RS Dharmakumarsinhji (centre) with Frank and John Craighead. (PHOTO COURTESY: AAPNU BHAVNAGAR)
RS Dharmakumarsinhji (centre) with Frank and John Craighead. (PHOTO COURTESY: AAPNU BHAVNAGAR)

Wildbuzz: The spirit of learning

Sarfrazuddin Malik, scion of a family of erstwhile jagirdars from Dasada, Gujarat, nurtured an inborn, insatiable passionfor falconry
By Vikram Jit Singh
UPDATED ON MAR 07, 2021 01:25 AM IST

To be born a Gujarati Indian and yet gladly forsake a life in San Diego, California. To follow it up and turn down an offer to live in a palace just to learn an ancient art. So goes an inspirational episode in humanity’s eternal quest for knowledge.

Sarfrazuddin Malik, scion of a family of erstwhile jagirdars from Dasada, Gujarat, nurtured an inborn, insatiable passionfor falconry. Malik’s immigration to California was replete with opportunities to train and fly birds such as kestrels but those American birds did not leave him satisfied. Then, Malik came across an article in the National Geographic (NG) of 1942 on the Maharajas of Bhavnagar who were flying great raptors such as Peregrine and Saker falcons, Eurasian sparrowhawks and Northern goshawks (Punjab’s state bird) under the tutelage of Baazdar Fatekhan’s dynasty. Bhavnagar was so close to Malik’s home — right under his proverbial nose — but here he was flying lesser falcons in faraway foreign fields!

Appointed hereditary falconers to the Maharajas of Bhavnagar, the Baazdar Khans were Pathans originally hailing from Talwandi Chaudhrian, Sultanpur Lodhi, in Punjab. The Bhavnagar royals included the acclaimed field naturalist, conservationist, author and falconer, the late prince RS Dharmakumarsinhji, who had been asked by the government of India in 1950 to survey Punjab and four other states to find suitable wildlife areas.

Baazdar Makekhan with a goshawk and (right) Gulam Hussain with Sarfazuddin Malik holding a Peregrine falcon. (PHOTOS: FRANK & JOHN CRAIGHEAD / ROYAL STUDIO)
Baazdar Makekhan with a goshawk and (right) Gulam Hussain with Sarfazuddin Malik holding a Peregrine falcon. (PHOTOS: FRANK & JOHN CRAIGHEAD / ROYAL STUDIO)

“The NG article clutched tightly in my hand, I abandoned California in 1970 and met the erstwhile prince of Bhavnagar, Shivbhadrasinhji, and requested him to allow me to learn falconry from Fatekhan’s grandson Gulam Hussain. Since I came from a family of jagirdars, the prince offered me his Bhavnagar palace to stay but said that Hussain could not stay in the palace while teaching me as he was a servant. But learning falconry required getting up before dawn to tame the hawk or falcon and imbibing the nuances from the ustaad 24 x 7. I politely declined the offer of the palace and moved into Hussain’s small house. The house was packed with family so I would sleep some nights on the terrace’s chicken coop and developed ring-like rashes on my skin due to parasites. The result was that I learnt with precision the art of falconry, recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of mankind,” Malik told this writer.

Malik’s single-minded devotion to his ustaad stood him in good stead. His expertise underpinned the complexities of managing raptors at the Ahmedabad zoo for several years. At 72, Malik is actively engaged in the rescue and rehabilitation of injured and ill raptors and also nurturing and setting free fallen raptor nestlings. He is a dogged advocate in the field for pesticide-free agriculture as contamination harms birds immensely,as established by the effects of DDT on Peregrine breeding in the US.

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