Dhritiman Mukherjee is already a legend in wildlife photography, but his quest for that sense of wonder remains as pure as ever
He has just come out of a dive when I call him. Every morning for 10 days now, he tells me, he has been swimming with the bull sharks in Fiji’s Pacific Harbour, about 45km from the capital, Suva. Bull sharks are considered the most dangerous among sharks, more so than the infamous great white, and both these species, along with a third—tiger sharks—are historically the species most likely to attack humans. One of them crashed into him this morning, he says, adding, “Nothing happened". I begin to say, ‘Yes, indeed, thank God’, when I realize he is talking about the safety of his equipment, not his own.
I am talking to Dhritiman Mukherjee, one of India’s finest nature photographers—a characterization he thinks silly. Mukherjee is known most widely for his iconic photographs of the notoriously elusive snow leopard, but his body of work spans a wide range of rare species, like the Bengal Florican and Western Tragopan in the wild, and pioneering conservation work. His photography has been featured internationally and in India, including the National Geographic and BBC publications, The New York Times and Lonely Planet; he has won countless awards, including the prestigious Carl Zeiss Conservation Award (2013) and the Windland Smith Rice Award (wildlife, 2014); and he is a founding member of Saevus, an outstanding natural history and wildlife photography magazine. Mention all this to him and, as with the bull sharks, he shrugs it all off.
I ask him a hundred times, and in as many different ways, the troubles he has had to face, the complications he has had to unknot, so that I may take that material to explain the scale of his expeditions, to paint an epic picture. I want to hear him talk about the times he was exhausted, the times it was dangerous, when he almost gave up, or the things he is most proud of.
A physics graduate who abandoned any thoughts of a conventional career in favour of whiling away his days rock- climbing and mountaineering, and who made the decision to be a full-time wildlife photographer after a chance trip to the sanctuaries in Bharatpur and Kanha, Mukherjee is the original vagabond. Those who know him, know that he is most comfortable when he is in the wilderness, travelling on whim for most parts of the year, sometimes spending up to 300 days in the field, and rarely ever on assignments, which he hates for their restrictions. He has swum with humpback whales in Reunion Island and with sperm whales in Sri Lanka; flown in a Cessna over the Namib desert in Africa, from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei, shooting landscapes; trekked endlessly in search of the Himalayan brown bear and crouched in predawn darkness amidst tiger growls to photograph a rare species of bustard; survived sub-zero temperatures in search of snow leopards and walked for months together with the semi-nomadic Gaddi tribe across Miyar Valley and the Dhauladhar range of Himachal Pradesh. And he has spent countless days, months and years tramping India’s jungles and grasslands, its mountains and wetlands, in search of endangered species and species so rare that they have hardly been photographed, ever or since.
He gives me nothing. The way he explains it, the troubles and complications and dangers are all part of the game, not worth the mention. He has been chased by rhinos and bears but he refuses to talk about it because he doesn’t want to encourage the idea that it is somehow glamorous to find yourself attacked. “We are not on the menu," he says, pointing out that most such situations occur when the animal finds itself surprised or when we do something stupid. Where is the question of exhaustion and fear, he asks: “I have chosen to do this, this is fun, I love being in the wild. It would be hard work if I didn’t enjoy it", and “I only fear humans." Pride? I get a snort out of him.
I change tack and ask him which moments have been the most memorable, the ones that gave him most joy, and he talks about ducks. At the Maguri wetlands near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Assam, he had gone to shoot a variety of rare migratory ducks; gadwalls, Eurasian wigeons, red-crested pochards, the northern pintail, among many others. It was, literally, a wet dream. Except, the birds proved skittish, and each time Mukherjee got close to them, they would fly away. So, naturally, he devised a hide, using trunks of banana trees to make the platform and long grasses to camouflage his equipment. He left the hide alone for a week so the ducks learnt to accept it as part of the natural environment.
By now, Mukherjee had developed a fever and a body rash from having had to stand in the cold wetland water all day, with leeches lodged into most parts of his body. But once he had figured out the pattern, he couldn’t give up. He inserted himself among the thicket of water hyacinth, making a wreath out of it to cover his equipment and himself. Then, chest-deep in water, he waited. At 3pm, the ducks came.
If he had to sink himself into wetlands for ducks, for the Narcondam Hornbill he had to travel to the easternmost island of the Andamans, closer to Myanmar than to India. This endemic species of the hornbill, of whom only 300 remain, is exclusively found on the Narcondam Island—reason enough for Unesco to list this otherwise minuscule oceanic island of volcanic origin as a World Heritage Site candidate.
Located 240km north-east of Port Blair, it takes some getting to, and the only way is to be ferried by the coast guard, which drops off rations every two weeks for a small police camp, the only human presence on an otherwise uninhabited island. While there have been a few other photographers who have been to the island and shot the Narcondam Hornbill in its habitat, Mukherjee’s work is extensive and unrivalled. He remained on the island for 15 days, camping with the police in the little fringe of a beach that girds the highly temperamental and rocky surface, spending his days suspended from tall trees because he wanted to shoot the bird at eye level. Today, his photos of the Narcondam Hornbill are the most featured, and immediately recognizable. And it’s in this sort of work that you see Mukherjee’s conservationist side. His pictures are not just beautiful, they are the face of an important conservation campaign against the government’s decision to allow a military radar base installation in this extremely fragile habitat.
Climbing up to 4,400m in temperatures ranging below -30 degrees Celsius, Mukherjee had arrived in a village near Uley, about 70km from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, all because he had received word that a snow leopard had killed a yak calf and was likely to linger there for up to seven days. As Mukherjee made his way from Leh, heavy snowfall cut off route after return route. His only choice was to keep going. Once in Uley, he set up his hide and his equipment, staying in it day after day in full sight of the snow leopard.
“The snow leopard guessed someone was there but he wasn’t sure. After seven days I came out of the hide but he didn’t run away; he showed me teeth but he was comfortable. We had developed a strange understanding. It was an invisible relationship."
“I will have to go where no one has gone before," he says.
It isn’t bravado. Mukherjee is simply being practical; for a picture worth anything, it needs to be taken in the day when the light is right. But bears have an incredible sense of smell and even the remotest hint of human presence—for example, the lingering scent after someone has set a camera trap—is enough to turn them nocturnal. So the only real way is to find a brown bear before anyone else does, before even the herders or the shepherds or the nomads, and take a photo. He is conscious of his limitations—“I will have to do it in the time I have my physical strength and fitness and stamina"—but entirely oblivious to how remarkable it is to set goals like these for himself.
Speaking to Mukherjee, I wonder why he does it. He maintains a pointedly spartan lifestyle, is single, and spends all his time moving from one expedition to another, most of it on pure whim. Unlike most of his peers, he shies away from monetizing his reputation with photography workshops, tours or appearances, declaiming the decision with an “I am still learning, what can I teach", but really meaning that he thinks it is a distraction from what he feels he needs to be doing all the time—being out there and taking great photos.
All this while, we have been speaking in Bengali and when I ask him the why question, he says, “Obaak howar jonno." It means to be struck by wonder, to be made speechless, a feeling of discovery, to be surprised. And I feel as though he has just let me into the most intimate thought process of explorers across different ages and corners of the earth. For travellers who take on a grand journey, these epic travels that might paralyse them, roast them with fever, bleed them, blind them, leave them broke or nearly dead, do it not for what is at the end of it, no, not even for the journey, but for that sense of wonder, to be obaak.