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.

Old favourites and a new acquaintance

I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.

Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.