Bee eaters

Before a mad doctor convinced a majority of my neighbours that our gardens should be saturated with pesticide, we could see many Green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) outside our window. Now I have to travel to jungles to see this auld acquaintance. They are easy to photograph, since they like to perch in the open and keep an eye on flying prey. They make quick forays to catch a passing insect and come back to their perch.

I caught this particular one in Kanha NP, cocking its head before a flight. I’ve noticed this movement before. I think it moves its head to improve its fix on the prey just before pushing off its perch. Binocular vision has its limit for birds, because of the relatively small size of head. Moving the eye gives it better depth perception through parallax. I superposed the two separate shots to give a sense of how much head movement it makes in order to get a fix. I think it more than doubles the parallax that it would have if it didn’t do this.

Corbett NP in May turns out to be a great place for spotting several different kinds of bee eaters. I completed a checklist of three more of them. The Chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is perhaps the second most widespread, being visible in the Terai grasslands and the lower Himalayas, both coasts of India, all through Bengal and the north-east, and eastwards through Myanmar all the way to Vietnam, south to Malayasia and, strangely, of all the islands of Indonesia, only in Java. I probably have several other photos of it from other places, but this was the only shot I have from Corbett NP.

I’ve seen the Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) less often, although it has a larger range: all of India south of Jammu and all of Punjab, including in Pakistan, eastwards into the Philippines and Papua New-Guinea. I remember seeing it in Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Assam. The photo above comes from just outside Corbett NP.

The Blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is the least common of these, and I have only a couple of photos. The photo in the triptych above comes from Manas NP. It is visible in the Nilgiris and the two coasts around it, the jungles of Odisha and central India, and in the Terai grasslands. Further east also, its range is fairly restricted: North-east of India, and Bangladesh up to Vietnam and the north of Malayasia. Unlike the other three, perhaps it shuns gardens and tended forests. Since the last September I managed to spot all the six bee-eaters that can be seen in India. I find the Blue-bearded the most interesting of the lot, not only because it is less common, but also because it is the only bee-eater seen in India which is not in the genus Merops.

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.