Dr. Col. Tommy Varghese’s impressive drift wood collection of over 500 pieces has been gathered during his years in the Indian Army

In winter, the banks of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Assam paint a surreal picture. Vast stretches of river bed embedded with myriad pieces of wood. The spectacular sight may inspire poetic instincts. But it spawned a hobby, too. Drift wood, as the wood pieces are known, is lodged in riverbeds or sea shores, seasoned by the sun, sand and water, evolving into stunning natural formations worth collecting.

Dr. Col. Tommy Varghese, retired director from the Armed Forces Medical Services, is one such collector, who has over 500 pieces gathered from various places. Drift wood collection is a much-loved hobby, especially among the defence forces. “During early years of service, I was posted at far-flung areas amid healthy troops. There was not much work and I found an engaging hobby,” says Varghese, who hails from Koratty in Thrissur and is now practising at the Azeezia Medical College in Kollam.

“I didn’t know anything about this hobby until I saw a senior colleague picking up drift wood and finding forms in it,” he says. Varghese was intrigued and it slowly became a full-fledged hobby.

Expert in the field

An expert collector, Varghese says even in areas where drift wood is abundant, not all pieces are good enough. The texture, quality and form matter. One look at the piece, and Varghese can tell whether the wood is seasoned or not. When he started taking the hobby seriously, (in 1974), he consulted a botanist to understand the processes involved in it. Floating in water for a long time, the wood loses its pulp and resin. What remains is the hardened core. This is seasoned drift wood, Varghese says. Drift wood is not normally destroyed by termites or other biological agents.

The doctor recalls his stint at the Andaman Islands fondly. The islands have a dense forest cover and the innumerable water channels that flow into the sea bring with them large quantities of drift wood. In the sea, tossed around by waves, these wooden pieces acquire queer forms and one day, they are washed to the shore. Sometimes, they lie embedded in the sand for years together. A majority of Varghese’s collection is from the Andaman Islands. “Those days, the Andaman beaches were untouched. It was not a touristy spot like it is today,” he says.

Varghese can identify most of the wood he has collected. Many from the Andamans are of Paddock tree, a kind of rosewood commonly found there. “In its fresh form, it is a restricted wood in the Andamans. One needs a licence to possess it,” he says. They come in a bouquet of shades—red, brown, yellow, black and white.

Collecting drift wood and maintaining it is not as easy as it appears. “It involves adventurous journeys through jungle streams and difficult terrain in high altitudes,” says Vargehese. “But the reward is worth it.”

One has to perceive a particular form before picking up drift wood. Most times, the form reveals itself. Otherwise, one keeps observing the piece, until a form can be discerned. The unwanted parts have to be sawed off. No carving should be done by the collector.

The process

First, it has to be cleaned thoroughly and the debris removed. Varghese uses a wire brush and a wood file to remove the dead tissue. Then it is washed several times over. Sometimes, he treats the wood with sand paper for an aesthetic appeal and uses transparent wax polish, so that the original colour of the wood is not tampered with. “At times, you start with one perception, but end up with a totally different form,” Varghese says.

For the sake of convenience, Varghese does not collect large pieces. Transportation would become a problem, says the doctor, who treasures his collection and has carried them around to wherever he was posted. The smallest in his collection is a 6-inch piece and the largest is 3-ft.

His collection has been divided into human, animal, bird and abstract forms. While some drift wood pieces sit on their own, others require a support, which is provided in the form of a tiny wooden stand. All the works have been titled, too.

A piece, ‘Proportion’, looks like a work of creative genius, pinkish-brown wooden crevices and protrusions meeting in curious ways. It was collected from the Indo-Tibetan border in the late 70s from the banks of one of the tributaries of river Sutlej. “At 13,000 ft no plant grows. So the river beds have only creepers of rhododendron, the only creeper that grows there. Its roots are extremely sturdy and heavy,” he says. Rhododendron grows into a big tree in lower altitudes, he says.

Varghese has conducted several exhibitions of his collection across the country. The most recent one, ‘Birds in their moods’, which showcased 80 pieces, was held at the Durbar Hall Gallery in September.