Home People In Remembrance S. Rangaswami: September 8, 1920 – January 10, 2012

S. Rangaswami: September 8, 1920 – January 10, 2012

S. Rangaswami: September 8, 1920 – January 10, 2012

S. Rangaswami’s lessons introduced countless children to the joys of natural India. Courtesy: Rishi Valley School.

The late S. Rangaswami was a teacher who dedicated his life to encouraging children to renew their bonds with nature. Bittu Sahgal writes about the inspiring man and his immeasurable contribution to the field of conservation education.

I first heard about him in the late 1980s when one child after another wrote or spoke to me about this amazing teacher in Rishi Valley whose love for nature and quasi-religious faith in its capacity to heal itself seemed to mirror my own, deepest feelings. I subsequently came to know him well, more because of what he wrote than any physical time spent. What a man! What a giant of a man! My life has been enriched by the incredible S. Rangaswami, Founder-Director, Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History, Rishi Valley School and the news of his passing left a hollow in me. “Mighty trees are falling,” I thought to myself, “and I pray their seeds sprout well.”

“Seeds. All I am doing is planting seeds,” I remember Mr. Rangaswami saying to me backstage at the Tata Theatre in December 2001 when he travelled to be with us to accept the Sanctuary Green Teacher of the Year award. I understood what the idea of ‘seeds’ really meant to him only later when I read what J. Krishnamurti had written, “Nature is part of our life. We grew out of the seed, the earth and we are a part of all that, but we are losing the sense that we are animals like the others.”

I researched all I could about Rangaswami before we announced his name for the award and discovered to my utter joy that it was the wilderness that moved him. And that it was a wilderness he wanted in and around the school campus, not neat, manicured lawns where nature had to be confined to fit human moulds. A do-it-yourself man, he gathered his students together decades ago and began to build small ponds and lakes and selectively plant native trees wherever they could grow. He used medicinal plants, shrubs and trees to expose his students to the botany he knew so well in real life and inspired them to create and protect sacred groves on campus, stocked with banyans, peepals and bilvas (bael) trees.

This tall, ram-rod straight (literally and figuratively) man has inspired so many children in the 40 years he devoted to teaching at Rishi Valley School that we can be sure his spirit is alive and well in them. Dr. Radhika Herzberger, Director of Rishi Valley Education Centre today, will surely agree. She knew him well and I found myself smiling inside when I read what she wrote about him back in 2004:

It was his own passion for the outdoors that shone through his interactions with kids, the books he published and the nature walks he led. Courtesy: Rishi Valley School.

Though Mr. Rangaswami’s range of interests is very wide: teaching children about nature, admonishing their parents against the use of plastics, creating a national course on conservation and ornithology, bending over to remove parthenium weeds, planting trees, working with gardeners, creating compost pits, conducting systematic surveys of the local flora and fauna, ministering to a flycatcher’s broken wing, devouring works on philosophy and nature, writing books and letters to the editors of newspapers, lecturing to diverse audiences and drawing eminent naturalists to the school  – all these come within the compass of his vision.

Each weekend, Rangaswami could be seen with a gaggle of students following him as he bent low over a flower, or peered high into the canopy to spot a warbler. His nature trails were part and parcel of student life in Rishi Valley.

When he returned to the school after a hiatus of 12 years in 1990, he was delighted to discover that the haven he had gifted to the students was healthier than ever and that birds, insects and reptiles were now its gardeners, bringing seeds from far and wide to turn the entire campus into a sanctuary for life. The bird surveys he launched resulted in a book, Birds of Rishi Valley and Renewal of Their Habitats, profusely illustrated and co-authored by his good friend and naturalist, S. Sridhar, who Rangaswami called a ‘biological bridge builder’. Then three years later in 1997 he started a Department of Bird Studies in Rishi Valley, which is now a full-fledged Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History.

Yes, he was a teacher, but he was tough as nails and a strategist to boot. When the granite industry cast a bilious gaze on the famous Lion Rock that had become a landmark to let students know that they had arrived at school, he got the area declared a sacred shrine!

As if bidding goodbye to all he loved, he penned his last book Fragments of Natural History – dedicated to ‘the return of the Yellow-throated Bulbul to Rishi Valley’ as recently as 2011. In this he includes a quote from E.O. Wilson whom he greatly admired and, which to my mind, sums up the drive in this tall man who will hopefully continue to walk the wildernesses of Rishi Valley in spirit:

A fierce defender of India’s natural ecosystems, S. Rangaswami (seen here at Kodikkarai, Gulf of Mannar) taught his students that locals and conservation went hand in hand.
Courtesy: Rishi Valley School.

This world of endless beauty, which has taken so long to evolve will be smothered and exterminated by our expanding civilisation. Therefore our immediate practical concern must be to stop this from happening and save what we can as we will do if the house in which we live is burning. But to save, we must realise and appreciate the value of the things we want to save.


First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, February 2012.


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