Failed dispassion

When everyone else around me is waiting with bated breath for a tiger to emerge from the grass, my attention wanders to the blades of grass or the trees around us. The Family calls it my ADHD, the need to constantly take photos. Are they worth taking? The Family grants that some may be. “But are they art?” A confused friend asked me recently, adding “Normally you take pretty good photos.” So that’s the answer. Boredom is in the mind of the beholder.

We waited in the shade of a tree for a while because we’d heard the alarm call of a chital (Axis axis). These spotted deer are easily startled, but they do come across tigers more easily than us. As we waited, fruitlessly, as it turned out, I admired the sunlight on a dead tree across the road from us. You can lose yourself in the gnarly weathered pattern of the wood. That’s what our world is, we are.

The other thing I do at such times is play with the presentation. At what distance does the photo of a chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabarica) turn from a portrait of the bird to a minimal composition of light and shape? In the first crop what does your eye do after seeing the shape of the branch and the bird? Does it land on the play of white on blue, cloud and sky? Would the silhouette of a panting changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) qualify as a minimalist abstract? Or is there too much detail in the silhouette of the decayed branch? The photo of the chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) can be seen as a composition in crossing lines, but is it too full of detail to be called minimal? Bird photography is always a lesson in presentation.

I went from jungle to the garden to find more examples of such compositions. A curtain of green opening to reveal two snails who have found the plant’s “bed of secret joy” would have been minimal if I’d cropped the snails from the photo, isn’t it? Now it is not. Instead it packs in a lot of stuff: the relation between the plant and the snail, the details of the leaf, and, even though the focus is not on it, the colour and shape of the nail’s shell. The tiny dry leaf that landed on a parchment on my table would become a minimalist composition if I’d drawn back further and given more space to the white of the parchment. But what is it now?

I didn’t think this photo of a boat on Bhimtal has the aggressive minimalism of a Brancusi. The Family reminded me that I am no Brancusi. I concede the point, but is there any reason to aim at less than the best? Maybe I can darken the colour of the boat so that this just looks like a pair of triangles suspended in a void. It is construction sites in Mumbai and sculptural buildings, like one in Kobe’s Bay Area, give me the best opportunities for minimalist photos. But as you can see, even these do not reach the stillness of Malevich’s Black Square.

One of the most famous exchanges in the Bhagwadgita, a dialogue between Arjun and Krishn at the beginning of a civil war, is Arjun’s cry, “The mind is very fickle indeed, turbulent, strong, and obstinate.” Every human mind is the same, and all of us want some control over it. The answer that Krishn gives sounds like no answer at all, “[control over the mind] can be achieved through sincere practice and dispassionate detachment.” But this is the only answer we have. It was the beginning of Gandhi’s political philosophy of Anashakti, detachment. And one can adapt it to the art of photography as well. What is needed to tame the turbulent world into minimalist images is discipline and dispassion: giving up the attachment to detail, to the exactitude that photography seems to bring automatically.

Which hawk-eagle?

One species that I find most confusing in the field is the Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). The least confusing aspect is that there are two morphs. The one you see in these photos is called the light morph. The dark morph does not have the streaked white chest, and is much darker uniformly. But more than that, the field identification is rendered more confusing because of controversies about subspecies and cryptic species. This has left a legacy of birders looking at multiple characteristics and distinguishing between features which could perhaps be widely variable without distinguishing species or subspecies. I will not enter that controversy (you can read a condensed version in its Wikipedia article) but will go with the Linnaean wisdom: if two things have the same binomial, they are one species.

It’s a common enough bird, easily spotted across India, south of Jammu, below the Tibetan plateau, and eastward across Asia right up to Banda Sea, in central and South Vietnam and the Philippines. What was uncommon about this sighting in Kanha NP was that I found it in a little muddy pool drinking water in great gulps. It looked up as we stopped, but after that it didn’t pay us much attention. It is the apex predator in its own niche, after all. I’d never seen it drinking water before, so I didn’t know whether it was extra thirsty because of the heat or what looked like an orgy of drinking was normal. But then, just a week before, I’d seen a small but feisty Jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) drive one away by flying directly at it. I wouldn’t have thought that was normal either, except that a much more experienced birder said that he’d seen smaller raptors shooing away bigger ones before. The longer you watch birds, the more interesting behaviour you see. I suppose all that it means is that, within their physical limits, creatures have more autonomy and adaptability than they were once supposed to have. Hawk-eagle, thy name is change.