Meet Thanjavur Nateshacharya Ayyam Perumal – Conservation Photographer Par Excellence
Photo Courtesy: T.N.A. Perumal.
Long before the digital photography revolution, long before the rationale of shooting wildlife with a camera rather than a gun had become fully accepted, there was T.N.A. Perumal. Black and white photography then was considered an art form, no less than the fine art of painting, forests were undisturbed and it was possible for a man like Perumal to sit for days in hides, machaans, or just quietly by a bird-stocked wetland and wait for the image to fall magically through his lens onto his camera plate.
Then, when the work of gathering images would be done, Perumal would take out his equipment and spend hour after laborious-but-meticulous hour, bathed in red light, in his developing studio. This is where the magic all came together, as the brush of sunlight and the palette of film merged to produce the masterpieces that are now contained within the covers of his book Reminiscences of a Wildlife Photographer.
I have known, admired and been influenced by the ethics of Perumal for over almost four decades now. Sanctuary Asia, the magazine I edit, owes him a debt of gratitude for shining a light on the direction we eventually took. “Silence, patience, and respect for your subject are the best ingredients for wildlife photography,” I remember him telling me in Ranthambhore where I met him together with his late friend and lifelong wildlife companion, M. Y. Ghorpade.
A traditionalist in terms of his values, Perumal has, however, always been an experimenter. I will never forget the brilliance of the images he shot for Sanctuary’s earliest issues, using interrupted infrared beams to capture owls in mid-flight. Even today he brings nature alive in ways that only he knows.
I have had the honour of being associated with this doyen of wildlife photography over the past three decades and more. Anyone interested in wildlife or in the art of photography should consider themselves lucky just to be able to sit with him. Virtually by osmosis they will learn. And if you cannot sit with him, then sit with his images. They speak his language, which is the language of nature... plain, simple and truthful.
What follows is a quiet glimpse into the mind and purpose ofone of India’s finest, most quiet wildlife photography gurus.
– By Bittu Sahgal
We have known each other for longer than we may be ready to admit, but tell me when photography actually took over your life?
Bittu, I have been enthralled by the still image for as long as I can remember. Clicking pictures of landscapes, friends, relatives and animals, using a borrowed Kodak Baby Brownie, a 120 Box Brownie, or folding-pocket bellows-camera gave me immense joy and a sense of achievement and satisfaction for having captured a memorable moment in time.
But what originally triggered this interest?
Art. I used to love drawing as a child and photography for me was an extension of this passion, particularly since I was equally fascinated by things mechanical, thanks to a magazine called Popular Mechanics, which I would devour as a young (and older) man.
So it was a passion for mechanics and engineering that led you to pioneer wildlife photography in India by using hitherto untried equipment and techniques?
I suppose, yes. All my pocket money, a princely sum of four annas, would be spent on gadgets that included airplanes, crystal and valve radios and other things electronic. Natural history books, shikar classics and true-life adventure stories were another source of endless fascination that transported me into a world of jungles and wild animals. Then it all merged and became my reality. I was determined to bring Indian photography up to the standard of European photography and towards this end I learned everything from Kodak E3 and then E6 chemistry for processing, to getting the most from the equipment.
We have both enjoyed long silences in deep forests. What is it about nature that has you so firmly in its grip?
One has to celebrate the magic and mystery of the forest. Words do not do justice to the elation one feels walking through the familiar incessant drizzle that defines a forest in the monsoon season, listening to the soothing sounds of water dripping from wet branches to the leafy forest floor. Nor can I describe the happiness I feel at hearing the forest symphonies of bulbuls, the cackling of grey partridges emerging from fields. My love of photography, reading and the outdoors, combined with my love for things mechanical, shaped my thoughts, my choices and my career.
Photo Courtesy: T.N.A. Perumal.
Who were your earliest influences?
(Laughs) People that youngsters may never have even heard about. One was surely O. C. Edwards. I used to be a shikari and I once shot a Barn Owl at Sampigehalli, Banerghata, just because some children said they were afraid of the bird’s strange cries at night. Edwards had actually come to photograph owls! I apologised for having shot one, but he responded by saying he was excited that owls were to be seen and that he would start looking for them here regularly henceforth. I cycled back with him to the Bishop Cotton Boys’ School where he was the dormitory warden and that greatly changed my life. He influenced me to take a deeper interest in natural history and nature/wildlife photography and even agreed to train me after keeping me on probation to test my sincerity and skills.
M.Y. Ghorpade, the late Maharaja of Sandur who did not merely influence me, but became my life-long friend. I was with B. N. S. Deo, the Maharaja of Korea (near Rewa, the source of India’s wild white tigers) at G. K. Vale & Co., the famous photography studio, when I met Ghorpade and remarked on a wonderful leopard image he had shot. He was a Member of the Legislative Assembly and a man of high position, but it turned out that our common love for nature and wildlife dispelled all disparity and social protocol. I think it was divine providence that worked in my favour and brought us together. A wildlife aficionado in the purest sense of the word, Ghorpade and his soft-spoken son, Ajai, had their own darkroom and in due course I found myself accompanying them to such wonderful wildernesses as Mudumulai, Bandipur, Ranganathittu, Nagarahole and Periyar. We would also seek out birds’ nests in Bangalore and photograph them from a safe distance (unlike the fashion of today!).
You actually worked with him for much of your life, right?
Yes. One day, out of the blue he said to me: “Perumal why don’t you join us? Before the wildlife disappears, let us go to all the sanctuaries and bring out a book.” What more could I have hoped for? It was a dream come true opportunity and it opened up a new chapter in my life, which became full of travel and enriching wildlife and photographic experiences for decades. I am particularly proud to have been associated with his landmark book Sunlight and Shadows, the first of its kind by an Indian naturalist photographer. It was beautifully illustrated and set a new benchmark for both quality and natural history documentation.
Few people realise that you are probably one of the finest animal behaviour experts. I suppose this came from your years of wildlife watching.
Yes, but more than that it came from meeting people who shared their own knowledge and deep experiences. I recall one meeting with the great M. Krishnan, an authority on Asian elephants when I was with Ajai Ghorpade. We were on a riding elephant moving along Kunthur road and entered the largest hadlu on to our right. We saw a huge bull gaur, which silently vanished. Suddenly, we came upon a big royal tusker feeding on the grass. M. Krishnan ordered the mahout to move toward the wild tusker who turned to face us and began walking towards us, swinging its trunk like a walking stick. It was in musth and the mahout was worried, but Krishnan told him to stay his ground. When the tusker came closer, Krishnan gave a loud sharp call: “Halt”. The tusker stopped in its tracks, staring at us. Krishnan then literally predicted what the tusker would do. “Now it will stop briefly and give us a wonderful action pose before entering the forest, be prepared to shoot your pictures.” I have been fortunate to meet many great wildlifers in my life and have learned from them and from nature itself.
Long before infrared photography was even heard of, you had experimented and produced dramatic results.
I loved the idea of photographing wildlife in ways that revealed their natural behaviour, without them being aware of the photographer. In the early 1980s, we discovered a pair of Mottled Wood Owls nesting in a hollow, roughly eight metres up on a jamun tree. It was the perfect location and after studying the flight patterns, I set up an infrared light beam trigger and obtained some very satisfying natural history moments. Incidentally, though the owls got used to my son Natrajan and I being there, we had to wear helmets to avoid the fate of the famous Eric Hosking who lost an eye to an owl! But it was more than just the images. I learned so much about the calls of the birds from the monosyllabic hoots, which sound like a crying baby to calls that resembled the bleat of a goat!
You now go out less than you used to. What is your take on digital photography and what about the vexing issue of nature photography ethics?
Well, to start with birds’ nest photography, it requires restraint, understanding of the ecology and natural history of the species, sensitivity and good techniques. It offers a great opportunity to understand behaviour, but equally, careless and unethical bird-nest photography can cause birds to desert the nest. I feel sad that the actions of some unethical and insensitive practitioners have resulted in nest photography no longer being encouraged. Malpractices are, of course, prevalent even in away-from-nest situations as we know and ultimately ethics must be a self-imposed discipline, religiously adopted in nature/wildlife photography. This unwritten code of ethics will help ensure that wild creatures are around to be photographed in the distant future as well. Let us, however, not be over-enthusiastic in getting ‘great’ images. Let nature photography be a sport and not introduce unwarranted pressures and interferences that cause unnatural ‘conditioning’ on animals that may modify their normal lives. India’s tradition of reverence for nature should be reflected in our approach so we can evolve a distinct national style of nature conservation photography.
Photo Courtesy: T.N.A. Perumal.
It’s been such a long journey Perumal. For both of us.
Indeed it has. I can remember as though it was yesterday our meeting at the Bombay Natural History Centenary Celebrations, Mumbai, which the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had inaugurated. I spent so much time then with Dr. Sálim Ali who actually picked up a book on his table and showed me a colony of seabirds, rendered with sharp focus of the entire colony. “How do you think this has been achieved, Mr. Perumal?” he asked. And I replied: “By the use of swing and tilt facility available in a view camera and we could produce similar pictures using this equipment.” It was typical of him to ask such questions. He soon added: “Tell me, why should people take pictures of the same tiger, same elephant, same rhino and why not our smaller animals?” I totally agreed and replied: “Sir, it is much more difficult and challenging to photograph smaller animals.” Of course, now with the advent of digital photography and other modern innovations and advancements we can expect far better results and hopefully much wider support from the public for the conservation and preservation of our vanishing wildlife.
Read More: Wildlife and Conservation Photographer T.N.A. Perumal’s World.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 4, August 2014.