What TNA Perumal can teach you about viewing wildlife

Perumal was a master in the darkroom, a photographer who kept meticulous records, an old-fashioned naturalist who just knew things when he inhaled the forest air


Perumal’s photo of an owl holding a lizard in its beak. Photo: TNA Perumal
Perumal’s photo of an owl holding a lizard in its beak. Photo: TNA Perumal

It’s not surprising that Jim Corbett’s Jungle Lore was one of Thanjavur Nateshachary Ayyam Perumal’s favourite books. It’s not your classic man-eater narrative powered by Corbett’s .275 Rigby (though the rifle does make an appearance of course). Here Corbett devotes some time to ruminating about joy, knowledge and nature’s grand scheme. He says things like, “My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wildlife is happy in its natural surroundings. In nature there is no sorrow, and no repining.” Perumal would have identified with this intimate peek into Corbett’s lifelong love affair with the jungle.

You may know Perumal, 84, one of India’s leading wildlife photographers, who died in Bengaluru last week. He had suffered a stroke last year but recovered quickly and until the day before he died, he was a regular at a studio and print lab on Brigade Road where he spent time tinkering with images, says naturalist and author Shanthi Chandola. “He died in harness—he never stopped working,” she adds.

By all accounts, Perumal was a quiet man with a big heart, helpful to all, a master in the darkroom, a photographer who kept meticulous records, an old-fashioned naturalist who just knew things when he inhaled the forest air. He authored books, won many awards and was mentor to many. “He was never a household name because he worked in the shadows,” says Bittu Sahgal, founding editor of Sanctuary Asia.

Whether it was the elephant who charged him one misty day and then stopped short because of the trench between them, or the vine snake that finally pounced on a frog, Perumal’s photographs usually had a backstory. He recorded the drama with words and pictures.

Sahgal recalls the time when he was at Jogi Mahal in Ranthambore with Perumal and his lifelong friend and patron M.Y. Ghorpade. They heard a chital call across the lake. Let’s go, Perumal said, leading in a jeep with Ghorpade. Sahgal followed in another jeep. “We halted on the mud path and stayed still in the jeep for 40 minutes. Then Perumal gestured that we should reverse our jeep by 30m. It was half intuition, half knowledge. A few seconds later, a tiger walked between our jeeps,” says Sahgal.

The early issues of Sanctuary are filled with wildlife images by Perumal and Ghorpade, pictures that guaranteed readers would fall in love with nature. Over the past few decades, Sahgal spent enough time with the two talented and knowledgeable wildlife photographers and watched Perumal unfailingly practise an important ethical lesson: Never disturb the animals.

In a glossy, out-of-print book of his best photographs titled Reminiscences Of A Wildlife Photographer, Perumal noted how wildlife-viewing had become another adventure sport. Once he witnessed a cow elephant in Thekkady, Kerala, pick up a log and fling it at a boat. It missed narrowly.

“If you force an animal to look at you, you’ve changed his behaviour,” Perumal would tell Sahgal. Yet animals often looked into Perumal’s camera. This was because he made himself as inconspicuous as possible and waited, a strategy that always paid dividends whether it was biding time till the monitor lizard curved its long tail (which it did involuntarily when it wanted to grasp its prey better) or waiting two-and-a-half hours for the tigress to return to feed on the buffalo that she had killed. Like most animals, she had less patience than the photographer.

Perumal’s secret to a good picture was deceptively simple: “Know your subject, use the best optics, focus sharply and click at the best moment, without camera shake.” Other elements that he believed made a picture stand out: Keep compositions strong and uncluttered; contrast tones of animal (dark) and background (light); use morning light to highlight the texture of an animal’s coat; and shoot in the evening sun to enhance pictorial quality. “To be a successful black and white photographer, one needs to learn how the film sees the colours in the scene rather than how one’s eyes sees them,” wrote the photographer, who shot in colour and black and white.

In his 20s, Perumal often hunted animals until one day, just after he had shot a barn owl at a village in Karnataka, he bumped into famous bird photographer O.C. Edwards, who was then the dormitory warden and a teacher at Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bengaluru. Edwards changed his life. Perumal switched his gun for a camera and learnt important photography lessons in patience and perfection. He took his first serious bird picture, of an Oriental white-eye, in 1960.

From Edwards he learnt to photograph birds-at-nest, by using an air-release remote control with a camouflaged camera on a machan that was gradually moved closer to the nest. He added some infrared technology and used this technique later to shoot brilliant night-time images of owls, which he described as avian tigers. He usually photographed the birds at year-end, a time when they lay eggs and when the ragi crop ripens. He always wore a riding helmet while photographing them because he had heard the tale of bird photographer Eric Hosking losing an eye to an owl.

Elephants and tigers were Perumal’s favourite animals, says Sahgal, though he loved all creatures big and small. “Psychologically, it may be exciting to photograph the larger, charismatic animals which may give a sense of superiority in outwitting an animal capable of retaliating. But photographing the smaller creatures and flora is equally exciting, demanding greater skill, patience and sensitivity and technique,” Perumal wrote. It’s one more lesson we would do well to remember.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. The author tweets as @priyaramani

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