11 December 2016

Life in the jungles - Shooting with a different eye

Malavika Karlekar

In 1870, Samuel Bourne left India for good, and Charles Shepherd kept Bourne & Shepherd in business for another decade. In fact, he extended its geographical reach well beyond Calcutta, Simla and Bombay, sending photographers to Ceylon, Singapore and Nepal as well as to Madras and other areas of southern India. In 1911, the studio commemorated the Delhi Durbar and during World War I, it was kept busy photographing British and American services personnel. Ownership of the studio changed hands several times and in about 1930, Arthur Musselwhite took it over. A keen wildlife photographer, he was Bourne & Shepherd's last European owner - and like Samuel Bourne, quite adept with the pen as well as behind the camera. In 1933, Thacker, Spink & Company, Calcutta, published Musselwhite's Behind the Lens in Tigerland, illustrated with some of his wildlife photographs.

In his introduction, the photographer wrote that the pictures in the book represented "fifteen years' visual study of big game in India". There are tigers, close-ups of elephants, a panther making a kill, and deer. He also had portraits of members of Nepali castes and tribes from Central India. Apart from the images, he added relevant information on cameras used, exposure, types of film; these were "woven into the narrative" that often recorded "intriguing situations when frequently a moment seemed like an eternity". His love for the Indian jungle came through in a slightly melodramatic eloquence: "I have sought to recall certain old battles; the preparation, the expectancy and the sight of your game; of twilight when the sun burns down and the dusk brings back the forest night. If I can recapture for the reader some of the thrills, and a touch of the wonder and magic of the Indian jungle, then my efforts will not have been in vain."

The book is a strange mix of important technical information on 1930s' photography, canned bits on Indian animals, shikar anecdotes - some truly hair-raising ones - brief notes on various tribes and castes and Musselwhite's progressive views on conservation. "The writer has witnessed the destruction of numerous wild animals. His small voice," Musselwhite wrote, "has been like a whisper in the wilderness." Thus he was using Behind the Lens in Tigerland to suggest ways of reining in the carnage. He wondered why there could not be national parks like Yellowstone in the United States of America and Kruger in South Africa that "save wild life from extermination". His book was published in 1933, and in 1936, Hailey National Park (now better known as the Jim Corbett National Park) was established. At the time, there were some game reserves, but rather than protect wildlife, these issued licences for shooting: in one reserve, Musselwhite wrote, it was permitted to shoot five tigers on one licence.

According to the author, the ruling princes were the worst culprits, followed closely by "the white man's ruthless hand that commits the greatest sin". Musselwhite wrote of a ruling prince who connected his camp to a large area by telephone wires so as to be able to track the movements of black buck. Within a few days he had slaughtered hundreds, "and I suppose was applauded as a grand 'sportsman'". Apparently, when Musselwhite spoke to a native prince about giving the game a rest in his domain, the answer was a vehement no: if he did not shoot tigers and other animals, they would stray into the neighbouring states whose rulers would then have a field day - and become acclaimed shikaris. While it may have been possible to control shooting in British India, Musselwhite felt that this was well nigh impossible in the states. He had heard of one maharaja who was said to have shot over a thousand tigers; Valmik Thapar has recently attributed 1,100 to the Maharaja of Surguja. King George V's 11-day visit to Nepal in 1911 accounted for 39 tigers being shot and, between 1933-40, guests of the Nepalese prime minister killed well over 400. Nor did one have to be a maharaja or a European to be trigger-happy: in one example of the man-versus-animal battle, landlords in a part of Bihar, a last stronghold of the wild buffalo, butchered "these handsome beasts" so that they were reduced from herds of thousands to just a few animals. The reason was making available more land - and hence more revenue - for cultivation.

Questioning again whether "this cruel extermination" was necessary, Musselwhite provides some details on animals on their way out: cheetal had virtually disappeared from the Bengal jungle and the tiger too was extinct in districts where they earlier roamed. Sambhar were scarce and "no longer does the rhinoceros roam the country as far north as the Punjab and down south to the Sunderbans of Bengal". The same was true of the much rarer black buck. Having prepared his case, Musselwhite made a well-argued plea for his passion, "for the excitement not of the rifle, but the thrill and interest of the bloodless hunting of wild creatures with a camera". He took note of the argument that sportsmen were the best protectors of wildlife as they shot only one or two tigers and other predators - and hence removed a potential danger to smaller animals. This was totally specious, argued Musselwhite, as shikaris were often far in excess of available game and he had "yet to meet the sportsman who will strictly shoot what he is permitted to".

Taking on the pro- shikar lobby, the author pointed out that there was more danger in tracking game with only a camera. And in any case, "then there is the pleasure these pictures give in later years to hundreds of people who can never hope to see these animals in their natural state". Although he was not terribly happy with what he had taken till then, Musselwhite could not but share "the pleasure to be derived in waiting for animals in a hide, and studying these lovely creatures when they are unhurried and unmolested".

Looking at his photographs, it is clear that every photo shoot was not so relaxed and pleasing: among the more terrifying experiences that were recorded on film was a 12-part film sequence of a charging tiger. Musselwhite was on an elephant with a Nepalese general and the mahout, their only protection being the latter's kukri. The tiger rushed forward "in a series of bounds, with all four legs coming together similar to that of a race horse". The photographer was pressing the button recklessly as he "realized that here was the picture of a lifetime". He was "a little frightened as to what might happen as the tiger came roaring at us with something of the gait of a galloping horse". Leaping high into the air, it landed on the elephant's head "and we all came down with a bump". Although amnesia set in quickly, Musselwhite's images "of what must have been a most terrifying experience anyone can have" helped him reconstruct the events that followed. For some reason, these are not shared with the reader, who is left wondering. However, another remarkable sequence of a tigress (picture) - "her ears set back and eyes flashing emerald" - in a deadly battle with the fighting elephant, Bikram Prasad, is written about in some detail. After much flailing and attacks with claws and tusks, the elephant broke the spine of the enraged tigress - and she was put out of her agony by the shikari. Unlike the earlier eventful contretemps, this time Musselwhite was atop another elephant, at a safe distance from all the action.

It would be fair to assume that although for photo ops Musselwhite had accompanied royalty and commoners on organized shikars on elephants with beaters, baits and other paraphernalia, he was truly disturbed by the cruelty and unfairness of these extravaganzas. He is, however, silent about the fact that some of his priceless images could only be taken because he had accompanied high-powered and well-placed shikaris on hunts. Instead, he draws the descriptive part of his interesting, though somewhat untidily organized, book to an end on a sentimental note: "man considers himself higher than beast. In fact, however, when he stoops to this shameful slaughter he is lower than any of the beasts of the wild."

Like the much better-known and vastly more talented F.W. Champion, Musselwhite's portfolio of images, together with his articulate views on conservation, are milestones in the history of wildlife photography. And the owner's interest in this form of outdoor photography must have challenged the technical staff at Bourne & Shepherd; studio portraiture, the 'Views of India' and the lands and people genre had been their forte so far. It is also quite possible that as many well-placed shikaris were also clients of the studio, Musselwhite was able to gain an entry into their privileged circles and accompany them on shoots. He ran the Bourne & Shepherd studio till well into the 1950s, when it passed into Indian hands.

No comments: