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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 14, November 1-15, 2012
The national treasure that was M. Krishnan
By Kumaran Sathasivam

The Madras Naturalists' Society, 'Prakriti', and the IIT (Madras) Wildlife Club are celebrating the M. Krishnan Centennial on November 3rd at the IIT(M) campus.

A self-portrait found in the book
M. Krishnan: Eye in the Jungle.

This year marks the birth centenary of M. Krishnan, the accomplished writer and wildlife photographer. Although Krishnan had had training in biology, he was an amateur naturalist – as opposed to a professional biologist – or scientist. For much of his life, Krishnan was a freelancer. A considerable amount of his writing was on Nature, but it is evident his involvement with natural history was purely for the sheer satisfaction that he derived from the pursuit.

In the 19th Century and in the first half of the 20th Century, there were many amateur naturalists in India who had a passion for studying the fauna and flora of the country. They had diverse callings. There was, for example, Lt. Col. F.C. Fraser, who studied the dragonflies of the subcontinent and became the authority on this group, eventually writing the Fauna of British India volumes on the Odonata. Another army officer, Colonel F. Wall, was an expert on snakes. There were many ornithologists, among whom were Hugh Whistler and Stuart Baker, both of them police officers, Eugene Oates, who worked in the Public Works Department, and A.O. Hume, a civil servant and a founder of the Indian National Congress. M.A. Wynter-Blyth, the headmaster of a school in the Nilgiris and later the principal of a college in Gujarat, is known for his book on Indian butterflies; he also had a keen interest in the lions of Gir. Together, these and many other British naturalists laid the foundation on which our knowledge of India's biodiver-sity has been built.

But among the amateur naturalists, Krishnan is singular in three respects. First, Krishnan was Indian, whereas the majority of the others were British. Second, while a great many of the naturalists were specialists in certain fields, Krishnan's scope extended over a very broad range of living things and themes. Third, there were very few indeed who could write as elegantly as Krishnan did for a wide audience about matters relating to Indian wildlife and nature.

Krishnan's publications could be classified into two types. Of the first type is the purely scientific work that he published, notably in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Krishnan's notes and articles that appeared in this journal provide an indication of the wide range over which his interest and authority extended. He wrote on, among a variety of fauna, centipedes; the migration of the bar-headed goose; elephants and gaur in Mudumalai; deer in Wynaad; the breeding of water birds; the saltwater crocodiles of Bhitarkanika; the movements of rosy pastors in Karnataka; hunting of chital by wild dogs; and emotions in mammals.

Krishnan was the first recipient of a fellowship from the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund. With the help of this grant, he completed an ecological survey of the larger mammals of peninsular India. It was again in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society that he published the results of this survey.

The second type of work of Krishnan's was written for publication in newspapers and magazines. These articles, forming the bulk of Krishnan's oeuvre, could be categorised as 'popular literature'. By writing these articles, Krishnan said he wished to pass on to his readers some of the enjoyment he had derived from Nature.

Krishnan injected his own brand of humour into his writings – a humour of the kind that catches the reader unawares as he or she savours the text, a humour that triggers an involuntary snort of laughter.

Once, as a young man, Krishnan visited Tirukkalukunram, a holy shrine atop a hillock near Mahabalipuram, which used to be visited daily at noon by a pair of vultures. A priest used to offer rice to these birds, which they consumed. According to local legend, they were saints in avian form.

Krishnan wrote that he could "testify to the fallibility of the daily visits of the pious birds … no birds turned up at the feeding rock, in spite of the priest's loud invitations and widely waved arms. No vulture of any sort was visible in the skies, and I concluded that a cow must have died on the hillside beyond that day. The priest made no comment, beyond pointing out to the slight drizzle that there was, but an elderly gentleman by my side volunteered a complete explanation. He was a native, and assured us that the absence of the birds was most exceptional; in fact, they were absent only when some major sinner, who should never have been admitted to the precincts, was there. And I must say I did not like the rather pointed look he gave me."

In another instance, Krishnan had the opportunity to observe the development of a fledgeling white-headed babbler. This time the setting was his garden in Madras. He begins the account with a description of the setting:

"After a solid breakfast I smoked my favourite pipe and, while my table was being cleared and dusted, had a nice, cold wash. Then I had a cup of strong, hot coffee. I was preparing to work. By two o'clock I had decided on the plan of work – before tackling hard jobs it is wise to spend a moment in planning the attack."

Krishnan's style of writing made for pleasurable reading. Zafar Futehally wrote that even Krishnan's "description of common events holds your interest because of his writing". In J.C. Daniel's words, "The craftsmanship that went into every one of his pieces made them a delight to read. The balanced sentence, the well-turned phrase and the elegant idiom reigned supreme … it is the style of writing that gives science the human touch." But Krishnan's articles were not merely entertaining. They were scientifically accurate and objective. And they were full of information. It has been noted that every piece of Krishnan's holds some new information for even 'the seasoned naturalist'.

It is remarkable that Krishnan's works were greatly based on his experience and original observations. Many of them could well have been published in technical journals, on the basis of the value of the records in them. In one popular article, Krishnan has provided what is probably the first record of mass migration of butterflies in India. In another, Krishnan described an exhibition of cooperative defensive behaviour by sambhar when attacked by wild dogs.

Just as Krishnan's writings for general audiences had a fair amount of scientific information, so were his technical publications eminently readable, in contrast to the dry-as-dust descriptions that are characteristic of such stuff. Here is a sample, an extract from a note that Krishnan published after observing that koels consume with impunity the fruit of the highly poisonous yellow oleander:

"The Koel then proceeds to another fruit, taking no notice of the one it has sent earth-wards, and after eating from 3 or 4 fruits (every one of which falls down after a few pieces have been pecked out) it flies away. A furtive, impetuous haste characterises its fruit eating, and tender green branches are frequently broken in its avid hurry to get at the fruit (I have noticed the same, literal 'tearing hurry' in Koels consuming the crimson fruit of Cephalandra indica)."

On reflection, the distinctiveness between Krishnan's technical and popular writings is really not sharp.

Apart from providing a wealth of observations, Krishnan proposed various hypotheses in his writings, some of them almost en passant. In one article, Krishnan suggests that toads inflate themselves when threatened so that the pressure exerted by the lungs on the skin releases a repellent substance more readily from their warts – this is in contrast to the commonly provided explanation that the toads are trying to look larger and more intimidating. In another article, Krishnan conjectured that sleeping dogs are alert to ground vibrations, which they sense through their bodies.

Some of Krishnan's hypotheses were to be proved to be true in the author's lifetime itself. Ramachandra Guha points out that Krishnan "anticipated high-tech science" when he reported that elephants communicated using sound of very low frequencies – infrasound. No doubt, other conjectures of Krishnan's will be "certified by technology-driven research" in time.

And that would be facilitated by a comprehensive compilation of Krishnan's writings. At present they are not readily accessible at one source. Further, as J.C. Daniel said, it would be "a tragedy indeed if [Krishnan's] negatives and meticulous field notes are not given the status of a national heritage (collection) and protected as such".

A sketch by Krishnan for a New Year Card for his friends Mr & Mrs R.A. Krishnaswamy.

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In this Issue

'Save this landmark building'
Why is our city 'Sink'ara Chennai?
For Metro Rail success a ring line is needed
Enjoying life with Nana
The national treasure that was M. Krishnan
A Vijayanagara-Chennai connection
'Munro' arrives in Madras
We regret...

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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