(Interviewed by Sourabha Rao)
Some conversations trigger a renewed quest for the light of knowing. Without clinging to the need for answers, one learns the humility to comprehend the questions in the first place. It is precisely this thirst for understanding the world and our own place in it that Ganesh H. Shankar‘s words and work evoke in us. I call him, ‘a scientist of thought’.
An ardent practitioner of an art-form that tries to capture life in all its details between light and shadow – photography – he fosters an immense and quiet love for the Western Ghats; a relentless curiosity for music and literature; respect for science; endless wonder for the vastness of the universe; love for all forms of life; quest for the imperceptible that never loses the love for life here, in the now; and a delicate devotion for our only home that Earth is.
Born in a remote village in coastal Karnataka, he is a renowned name in the world of nature photography. In 2016, he won the prestigious Natural History Museum award in the ‘Behaviour – Birds’ category. I am sure you will have a great time listening to the man who is on an internal journey while he peers out into the world through his camera.
1. You have spoken seldom about your childhood. You spent most of your childhood in a coastal town, but Malenaadu also served as an eternal muse to you as it did to so many writers, poets, artists. How did these landscapes affect the beginning of your art and how has it metamorphosed today?
Yes, I was born in a small village named Bada near Byndoor in coastal Karnataka. This is my mother’s place. My father was a government employee in the health department and spent most of his career in small towns in Shimoga district. My father is from a small village named Handige near Agumbe. Most of my paternal relatives are residents of small villages near Sagara and Thirthahalli taluk in Shimoga district. Western Ghats was only a few kilometres away from my home at Bada.
I spent most of my childhood with my grandmother and her brothers at Bada. My grandmother was in charge of livestock at home. We had some cows and bison at home. I used to accompany my grandmother to Western Ghats foothills in search of our livestock. She used to tell me stories of tiger lifting our livestock. Often me and my grandmother used to venture into deep jungles to bring back home one of our bison which never used to return. I used to climb, sit on mango/guava trees for studying during my school days. During holidays at times I would spend my time at tiny villages surrounded by jungles near Sagara in Shimoga district.
My connection to jungles and the cultures of these places, people has been wide and deep. ‘Bayalata’, ‘Boothada Kola’, ‘Hulivesha’ and other art and cultural practices of the coastal Karnataka and folk art and cultural practices of Malenadu regions are close to my heart. I also loved ‘Janapada Geethe’, ‘Bhavageethe’ and rural life in general where ends hardly met. Someshwara beach in Byndoor was my favourite place to stare at infinity. One need to silently watch the waves to feel and relate to Adiga’s ‘ಮೊರೆಯದಲೆಗಳ ಮೂಕ ಮರ್ಮರ’.
Given this context obviously nature became my subject for expressions. During the last couple of decades how I see Nature has been constantly changing, from a subject of beauty to emotional expressions to now philosophic expressions.
2. Are there any early inspirations you found in other artists/thinkers that have contributed to your way of perceiving the world and living experiences the way you do?
I did not take any formal training in Photography. My initial technical foundations came by going through nice books on nature photography written by John Shaw. Many years ago, I also liked Nick Brandt’s artistic portrait works of African wildlife. That said, my context is entirely different. Thanks to the much deeper connection I had in nature I started doing what I liked most. I also ended up contradicting myself every few years. Most of my current work on nature photography has been influenced by poets and philosophers.
3. When did you take that departure from conventional photography to creative nature photography/fine art?
I started photography around 1994. For a decade I kind of did typical postcard kind of nature photography – waterfalls, landscapes, bird/animal portraits etc. Around 2006 I was done with all those and started feeling something is missing and felt what I was doing was not creative enough. Then another long journey started – creative nature photography to fine art nature photography to now philosophical nature photography. I did separate creative nature photography and fine art nature photography. In creative nature photography my emphasis was solely on “something new”, in fine art nature photography. I tried to bring in emotions along with innovation. What I now focus on is philosophical nature photography. Here are the different phases I went through during the last two plus decades of photography.
1. Portraying Beauty
This is what typically you see when people talk about Nature Photography in general. Portraits of birds, wild animals, landscapes, waterfalls, etc. I did this for many years before losing interest. I was thinking I am just showing what is there. There was no creativity in what I was doing.
2. Creative Nature Photography
I wanted my works to have my signature. I started exploring different avenues to portray nature very uniquely. I did this for several years. I later started feeling just creativity images lack an important thing – emotions/feelings.
3. Fine Art Nature Photography
When I started attempting the so-called “Fine Art Nature Photography'', Leo Tolstoy “What is Art?” made a lot of sense to me. Tolstoy said in this book emotions and feelings are the main pillars of any work of art. This made a lot of sense then. During this journey, for many years, I started relating forms/shapes/colours etc in nature to human emotions. The images I made during this time had no relevance to the natural history of the subject being photographed. Two grass blades leaning on each other found in nature became a “Naanu badavi aatha badava'' couple portrayed by Bendre for example. A bird taking off symbolically represented “Departure” with a sad note. Call of a barely seen francolin in a poorly lit grassland became ‘ಮೊಳೆಯದಲೆಗಳ ಮೂಕ ಮರ್ಮರ’ of Adiga in my mind, and this list goes on and on. Thanks to a different perspective on how I view human emotions now, my interest in portraying emotions got diluted a few years ago. I call many of my current works as “Philosophical Nature Photography”, an unfamiliar phrase to Google as of now.
4. Philosophical Nature Photography
About 7 years ago NASA shared a wonderful image of earth taken from its Cassini spacecraft from about 900 million miles where earth appears as a tiny little blue dot amidst other smaller light dots in the sky. Our beautiful little dot called planet earth is like a tiny dust spec in this universe. When I saw this image following lines of DVG flashed in my mind:
ಒಗಟೆಯೇನೀ ಸೃಷ್ಟಿ? ಬಾಳಿನರ್ಥವದೇನು|
ಬಗೆದು ಬಿಡಿಸುವರಾರು ಸೋಜಿಗವನಿದನು?||
ಜಗವ ನಿರವಿಸಿದ ಕೈಯೊಂದಾದೊಡೇಕಿಂತು?|
ಬಗೆ ಬಗೆಯ ಜೀವಗತಿ – ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ||
When I clubbed that “dot” picture and above lines from “Kagga” with the following lines by Baruch Spinoza a different picture emerged.
“The root of the greatest errors in philosophy lies in projecting our human purposes, criteria and preferences into the objective universe. Good and bad are relative to human and often individual tastes and ends, and have no validity for a universe in which individuals are ephemera, and in which the Moving Finger writes even the history of the race in water.
Whenever, then, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of nature as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; although in fact, what our reason pronounces bad is not bad as regards the orders and laws of universal nature, but only as regards the laws of our own nature taken separately. . . . As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive considered in themselves. . . . For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. For example, music is good to the melancholy, bad to mourners, and indifferent to the dead.” – Baruch Spinoza
First, my “human centric” world of emotions and feelings collapsed. DVG’s Kagga got better interpretation in my mind. Emotion/feeling centric art/photography started losing its meaning. I think emotions and feelings have their roots in preserving the self and progeny. I will go with what Nature wants me to do – to preserve myself as much as possible. However, I now know the source of my emotions/feelings. Suddenly it started losing its personality in my images because I can reason about it better and I also found a more compelling subject to portray – the mysteries of Nature.
Further, following quote by the greatest artist, whom we call scientist, Albert Einstein, strengthened my concepts of art further:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness.” – Albert Einstein.
Opinions and views do not matter. I think a “work of art” rooted in opinions and views will perish. As Einstein humbly expressed there probably is a larger “truth”/”art”/”science” which we can’t know. Currently in all my attempts at what I call Philosophic Nature Photography, I just try to wonder about mysteries of nature expressed as images. I have no opinion or a view, just some questions and wondering about mysteries of Nature.
Photos © Ganesh H. Shankar
(To be continued…)