The write way
He may be a wildlife filmmaker but Shekar Dattatri’s books for children spread the message of conservation.
Dual passion: Juggling this art
It’s stories like Shekar Dattatri’s that make you respect 13-year-olds. The acclaimed filmmaker, whose accolades include the 2008 Edberg Award, developed a passion for nature when he volunteered at the Madras Snake Park in his early teens. His documentaries, like “Mindless Mining: The tragedy of Kudremukh” on the iron mines in Western Ghats and “The Ridley’s Last Stand” on the death of Olive Ridley turtles in Orissa, have brought conservation issues to the forefront.
Shekar is also an ardent conservationist. “From the time I first started making films in the mid 1980s; conservation has been an underlying theme in most of my documentaries. During the last eight years, however, it has become the dominant theme. I also devote more time now to direct conservation action, in close association with reputed NGOs and like-minded colleagues,” he says.
He might be better known as a filmmaker and photographer but his two books for young people Lai Lai, The Baby Elephant, and Riddle of the Ridley have made him a popular figure among the school kids as well. Writing isn’t an entirely new genre for him.
“I have been writing sporadically for over 25 years; articles, the occasional book chapter, op-ed pieces, wildlife film reviews and documentary film scripts. Although the visual medium is my forte, I enjoy writing as well. I’m particularly interested in writing for children because they are so receptive. Books had a huge influence on me as a child and I hope that my writings will inspire young readers to become more aware of the natural world,” he says.
His films led to his first book. He says, “My first children’s book, Riddle of the Ridley, was actually proposed by the publishers, Tulika, who had seen my film on the Olive Ridley. Once we started work on this book, they also suggested that we do one on a baby elephant for very young children.”
He didn’t have to adapt his style much to write for young people for, “I’ve always believed that a simple, direct style works best for any audience. Also, writing documentary scripts taught me to keep sentences succinct and avoid using complicated words. The main thing to keep in mind while writing for children is to avoid talking down to them.”
Writing the two books was slightly complicated because, he says, they were meant from the start to be translated into several Indian languages. So a conscious effort had to be made to write in a way that would make the translator’s job easier. “This was particularly important for the baby elephant one because it’s part of a bilingual series that Tulika brings out, with just one line of text accompanying one photograph on a page. Underneath the English sentence is the translation in an Indian language in virtually the same order of words. The idea, apparently, is to help children who know one language to get more familiar with the other. So I couldn’t simply write the original sentence any way I liked, because it may not have been possible to translate it exactly in the same order in another language. I think I did more rewriting for this simple book than for anything else I’ve written! I had no idea that writing children’s books could be so complicated until I tried it.”
Feedback regarding this foray into writing has been more than encouraging. “Recently in a restaurant I saw a mother reading from the elephant book to her three-year-old. She told me that her son loved the book and keeps asking her to read from it and show him the pictures,” he smiles.
Where does his road map lead now? “Everything I do is tied to conservation. Even the baby elephant book, which is aimed primarily at kindergarten children, has a couple of simple conservation messages. I think it’s absolutely imperative to catch them young!”
This column features the less known aspects of a well known personality.
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