Lekshmy Rajeev interviews B. Chandrakumar, who specialises in pachydermal photography.
The mystique of the elephant has been a source of ever-growing wonder for people for centuries. Beneath the proud head of the elephant that rises above the roaring crowd, there hides the pain inflicted by an insensitive mahout. The mahout’s thin stick spells fear for this powerful creature, making its reputation of being the biggest land animal meaningless. The majesty of the elephant’s forehead, the symmetry of the curving tusks and the unique trunk that touches the earth create a visual feast for the avid elephant lover. However, photographer B. Chandrakumar’s camera focusses elsewhere. The keen eyes of his camera capture the black body of this animal that shivers with shock at the unexpected loud noise of exploding fireworks, the weariness of the elephant that is forced to stand for several hours without a break and the tears from the tiny eyes peering out from its gigantic body. The Hindus worship the elephant-headed Ganesha as the auspicious remover of all obstacles. This religious element is also a factor in making the male elephant, the tusker, very important in the temple festivals of Kerala. However, many people who admire elephants are not aware of the serious trauma these sensitive animals suffer under captivity.
Chandrakumar is one of the few photographers in Kerala, who can be called an “elephant photographer”. He was a senior photojournalist with Mathrubhumi and is the winner of many State awards in Photography. He has conducted photography exhibitions in Delhi and Kerala.
You have been a photo journalist with a leading Malayalam Daily. What made you chase Elephants? I notice that even the ringtone in your mobile is the trumpeting of elephants. Tell us more about your passion.
Nineteen years ago, Mathrubhumi newspaper’s front page carried my elephant photographs. I captured the moods of an elephant calf Parvathi, in the Kodanadu elephant shelter. The calf died as it could not cope with captivity. This hurt me. So, I started a photo feature about the problems of domesticated elephants. The love, anger, strength and revenge of the elephants became my camera’s topics. The passion for elephants became an obsession. The trumpeting of elephants became my ringtone. The elephant is a creature that suffers the most despite being the largest land animal. Elephants are wild animals born to roam freely in the forests. Displacing elephants from their natural habitat and keeping them in an urban environment that is unsuited for them, is basically a violation of animal rights. Besides, employing the captured elephants to perform task under compulsion is a reprehensible practice that needs to be questioned and challenged regardless of cultural and religious justifications.
You have an astonishing collection of elephant photographs. Now you’ve stopped taking pictures of them. Why?
I sacrificed a lot to take rare and different elephant pictures. I wanted the whole world to see the photographs, but it never happened. I have stopped, unable to go any further. But the journey hasn’t ended. For 12 years I cared little for food, family and sleep, just to take elephant pictures.
What are your future plans?
I am planning to do an illustrated book compiling rare elephant photos. I am working on that now. Through the book, I want to provide insights about the nature of elephants and the serious ethical issues involved in using them.
You have clicked a picture of a mahout escaping an elephant’s rage.
That was the message. That photo series is my masterpiece. When I arrived, the elephant named Paraman was trying to shake the mahout Kannan down. It was the elephant’s reaction to the mahout’s constant and unbearable torture. Paraman’s attempt was to kill the mahout who had fallen down. But, with extraordinary skill, Kannan managed to wriggle out of the situation and ran away to safety. I wanted to pass on the message that no elephant will become violent without a reason. Also, I tried to show that a man can escape from a raging elephant if he has will power. It was only through his strength of mind that Kannan saved himself that day. We must remember that even on a festival ground where thousands of people gather, an angry elephant targets only the mahout.
What is your greatest disappointment?
I sent a photo feature with 12 elephant photos for the World Press Photo Award. I felt sad that I didn’t get the award.
Hasn’t the government taken steps to prevent the torture of elephants, from time to time?
Yes, but there have been no satisfactory results so far. Elephants have many capacities human beings don’t have. Elephants have large ears that help them to perceive a wide range of frequencies inaudible to human beings. Elephants can also communicate with one another through infrasonic waves. The elephantine memory is very strong. Elephants can recognise people by their smell even after several years. These animals are also capable of developing deep emotional bonds with people who love and care for them. The rage of the elephant is only a reaction to the cruelty it faces. The festival processions take place in cramped spaces. The decorated elephants stand very close to each other and at an unsafe distance from people. These elephants are forced to walk long distances along the hot tarred roads even at noon, going from one temple to another. The soft feet of the elephants cannot withstand the heat of the roads, and this leads to arthritis, infertility and violent behaviour. Making laws to stop elephants from being forced to walk on hot roads on a hot day is not enough.