife is a good coffee table book, something you can pick up anytime to read or browse through and not be disappointed. The short articles and extracts make it perfect to read in bits and pieces. It is well edited and compiled, even the clean-cut, simple layout conveys the flavour of days gone by. Being immensely readable, it should appeal to the natural history enthusiast as well as the casual reader.

Reviewed by Bidisha Basu
 Ed. Ashok S. Kothari and Boman F. Chhapgar, Published by: Bombay Natural History Society and Oxford University Press, Pages: 216, Price: Rs. 1,900/-

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