Over the past two Sundays, two different sets of children could be seen trailing behind naturalist, teacher and author Yuvan Aves along Chennai’s beaches — identifying crustaceans, solving puzzles, listening intently to his descriptions of creatures of the deep.
The children were enthralled, spellbound and at times visibly terrified after learning about some of the coastal fauna found there such as shell-binders/decorator worms, worms that literally dress up in the shells they find nearby; porcupine fish, a species that can expose spikes from its body after bloating up; and the most unique of them all, the ghost crab, which got its name because of being the only crab species to have eyes outside the body. Who knew that things most of us simply call shells and clams are actually molluscs, which are further divided into classifications such as bivalves (molluscs enclosed in a shell of two halves) and cones?
Prism, the educational wing for children by The Chennai Photo Biennale, arranged these shorewalks, along with the Madras Naturalist society. They are an extension of Yuvan’s Living Coasts project, that is also on display at The Chennai Photo Biennale III- Maps of Disquiet. As Yuvan points out: “The larger objective of the shore walk is to create connections with our local landscapes. It’s better when this connection starts in young children. It carries on for a lifetime because perception of the space changes for children every time as they’re receptive, whereas it is slightly difficult for adults to create this connection with landscapes around them.”
“We create specific programmes where young children are the primary audience. The Biennale offers people new ways to explore their own city through a new artist or a new lens,” adds Gayatri Nair, one of the co-founders of the Chennai Photo Biennale and the organiser of the event.
The children were asked to sketch anything new or peculiar that they found in and around the beach, and also identify several crustaceans by referring to a booklet with information about the 96 species. Yuvan also pulled out several shells and clams from his bag for the group to identify, before conducting a game of Beach Bingo, which worked as a checklist for the children to see if they had spotted all the 16 objects common to the beach including crustaceans, molluscs, fishing nets and seabirds.
Thirteen-year old Eshwar Parameswaran, one of the participants, said, “I expected the event to be like a regular classroom, but being part of it was a very intriguing experience. We learned about coastal creatures that we had never seen before. I’m really excited to explore more coastal landscapes.”
Yuvan explained how in his decade-long teaching career, he has never “found a single child who isn’t completely enthralled by Nature”. He added that the late pioneering naturalist EO Wilson calls this ‘biophilia’: our natural need or affinity to connect with other life forms. “So it has nothing to do with conditioning, I’m a mere facilitator or a bridge for a natural connection between children and landscapes, which is a very natural process.”
Upon being asked if he too got introduced to natural landscapes from a young age, leading to him becoming a naturalist, he says, “ I got introduced to Nature as a kid because my mother’s style of parenting was to observe and then address. She facilitated me with information about Nature, flora and fauna through books after observing my deep interest in them right from childhood. I was also inspired by a lot of my school teachers who were also naturalists. The challenging part in my journey was to deal with some people who asked me to treat it like a hobby and not a profession, but looking back at things now, I’m fortunately able to sustain myself very well while being a naturalist, educator and an activist.”