Filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri speaks about his latest book, Ira the Little Dolphin, and writing for children

Shekar Dattatri has many credits to his name — wildlife filmmaker, conservation champion and writer. Add another one to that list. He’s also made a child cry!

A while ago, Shekar headed to a café at India Habitat Centre, Delhi, to grab a bite. There, a mother was reading out to her son from Shekar’s Lai Lai, The Baby Elephant. The writer introduced himself to the mother and offered to sign the book for her. She was delighted. The child wept. “A strange man had defaced his favourite book,” laughs Shekar.

The filmmaker’s other interactions with children have not been as dramatic, but he’s a rockstar for them, an uncle who writes profound things in a simple way, who introduces them to the wonders of Nature. His latest book for children is Tulika’s Ira the Little Dolphin, set in the beautiful Chilika lake in Odisha. It speaks about the Irrawaddy dolphins and the threats they face. There are just 150 of them left in Chilika.

Keep it simple

How easy is it for someone like him with a wealth of knowledge to write for children, in a manner accessible to them? “I don’t write any differently for children. I write as simply as possible. The difficulty is distilling the message down to a simple sentence. The challenge is to take good insights and squeeze them into a line or two,” he says.

This book is the result of two trips to Chilika — in January and February 2012 and 2013, while Shekar was making a documentary on Chilika lake. “There were four of us and the boatman. We anchored at a place, sat quietly and waited patiently for the dolphins,” he says.

These dolphins, says Shekar are cryptic and not exhibitionists. “Most of the time, you just see a dorsal fin or a dolphin catching fish. I think this book has among the best collection of Irrawaddy dolphin pictures taken in the wild,” says Shekar.

His favourite image in the book appears on Page 6. It’s of little Ira, she of the round head and snub nose, with three big drops of water framing her face.

While writing books for children, Shekar uses the same logic that drives his filmmaking. “There should be a beginning, middle and end. There should be highs and lows. The book, even if it is just 10 or 20 pages, must take you to a place where you feel joy, pathos… it must give you a rounded picture,” he explains.

When images speak

And so, Shekar focusses on getting powerful images. “If you have such a visual, you don’t have to write much. The trick is to find images that tell your story. Words can be a bridge that accompanies the picture.”

Ira… features the works of four photographers — Dipani Sutaria, Vasanth Asokan, Ramnath Chandrasekhar and Yashwanth Ravi.

“In film or books, the idea is to not show off one’s knowledge. You can get that from the Internet. The idea is togain an insight from someone who has experienced it,” says the filmmaker, who has also written The Riddle of the Ridley.

Real tales

And just because his audience is young children, Shekar does not hold back on conservation messages. “We sometimes underestimate children. They know a lot more than adults give them credit for. I don’t write down to children. I keep my text age-neutral. I don’t say just a happy story. I like to bring reality home. I am a hard-core conservationist and like to catch them young,” he says.

The books, he says, must reach parents too. “It’s a Trojan Horse approach. Invariably, the parents read out to the children. During that process, the message gets across to the parents too.”