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Capturing wildlife


Eminent wildlife photographer T.N.A. Perumal prefers to let his photographs talk for him.

Photograph of an owl about to feed her chicks.

" ...the taking of a good photograph gives far more pleasure to the sportsman than the acquisition of a trophy; and further, while the photograph is of interest to all lovers of wildlife, the trophy is only of interest to the individual who acquired it."

SEVENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Tanjavur Nateshachary Ayyam Perumal quietly quotes Jim Corbett in Maneaters of Kumaon when you ask what attracted him to wildlife photography. Always fascinated by animals and an avid reader of shikar books, life was never the same again after he chanced upon O.C Edwards, an English schoolmaster walking in Bannerghatta, near Bangalore, with a camera. (Perumal has dedicated his book Photographing Wildlife in India to his guru, O.C. Edwards.)

Genuine admiration

A Rolleicord II acquired for the princely sum of Rs. 200 saw him embark on a journey that has earned him genuine admiration from wildlife enthusiasts. Perumal is often spoken of in the same breath as M. Krishnan, E.R.C. Davidar, S. Nagaraj, M.Y. Ghorpade and E. Hanumantha Rao. (He recently received the E. Hanumantha Rao Memorial Award for 2006).

"Pictures help in creating awareness. Our forests are a rich natural resource and we have a tradition of worshipping Nature and living in harmony with her. But, somewhere along the way, that has all changed," he says.

Perumal insists he is no activist. "I photograph wildlife because of the pleasure it affords me. But, I am sad that little is documented of the wealth of flora and fauna of our country. Most of what we know is pure guess work."


To make a start, Perumal and his friends decided to do their bit for documentation. Along with K. Gunathilagaraj, professor of entomology, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, other entomologists and 13 wildlife photographers, he brought out a photo field guide called Some South Indian Butterflies. Perumal says nothing would please him more than seeing more books on the wildlife of India before it all disappears.

He speaks with enthusiasm of those who have striven to give direction to wildlife documentation — like Geetha Srinivasan of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, who undertook to publish Some South Indian Butterflies and the former Karnataka chief conservator of forests R.M. Ray who commissioned a team headed by Perumal to document the flora and fauna of the region's wildlife reserves. "If every region did this we would have a tremendous database," he says.

Early years

Perumal has seen the transition of photography from monochrome to colour; from bulky photographic paraphernalia to the sleek, digital affairs where one only has to aim and shoot. "Of course, life has become easier for photographers. Speed, accuracy, quality of the prints have all improved dramatically." He recalls how films rolls were rationed and he could not get more than two at a time. And there was the possibility of taking only one shot at a time, which meant only one photo of the animal. But, he says the excellence of a photograph still depends on the man behind the lens. "No matter how good the camera, and how many more frames you can click per second, it is instant visualisation, legwork and immense patience that produces that masterpiece."

A question on what he considers to be his masterpiece evokes a quiet smile and a comment. "Sometimes the events leading up to a photograph are more memorable than the photograph itself." Like the time he wanted to `capture' an owl with her babies. He had to first rig a camera with primitive remote control devices, hang precariously out of a tree to place it in what he thought would be the bird's flight path (all intelligent guesswork!), and then wait. Of course, there were no miracles, and it took Perumal all of four seasons before he got what he wanted — an amazing photograph of an owl about to feed her babies. A herd of zebras, some spectacular shots of a silk cotton tree in bloom, a peacock perched atop an anthill are some of his other favourites.

"Living with freedom in the forest uncontrolled by man," is how T.N.A. Perumal describes wildlife. "You should know when enough is enough," he says. Straight-faced he advises, "Get to know the animal, but not personally." A tusker has charged Perumal. Fortunately for him, there was a ditch in the way and he fell in. "I could see the elephant standing above, puzzled, wondering how Perumal had vanished from the face of the earth," he chuckles.

Photography in India goes back a long way. The Photographic Society of Madras was founded way back on 1856. It even found place in the curriculum of the Madras School of Arts (the present College of Arts and Crafts). Perumal himself is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in Nature Photography and a Fellow of the India International Photographic Council. He is also Master of the Federation de l'Art Photographique besides being a Karnataka Lalitha Kala Academy Awardee. He also holds an Honorary Fellowship of the Pakistan Salon Group, 2005.

Need for patronage

But sadly, patronage is still wanting in the field of wildlife photography. "`Corporate Maharajahs' should step in and provide patronage," says Perumal and sums it up by saying, "One good photograph can educate people about the environment, much more than a shelf full of books."

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