Naturally, bird-watching had to beat a hasty retreat in restive Kashmir. Dr Bakshi Jehangir is one of Kashmir’s renowned bird-watchers but he is far too engaged in dealing with wounded civilians as superintendent of a government medical facility in Srinagar to take time off to pursue his feathered friends. A traumatic encounter with the Army, a day before the Pathankot airbase attack in January, had red-flagged his birding adventurism. Dr Jehangir was clicking Red-wattled lapwings under a bridge situated on the highway to Jammu airport. Army personnel got suspicious and took Dr Jehangir to their camp. After a polite but extended screening process, the Army released Dr Jehangir as he furnished identity proofs and displayed the ‘incriminating evidence’ frozen on his camera’s memory card: preening lapwings!
The good news is that officers of the Indian Army have stepped into the breach and continued a tradition of British Indian Army officers such as Maj TC Jerdon and Lt Col RSP Bates, who documented and illustrated Kashmir’s avian riches with water colour paintings and later, photographs. In 2011, Col Anil Kumar, Lt Col Rohit Gupta and Capt Pankaj Dahiya wrote a pictorial guide, ‘Birds of Baramulla’, that included species of the Uri and Gulmarg LoC sectors.
Not to be left behind, Kupwara’s dense forests brimming with bears and birds found their own chronicler, Col Krishnandu Sarkar, who served multiple tenures in Kashmir till very recently. He utilised his deployments on the Kupwara LoC to capture bird images in forests inaccessible to most civilians. “’I was a jungle boy during my childhood, handling snakes with ease. My career took me to remote jungles and high altitudes, where dawn heralds a silence pregnant with mellifluous bird calls. For four months, I photographed the breeding cycle of the Eurasian roller, including moments when a parent brought too big a lizard/salamander for the chicks to eat. Since the parent did not have a knife and fork to cut it up for the kids, the feeding took multiple attempts and left the parent roller exasperated! Or, when an Ashy drongo sub-adult kept tossing in the air a live butterfly its parent brought as it was the youngster’s habit before gobbling a morsel. The butterfly kept escaping and the parent drongo kept catching it!’’ Col Sarkar told this writer.
A heart for darkness
From childhood, we are conditioned by culture and half-baked knowledge to fear darkness and serpents. Though both represent genuine dangers to human existence, there are many fears instilled in us which are unwarranted. Those who have ventured into the heart of darkness or the hidden life of serpents know that many of the imagined fears evaporate at the first step of bold exploration. An artistic interpretation of this theme is a painting captioned, ‘Life’, rendered by asst professor Mahesh Prajapati of the Government College for Arts, Chandigarh. The painting is on display at a national exhibition of the arts, ‘Untitled’, at the Punjab Kala Bhawan.
At first appreciation, Prajapati’s painting depicts a siege from creeping darkness and peeping snakes. But the man at the centre of the gathering storm stands calm and confident in a pool of light. “Snakes and darkness represent problems of life. But snakes and humans are both parts of nature and can co-exist. In Indian mythology, snakes also represent sexuality, gods like Shiva, and the power to relieve humans of their problems. My painting shows that a positive approach (the man in the light) invariably finds a path to reach its goal, which may be success, money etc. In my painting, the goal is romantic fulfilment as shown by a blissful couple on a bed of small stones at the painting’s top. The stones signify life’s many, many little troubles but nature’s powers of love and unification allow the couple to transcend the intrusion of stones,’’ Prajapati told this writer.
The exhibition also displays a photograph of the near-threatened species, the Oriental darter, contemptuously tossing a small fish. Hemant Kumar’s frame vibrates with life and colour and underscores nature’s abiding ethic: might privileges many ‘unfair’ rights. The Hyderabad-based Kumar’s other exhibit is of a River tern snapping a fish and that won him acclaim on National Geographic. Kumar’s lens prefers birds because he finds the pursuit more challenging than the allure of big cats. “Tigers are easy to photograph because they behave in a tame manner being used to tourists. But birders have to understand the behaviour/ecology of each species. For this darter photograph clicked at Ameenpur lake, Hyderabad, I had to slither like a snake for 30 minutes to get close, make the darter feel comfortable and expend hours in a cramped posture before capturing the definitive frame,’’ said Kumar.