Birdsong with Krishnan

When natural history writing attained one of its liveliest levels

have just finished reading a fine book and I cannot resist the temptation to write about it, though I have never written about a new book in this column. But, then, this is not a new book, for the stray pieces on jungle and home birds compiled here come from a long time ago. That does not mean they have become dated, as all political journalism normally does. In fact, they will never become dated as long as the birds, that form the subject of these pieces, keep flitting and flying about us. This is natural history writing at its liveliest. Madhavia Krishnan, the author of these casual but crisp and concise pieces, was a naturalist in the manner of the British naturalists active in different parts of India in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries such as, EHA, Fletcher, Cunningham, Stebbing, Inglis, Antram, Forsyth, Dunbar Brander, Douglas Dewar, Kipling—Lockwood, not Rudyard – and many others like them who are not so well known as they are.

Most of them were amateur naturalists, more nature lovers than natural historians. They came and lived, here as if in exile, working, first, for the East India Company and later for the imperial government. They worked as civil servants and, occasionally, as surveyors, soldiers and surgeons in the army. They spent a large part of their lives far away from the diversions of big cities in remote, inaccessible moffusil towns, often moving from village to village, camping under an open sky in clearings, in a jungle on the edge of some village. There was no radio then, nor the television nor the cinema nor the internet. There were no newspapers either and the few weeklies that were published in far off presidency towns took a long time coming by mail bag on dawk ghurries. Mail from home took two or three months to arrive. And, most often, there was no family and no White company. With the Indians, whom they dismissively called natives, they had little contact outside their offices.

Their only diversion was shikar or watching birds and bees, and butterflies and moths, and other insects, rats, lizards and jungle cats. Many of them kept meticulous journals and made large collections of animal specimens. Others wrote regular columns for far-off newspapers and journals. EHA wrote an occasional column for the Times of India, Fletcher for the Agricultural Journal of India, Douglas Dewar for the Madras Mail and the Morning Post, while A O Hume published his own journal, Stray Feathers. Such pieces were often afterwards compiled as books. Some like EHA’s the Tribes on My Frontier and A Naturalist on the Prowl, Kipling’s Beast and Man in India, Stebbing’s Insect Intruders in Indian Homes, Cunningham’s Plagues and Pleasures of Life in Bengal, Forsyth’s the Highlands of Central India, and Dunbar Brander’s Wild Animals in Central India became collectable for their beautiful writing, woodcut or photographic illustrations and gilded bindings. Even today, they are favourites among collectors of rare books and lovers of nature and natural history. Some of these books became hugely successful.

A number of Indians took to this genre with great enthusiasm, though few could write as beautifully as Krishnan did. Salim Ali too tried his hand at popular writing but could not make a mark in this genre. He was a man of a different mould, more of a technical and scientific ornithologist than a writer of natural history for the lay reader. There were a few others too but no one could build or acquire a following among readers like Krishnan did. Actually, even Krishnan is forgotten today, except in a narrow circle of wildlife enthusiasts. It is, therefore, nice of the Chandolas to have brought forth this collection of his writings from the 1950s and the 60s for those who have not known the flavour of such writing. As for me, this beautiful collection energised me to look into the long forgotten natural history section of my library. I was happy to once again run my fingers through the pages of books that I had collected long years ago, some of these from Jaivelu, the great second-hand bookseller of Moor Market, Madras, now Chennai, whose shop Krishnan also used to visit in search of books.

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