The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

The art of photography

Many blogs and web sites teach you the craft of photography: focus, aperture, rule of thirds, leading lines. The art is something we have to puzzle out for ourselves. At some point I realized that one aspect of the art is not to show what you want people to see, but what you want people to feel. If it is a sense of peace and serenity that you are after, hide the details. Show fog.

We were off early in the morning to grab a hot paratha at a bazaar which had sprung up at a road crossing. The sun broke through the mist as we passed by Almora and hit the forest just beyond. Beautiful sight. As I took this photo, I knew it would convey a sense of calm and peace. The sense of rush, the craving for breakfast, that was my own. It did not express itself in the photo.

The Pearl river delta cuts up the southern coast of China into islets. The mega city of Guangzhou sprawls across it. From the top of Canton Tower I took a photo which shows Guangzhou at its calmest: the hour of sunset. Barges pass along the river, evoking a certain timelessness, which the misty look enhances. Guangzhou has the same weather as Mumbai, warm. What you see is not mist, but the sense the photo evokes is still calm. Hide the hurry, and everyone thinks things are calm.

This was a morning when I was calm and content. Sitting on the deck of a hotel floating on the warm waters of Lake Inle in Myanmar, I was thoroughly relaxed. A chai in hand, camera at my feet, I wondered how to convey that sense. Evoke fog, my head told me. So I took a reflection of the clouds in the waters of the lake, broken by the lily pads that grow around the hotel.

Annoyed? No one will know. A day of bird watching in the mountains of Darjeeling district was interrupted by fog. The only things I saw were drongos, too quick to photograph in the bad light. But this barred jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) sat placidly in front of me and preened. You want calm and serene? Take photos of an owl. Better still, one of an owl in fog.

I had come down from the Philosopher’s Walk, crossed the Neckar, and was making my way to Heidelberg’s railway station. I had to get a coffee and a roll before my train rolled in. I was in a bit of a hurry, and sweating mildly under my layers of warm clothes. But the tree on the other bank looked wonderful. A pair of European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) flew by as I took this photo. Lazy, calm, gliding circles, quite unusual for this squabbling and greedy species. That’s all you see here, not my need for a coffee. The art of photography is to exclude yourself and your own momentary feelings from the image, to retain only what you want to remember after many years.

Seoul-eseo on chikin supeu

The concierge at our hotel told The Family about a lantern festival in the Cheonggyecheon area of Seoul. “All the way in this cold drizzle to see lanterns” the bear in me protested. But The Family refused to let me sit and read. After nightfall we walked down to the stream and joined a large number of people gawking at the lanterns. The rain had stopped by the time we reached the floating barges with lanterns. On that cold November night, the sight felt like a warm bowl of Seoul-eseo on chikin supeu, or chicken soup from Seoul.

I quite enjoyed myself as I looked at the elaborate scenes from life in the Joseon era. The era spanned five hundred years, and life must have evolved during those centuries. But these spectacles are not meant for such nuanced views. I liked the floats that showed normal life: metalsmiths, farmers, school children. We saw the fourth edition of a Lantern Festival which is held in this place every November since 2009. It mirrors an older lantern festival in the town of Jinju in October of every year, commemorating the fall of Jinju Castle in 1593 to Japanese forces led by Hideyoshi.

December’s foggy freeze

You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.

Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.

Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.

Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.

Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?

Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.

Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.

Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, and with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.

Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.

Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We’d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport in Duesseldorf The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.

Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

Follow the sun

Look! Far down the track. Are those five wild dogs? Stop, take a record shot before going forward. We’d just turned into a track inside Tadoba’s jungle core, and found a bunch of Asian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus, also called dhole). This is much rarer than a tiger sighting. I’d only seen them as fleeting shapes in the jungle before now. We took photos, but before we could move, they came lolloping towards us. One of the scouts ran ahead of the pack and stopped, letting the other catch up. Behind, more of them were coming on to the track.

Two dogs in front and two at the back marked out a territory between which the rest of the group appeared, eventually numbering about ten. I couldn’t believe my luck. A whole group of them so relaxed in our presence! It is estimated that there are about 2500 individuals left in Asia. We were looking at half a percent of the world’s population. Ours was the only jeep on the track. Goodness, I thought. My pictures better turn out to be good, they are among the few human records of this encounter.

Asian wild dogs once ranged across the Eurasian continent. A million years ago you could have found its ancestors as far away as in northern Germany and Russia, and more modern ancestors as far west as in Portugal and Spain. After the last glacial era, the expansion of humans over their hunting grounds led to a slow contraction until now they can only be found in protected areas in central, south, east, and southeast Asia.

From more than a decade ago, I have a photo of a bunch of them running across a road in summer. Now, comparing the winter coat of the nearest scout with that photo, I saw that this is the right season for viewing them. The coat is thicker, and perhaps even more colourful. Nor was this an individual appearance; all the dogs seemed to have a more colourful and glossy appearance. I like the photo above, because it gives me a full picture of the lower jaw. If you are interested in family trees, then you can begin to use this photo to compare teeth with those of other canids. In other ways they seemed to resemble foxes more than dogs: the bushy tail for one, and the colour of the coat.

But fossils and genetics tell a different story. Dholes lie near the base of the canid family tree. Their ancestors separated from those of the African black-backed jackals about 3.5 million years ago. The ancestors of Dholes split from those of the African Wild dogs about half a million years later. Around 2.5 million years ago, the rapid differentiation began of their cousins who evolved into wolves, coyotes, the Golden jackal, and domesticated dogs. The dhole is not particularly close to either our pet dogs or to foxes (genus Vulpes).

The group began to drift off into the grassy firebreak between the track and the forest. A few of them began to munch on grass and leaves. I suppose this must be a characteristic of all canids, a way to get some roughage. None of them seemed to throw up after, in the way that some domestic dogs do. I saw some them indulge in play, rolling in the grass in ones and twos for short whiles. Since the grass was high enough to hide them once they lay down, I do not have photos of them at play which are clear enough to be shared.

As the last of the group drifted off the road, I realized that a sighting like this is so rare that I will perhaps never see something like this again. This will remain a memory to cherish even as I continue to enter the jungle again and again, in search of other sightings, other moments of bliss.

Web design: a masterclass

Helplessly hoping a striped harlequin would pass through the jungle near us, remembering gasping at such glimpses of tigers in the past, I glanced up to the interesting sight of the lady lingering over a hapless fly stuck in the web. By the time I sighted at her and adjusted the exposure against the bright sky she had nearly finished loosely wrapping it in silk.

I’d seen these giant wood spiders (Nephila pilipes) spin their webs across gaps between trees throughout this jungle. In some places, many of them clustered together, making interesting villages of webs. I hadn’t noticed any spinners when I’d come earlier, in the hottest months of the year. They abandon the webs and hide in trees and grass then. Now, seeing their webs, I was glad we had made this trip to Tadoba, even though it was precisely the season when we were least likely to see tigers. This particular web presented an interesting challenge. It was nearly edge on, and the strong backlight was a challenge, but I could see many males clustering around the female. I had to try photographing it.

But first a closeup. The female had a head and torso which was perhaps five centimeters long, and the legs were a little longer. I would estimate the size to be anywhere between fifteen and twenty centimeters. The males, one of which you can see in the photo above, could have been fifty times smaller. They seem to be opportunistic. Several of them hang about in a female’s web, seeking opportunities to mate or feed off her larder (see a photo below). The female does not mind even when they pass fairly close.

I looked carefully for eggs: masses of which are usually bound into a silk purse and tucked safely into the web. None were visible. I found later that this species actually stashes the purse in holes in the ground; bank vaults, if you please. The males seemed to crawl over the web quite fearlessly. The females of the species do not cannibalize the males. These are two major differences between N. pilipes and their nearest relatives. Reconstruction of the family tree of related spiders using genetic methods gives a result consistent with these differences. Genetically too, N. pilipes seems to stand apart from its closest family.

But let’s get on to web design. As you saw in the previous photos, the web is vertical. I’d seen that it wasn’t particularly symmetric, nor did there seem to be a neat spiral structure to the web. Also, very often the female hung off-center, significantly high up in the web. A study found that the heavier the individual, the more asymmetric is the web. The reason the spider waits above the center is that running down is faster than running up. There are other interesting aspects of the web design. N. pilipes seems to tailor the chemistry, and thereby the elasticity and strength of the web depending on the expected size of the prey. The giant dragonfly that you see in the photo above, with males feeding on it, could be the largest prey species that the spider finds. Going by that I would think that these webs are worth studying is more detail. Great design involves attention to many details.

Zig zag

Sometimes, on a quiet day, I’ll page through old photos. Looking at 2017 I saw quite a variety of urban architecture. Let me take you through it roughly in chronological order. The featured photo is from Chicago, looking along Chicago River from Eastside towards River Point Park. The river is a feat of engineering, its direction of flow having been reversed at the beginning of the 20th century CE, and its course straightened between 1928 and 1930. I took this photo in February of 2017.

I found an interesting contrast with the ruins of the early modern palace inside Ranthambore National Park. Situated on the banks of the Raj Bagh lake, the middle-Mughal era pleasure palace is now given over to tiger watching. I don’t have the spectacular photos that you see of tigers inside this abandoned palace. The lightly engineered lake with a palace next to it was typical of the courtly architecture of pre-colonial India. I took this photo in January.

From March of that year I have a photo of the 11th century Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneshwar. The dull yellow-red stone called Rajarani in Odiya makes this one of my favourite temples. The 18 meter tall tower has an unusual five-fold symmetry. The clusters of rounded turrets that support the central tower look quite different from the other temple spires nearby. It is said that this style resembles the temple architecture of Khajuraho.

I would like to pair the temple with the image of the 12th century Marienkirche in Berlin which I took in November. However, there is little left of this old structure. What the photo shows is the 19th century and post-war restoration in characteristic red brick. The TV tower of Alexanderplatz looms in the background. The Family and I walked around this area on a gusty and overcast evening. The sky was a muddy brown from the city lights reflecting off it.

Churches in the middle of cities are never more forlorn than in New York. On a grey October day I walked by the Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue and took this photo of New York’s mid-town towers looming over it. Completed in 1875, the 85 meters high brownstone steeple was meant to dominate the architecture of the city. But its time came to an end within a couple of decades as the invention of steel scaffolding gave rise to the skyscrapers that now dwarf it.

Glass and steel were the fancy new building materials from the end of the nineteenth century on. The new material seemed to annihilate the difference between indoor and outdoor. You see the delight that architects took in it across Europe. A friendly example of it was the San Miguel market, built in 1916. Not only did it allow in the beautiful light of June, it was also a place where you could relax and enjoy good wines and gourmet tapas. We spent more than one afternoon here.

Before steel and glass, and concrete, took over the world, the architecture of a region would be influenced by the material available. If New York was brownstone, the Sahyadris are full of this beautiful porous rock generically called volcanic tuff. Walking about the Kaas plateau in September looking at the strange wildflowers of the region, adapted to the unhospitable thin and metal rich laterite soil, I came across this abandoned colonial era bungalow. It was built from the red tuff dug out of the plateau. The bungalow looks like it was constructed about a century ago, give or take a couple of decades, and abandoned half a century ago. The walls are perfect, and with a little work on the roof it can be easily used again.

Let me end this tour of interesting architecture with a photo from December: the early modern fort of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. The massive stone walls from the 15th century still show the scars from cannonballs which failed to bring them down. Standing at the base of the fort wall, you can see the wonderful palace loom over you. I was curious about the material used in the palace. It turned out that it used a mixture of granite, sandstone, and brick. A sturdy base, but with light and airy rooms which can soar up. The oldest palaces and forts of India which you can still see are about five or six centuries old, and this is among the oldest.

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