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Stories from the unknown wild

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Feted wildlife photographer Thomas Vijayan’s images offer a deep insight into the natural world

It was freezing cold in the Altai Mountains where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan come together. Wildlife photographer Thomas Vijayan has been waiting patiently inside an ingenious hideout for the elusive Pallas cat. This endangered, fluffy animal with unusual eyes is very difficult to capture on camera in the wild. Setting his cameras in their position, Vijayan waited in hope, not moving a bit lest the cautious animal senses his presence.

“When after nearly half-an-hour or so the cat moved towards the frame, I tried to move but found to my chagrin that my arms and legs had frozen. I could not stir, it wasl frightening. The cat moved and fortunately I managed to pull myself to the nearest camera and click. There’s nothing better than shooting this cat in the wild, in the snow. I firmly believe that one good picture is worth many ordinary ones,” says Vijayan of his expedition in search of the Pallas cat in February 2018.

What makes this much-awarded wildlife photographer’s frames different is that he gives a new life to the wild. His images, very often, turn into symbols and stories of the natural world. In his frames animals blend seamlessly with the backdrop creating the effect of a painting, a work of art.

Vijayan’s love for big cats knows no bounds. In fact, he has been on a constant hunt to capture felines in all their majesty, all their moods. And many of them, like the one titled ‘Count Down’, has a story. In Masai Mara, Vijayan was tracking a family of three cheetahs, a mother and two cubs. “Cheetahs are easy to track as their preferred environment is an open area. The animal uses these open spaces and are incredibly fast in catching their prey. Once, a cat pounced on a herd of gazelles, zeroing in on a baby and got ready for the kill. It then waited, allowed the baby to move around even huddling against the predator. A moment later, quite surprisingly the cheetah pushed the baby gazelle away allowing it scamper off.”

This series of photographs won for Vijayan the National Geographic Photographer of the Year award in 2017, one among the many honours he has received for an outstanding oeuvre of work.

An architect by profession, Vijayan who hails from Kottayam, was born and brought up in Bangalore. He runs his own business in Dubai, but is settled with his family in Canada. “Wildlife photography is my passion, it has been a major part of my life. Starting off with a Pentax, a Yashica and a roll of films shooting birds at Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary where we went every time someone from my native place came to Bangalore. I remember the thrill of watching the roll of film being exposed in the dark room of the studio and seeing the images come alive. I still have some of those early photographs,” says Vijayan, who has travelled all the continents in search of astounding images from original habitats.

Appointed as the first Ambassador by Nikon Middle East, Vijayan was recently voted second among the top 100 photographers of web by XXLPIX, a Berlin-based photo products company. But perhaps the greatest honour that came Vijayan’s way was in 2015 when he won the Natural History Museum’s (London) Wildlife Photographer of the Year-People’s Choice Award. And that photograph, ‘Swinging Time’, was picked from 42,000 entries submitted from 96 countries. The picture that travelled across 60 cities in the world as part of an exhibition is now part of the Museum’s special collection. It remains Vijayan’s favourite photograph.

“It was shot at Kabini, Karnataka. I was with a group of photographers on a tiger trail. It was evening when we spotted this mischievous little grey langur dangling playfully from the tails of two grown-ups. The young langur looks like he is having a rollicking time, swinging playfully on the tails, while the adults, perched nonchalantly on the branch above, are caught in different moods. Strangely, none of the other photographers thought this was worth capturing.”

Vijayan has a few tips to aspiring wildlife photographers. “Try to understand the wildlife as much as possible, research animal behaviour. This will enable you to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. You always need a good deal of patience.”

He often pre-sets a frame and waits for the animal to come into it. Vijayan did that recently at Seward, Alaska, where he had gone along with his brother Dr. Thomas Rajan. “We had stayed there for four days, got a few pictures, but I was not satisfied. There was this beautiful backdrop where I hoped something would blend. My brother had to leave but I decided to stay on. On the second day, waiting with the backdrop in my viewfinder, I got the humpback whale. It loomed into my pre-set frame, the majestic rounded black back and large wing-like flippers made a mesmerising sight.”

There have been innumerable moments in Vijayan’s life that have turned his beliefs and assumptions upside down. One such was his experience in Ranthambore, Rajasthan. Vijayan came across a tiger on the hunt, targeting a herd of spotted deer. “As we watched the chase, a Nilgai suddenly crossed the tiger’s path. The tiger struck it down and turned its attention on the fallen prey. It dragged the dead Nilgai behind a bush. Instead of tearing into the carcass, the tiger waited; it looked disturbed. It was then that we noticed that the Nilgai was pregnant and the foetus must have died with the mother. What followed was most extraordinary. The tiger plucked some fresh leaves off a branch with its teeth, put it near the carcass and began to claw at the stomach of the animal. It cut open the body layer after layer. Then it removed the still-born baby from the womb along with the leaves, gently put it on a boulder and dragged the kill away. It told a lot about life in the jungle, the compassion, sense of justice.”

A Nikon Ambassador for Middle East and Africa, Vijayan was chosen for his passionate enthusiasm, talent, spirited storytelling skills through his camera and lenses. “Nature is a gift for me. To be close to wildlife makes me feel instantly at peace. I feel completely relaxed; you don’t need to demonstrate anything. For me there is something called ‘perfection’ in any photograph. Every click is an experience, the more the better,” says Vijayan.

Experimenting with underwater photography, Vijayan looks for the ‘split image’ that will slice images into even parts with a reflection of what happens under water. Some of his photographs from Antarctica have already won appreciation. He will now be travelling to Chile chasing the puma in its natural habitat and then to shoot Emperor Penguins at the restricted zone in the Central Antarctica.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 11:13:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/feted-wildlife-photographer-thomas-vijayans-stunning-oeuvre/article23340793.ece

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