M. Krishnan, whose centenary falls today, was one of the finest chroniclers of the country’s flora and fauna

The Calcutta-based Statesman newspaper, in its Sunday edition of April 28, 1996, posted a note below the “Country Notebook” column that read like this: “This is the last instalment of ‘Country Note book’ by M. Krishnan. A weekly feature by P.J.O. Taylor will appear from next.” This was no routine change that happens at newspapers from time to time, for the “Country Notebook” was coming to an end after appearing for 46 years without a break! This was possibly the longest column ever to have been written in the annals of Indian journalism. The erudition, discipline and diligence that made up the personality of M. Krishnan made him legendary. He perhaps was our finest chronicler of nature. Not only did he write so prolifically, he was a great photographer and a gifted artist in a number of media-colour wash, scraper board, line drawings, etc.

J.C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), while delivering the first M. Krishnan Memorial lecture in Chennai in 2004, talked about Krishnan’s extraordinary writing. He said, “The balanced sentence, the well turned-phrase and elegant idiom reigned supreme.” Krishnan presented authentic natural history into perfect prose that was not only accurate but also enchanting as well for the common reader.

Tamil writings

Of the many worlds of Krishnan, the “Country Notebook” was one. He had a deep and abiding interest in Tamil literature and wrote well in Tamil too. The anthology Mazhai Kaalamum Kuil Osaiyum, published posthumously, puts together his Tamil articles on natural history. Years in the field, keen observation, meticulous notes, scientific knowledge and constant reading sustained this voluminous output. Above all, he was passionate about India’s forests and natural regions. Krishnan came to be known as the “ecological patriot.” The column that appeared in The Statesman on February 18, 1996, the day he died, was providentially titled “Exclusively Indian.” In it he wrote, “The identity of a country depended not so much on its mutable human culture as on its geomorphology, flora and fauna, its natural basis.” He was eager all his life to show his readers the wonders of our wild places.

Had he been living, he would have turned a hundred today. He was born on June 30, 1912 in Thachanallur, a village near Tirunelveli. His father was the renowned Tamil novelist, Madhaviah. As a young man, Krishnan went to the Presidency College in Madras and learnt botany under the famous Fyson, who was an authority on the flora of Peninsular India at that time and a great influence on Krishnan. What followed next was a degree in law from the Madras Law College in 1936.

At Sandur

After a few tentative career stops, Krishnan, started his 9/ year innings in the small, forested princely state of Sandur. These forests that had awakened Krishnan’s early enchantment with wild India have now been sadly mined out of existence being caught up in the infamous Bellary mining scandal. Krishnan started his service at Sandur as a schoolmaster first, then assumed the role of a publicity officer and was even a judge for a while before finally becoming the State of Sandur’s political secretary. When the princely states joined the Indian Union after independence, Krishnan was given the option of joining the Indian Administrative Service which he promptly turned down. And he happily remained a freelancer for the rest of his life. Krishnan would easily find a place of pride in the hall of fame of great freelancers of all time: writing, photographing, engaging in independent research, publishing and so on.

His colossal contribution to research on Indian wildlife was made between 1959 and 1970. He carried out a detailed ecological survey of the mammals of the peninsular India for 11 years. The first Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship that was awarded to him enabled Krishnan to carry out this research and survey. The results of his study were published in the Journals of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). This work also led to a popular book titled India’s Wildlife from 1959-1970.

Krishnan had carried out this survey with great devotion, faultless planning, unmatched skill and monumental patience. The photographs he made in the course of this study made him even more legendary. Krishnan’s photographs won much admiration as they captured some aspect of the natural history of his chosen subject. Sambar sitting close to cinders from burning wood in a forest brought home a rare behavioural observation.

Krishnan often assembled and improvised upon his own camera and equipment to produce those candid pictures. He was adept and handy with designing the equipment he wanted in the field. He would choose the body of one camera and lens from another make and get a local carpenter to improvise a hand-held stand, full with alignment bolts, for ready disassembly and reassembly. Krishnan gave his contraptions intriguing names such as “ponderosa” and “super-ponderosa.” He was a great darkroom expert too. He was constantly in quest of the perfect photo.

But it is as a nature chronicler that Krishnan perhaps excelled without parallel. He could make the Indian jungle and the countryside come alive in his writings. It was not just the magnificent tiger or the majestic elephant that were portrayed in his chronicles, he lavished as much attention on the squirrel, darter and monitor lizard.

Krishnan’s intimate knowledge of natural history and his mastery of the English language helped weave those magical pieces of prose. The pangolin would be referred to as the “animated pine cone.”

Authority on the elephant

Krishnan was an authority on the Indian elephant. Krishnan had spent considerable time studying the elephant and did so at a time when modern techniques like radio telemetry were unheard of. His years of field observation and analysis led him to put forth the theory that elephants used stomach rumblings to communicate with each other within a herd. Years later, research did establish that indeed low frequency communication is used by elephants.

Though he never cared much for rewards or recognition, many awards including the Padma Shri, in 1970, came his way. He served on the National Board for Wildlife and some State wildlife boards too. He applied his mind constantly to conservation issues and made valuable recommendations to which most politicians never paid the attention they deserved. Krishnan however fulfilled his obligations to the best of his abilities despite frustrating junctures, whilst serving on these committees.

It did sadden Krishnan to see the onslaught on wild India. If things continue along the current reckless path, sooner than later India’s forests would be a thing of the past. We will be left with only writings such as Krishnan’s speaking about our unique and priceless natural heritage. The greatest tribute that we can pay Krishnan on his centenary is to unequivocally strengthen our resolve to preserve our forests and nature for generations to be charmed and enchanted by their mystery. And allow the beautiful birds and animals he celebrated in his writings to share this planet with us as rightful co-passengers.

(A. Rangarajan is a freelance writer.)

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