A Tryst With Destiny
As a student of Zoology at the University of Calcutta, India, I had been introduced to the world of birds through Salim Ali’s field guide, ‘The book of Indian Birds’, and Carol and Tim Inskipp’s ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’. The ample enthusiasm of my professors at Maulana Azad College in Kolkata for the wildlife excursions planned once a year for every batch of students graduating from the institution set the ground for a tryst with nature and wildlife. The excursions were a one off opportunity for bookworms, like us, to get close to the rustic wilderness of the vast South Asian nation with diverse ecosystems that support our flora and fauna.
I remember our trip to Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Indian province of Orissa (the second largest mangrove ecosystem in the country) where we were taken into the deeper recesses of the mangrove forests to observe and experience living on basic amenities inside the Sanctuary. I reminisce fondly about the nights filled with glow-worms casting a spell on me in pitch darkness where I could hardly locate my friend standing just a few metres away. The reflected light from the eyes of the occasional passing spotted deer, the night-time hooting of owls, the sound of crickets, the flitting glow worms and the scent of the forest were enchanting. The mornings were about Birding, with serious birders leading us on a boat through the creeks of the mangrove to spot the kingfishers, around eight varieties of them, the largest being the Black capped Kingfisher apart from Darters, Black Ibis, Cormorants, Storks, Egrets and others, including winter migrants from central Asia and Europe. Dhritiman Mukhurjee, then a dedicated birder in 2004 who later became a celebrated wildlife photographer, led the charge with Dr Dipankar Sengupta, Dr Tarak Khan and Dr Subir Dasgupta to give students a sense of Birding.
In all about 215 species of birds inhabit theses mangroves. The other highlight was the large salt water crocodiles, growing up to 23ft, which were a star attraction there as teams from National Geographic and BBC filmed them for hours. The red crabs, hermit crabs, blue crabs and mudskippers were aplenty and characteristic of the mangroves.
Subsequently, I visited Chitwan National Park in Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the One Horned Rhinoceros, the Bengal Tiger, Gharials in the Narayani River and several bird species, including Great Hornbills. Also noteworthy was a visit to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary (now Jaldapara National Park) in North Bengal for the endangered Indian one-horned Rhinoceros, Elephants and other large mammals, in addition to birds, like the lesser pied Hornbill. This was the beginning of my journey into the wild.
Rose ringed parakeet, Ranthambore National Park
Much later when I had qualified for a junior research fellowship through the National Eligibility Test conducted jointly by Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and University Grants Commission (UGC), and joined a CSIR institute for my doctoral research, most of my time was spent in the laboratory, trying to learn practical science using ‘Molecular Biology’ tools to decipher cross talk between metabolic pathway genes and virulence regulatory pathways in a model microbe. The breaks (if any) were during the months of October and one of the early trips to Shingalila National Park is etched on my mind for the beautiful Magnolias, Rhododendrons and Orchids against the backdrop of four of the highest peaks of the world in the mighty Himalayas, the Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Lhotse. We hoped for a Satyr Tragopan sighting and a glimpse of a Red Panda but alas they were difficult to come by. Birds were aplenty, but I did not have the sophisticated camera gear to document them back then.
Himalayan white cheeked bulbul, Kakragad, Uttarakhand
After a successful article communication with an American Society for Microbiology (ASM) journal, ‘Infection and Immunity’, I invested in my first DSLR and a 250mm zoom lens for birding and took a trip to Uttarakhand, where I met the inimitable Yashpal Singh Negi at Kakragad, Garhwal Himalayas in October 2012. I took ‘expert advice’ from Shantanu Som, regarding the camera purchase as this was my first introduction to DSLRs and compatible lenses and he was the right person to give advice.
The hours that I spent with Yashpal Negi were an eye opener. He knew exactly where to find the Crested kingfisher, a Forktail, a few Oriental White Eyes in a natural rock crevice that also served as a bird bath for White Browed Fantails and Yellow Wagtails. Himalayan White Cheeked Bulbuls and White Crested Laughing Thrushes were aplenty, and we had a rare glimpse of a Rufous bellied Niltava, a Maroon Oriole with insect catch, a Whiskered Yuhina and a Black Bulbul on the way down a steep slope, all lifers for me.
Green tailed Sunbird, Zuluk, Sikkim
On that trip, I had more birds on my list than a few of my last trips combined and needless to say I was exhilarated. For seasoned birders, this may seem like an overstatement, but for a person who had just invested in a Canon gear and a basic zoom lens, this was a first taste of success. I went back to Negi with my dear friend Sounak in 2016 for the real deal this time, a glimpse of the high altitude pheasants the Himalayan Monal, Kokhlas pheasant and Cheer pheasant amongst other lifers, like Himalayan Griffon and Lammergeier, an old world bearded vulture. Negi is known for his expertise in locating and sighting Monals and we made the most of his warm company and a couple of sightings of the most sought after birds in a group of four and another that flew down across the Chopta valley. Spellbound is the word for sighting a flying male Monal with the colours of the rainbow reflected in its plumage.
Black headed Jay, Khirsu, Uttarakhand
In the interim, Sounak and I had visited a couple of National Parks yearning for a glimpse of the big cats. We roamed the central Indian highlands through Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench, and finally sighted a Royal Bengal Tigress with a Sambar deer kill in Ranthambore. We were blessed to have a list of lifers that included a pair of Racket Tailed Drongos, Hoopoe, White Rumped Shyama , a shy songbird, Indian Grey Hornbills, Alexandrine parakeets, Indian ring necked parakeet, Plum headed parakeets, Tickel’s blue flycatcher, the endangered Forest Owlet, a pair of Indian Scops owl, Green tailed Sunbirds, Loten’s Sunbird, Tree pies, Yellow billed Blue Magpies, Large Cuckoo Shrike, Indian Peafowls, Crested Serpent Eagles, Brahminy kite, Brown Fish Owl, Indian vultures, Pied Kingfishers, White Throated Kingfishers, Green Bee Eaters, Indian Rollers, Ashy bellied Drongo apart from spotting other wild animals, such as the Barasingha, Sambar deer, Golden Jackal, Dhole, Jungle Cat, Indian Sloth Bear, Wild boar, Chinkara and Gaur.
These were my field trips that prepared me for a real appreciation of our living heritage and its importance in terms of national treasures. After I closed my post doctoral fellowship from the Department of Biotechnology at the end of a two-year tenure with the Molecular Biochemistry Division of National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, Kolkata to move cities with my husband , I started to go back frequently to my first love of sketching and painting. I realised that birds would fill my senses like no other. Initially, it was about taking a sabbatical to do the things I love before joining a job suited to my skill sets as a life science researcher. I had seen the king of birds, the Impeyan pheasant and it was a vision!
The first frame in acrylics on canvas was that of a pair of Great Hornbills, I first encountered in the forests of Jaldapara National Park. The subsequent frames were that of the Himalayan Monal and Asian Paradise fly catchers, the most fascinating of Monarch flycatchers. With time, I set a small goal of creating a series on Indian birds with the most fascinating plumage.
With Shantanu Som
Shantanu Som saw a few of them posted on my Facebook page on Art and was interested to put an exhibition together where he would have his photographs on birds and I would have my acrylics on canvas on display. The idea was unique and we decided on the spur of the moment to join hands. In three months, we not only managed to qualify for a gallery show at ICCR, but also had Nature Environment and Wildlife Society, an IUCN accredited NGO involved in credible conservation work since 1991 supported us in our endeavour. We pledged to donate part of the proceeds from sale of photographs and few select paintings for Tiger conservation in the state.
I wish to reiterate that this journey was intuitive and spontaneous, and one step led to another. I was always an artist first known for my art projects in my younger years, as all my school mates will testify. I became a biologist and a birder much later. It is my belief that my current journey back to Art through my Bird Art is a personal journey back to my roots.
My ultimate aim, a deeply cherished personal goal, is to have 35 acrylics on canvas on Indian birds exhibited together at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. I would have dabbled in a bit of Science and Art both in the process as I believe aesthetics is part of our existence and we strive to incorporate the essence of Art in our lives even as we aspire for technological progress.
Boundless Ocean of Politics has received this article from Dr Epshita Chatterjee, a molecular biologist-turned-painter.
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