Friday, January 28, 2022

From Village Boy to Wildlife Saviour: In Conversation With Ganesh Chowdhury

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Ganesh Chowdhury doesn’t come across anything more than an average person of his age. However, when he seamlessly switches to the topic of wildlife conservation and photography, his tone changes. He suddenly speaks with a flair that Sir Richard Attenborough would have been proud of. With a maturity that is way beyond his years, he has a sense of calmness around him that assures you of friendliness despite his near mastery in his field.

A Brief of His Rustic Life

Hailing from the Nadia district near Burdwan, Ganesh Chowdhary’s primary education started in the village of Nayachar, and he went to college in Katwa. After that, he went to Calcutta University. His attention always lied in conservation and photographic works rather than in studies.

“I want to do a conservation-based documentary about India and Indian culture. I have already been working on the dolphin and crocodiles in my area for a long time now. My wish is to have a team of mine someday. I planned to provide a source of income for the boys here, with an eye on the environment. See, photography is a very tough subject… a hard life. If you’re from a low-income family, photography is entirely out of reach.

You need a lot of money, a lot of courage, and a lot of knowledge. Even I felt like I was drowning in an ocean and couldn’t stay afloat. At that moment, Archan, sir, my mentor, gave me the idea of making the homestay. Wildlife is abundant here: we can work on the conservation, photography, and wildlife documentary too.”

From Village Boy to Wildlife Saviour: In Conversation With Ganesh Chowdhury 1
Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury

Childhood Days

“My childhood in Nayachar was… what can I say… it was spent in abject poverty. My father was a daily-wage worker and did a bit of farming on the side. To continue my education, I had to work in people’s houses. Even during my higher secondary school… I had to work in people’s homes and guest houses, work as a tourist guide… just to continue my education.

“During my childhood, I was interested in wildlife because of one reason: there is a big island in this village. I used to feel as if those birds are calling out to me all the time. And I used to run behind those birds all the time. Had this island not been here, maybe I wouldn’t be interested in wildlife.”

My Guru

“Tanmay Ghosh is the one who attracted me to photography. When a bird is flying with its wings spread, the photographer has to capture how beautifully the wings are spread. When a bird is sitting, it has one form. When it is flying, it has an entirely different style. The only way to capture these forms was through a camera. Tanmay Ghosh truly is my guru.

“Other than that, I have done a photography course from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI). Tanmay was the person who pushed me to do this. After that, I fell in love with photography.”

That First Click & ‘All Smiles’

“I don’t have my first photograph with me; it is probably with a person named Abhra. The first photograph I clicked was that of a small Pratincole bird. I shot a video using Abhra’s camera. After that, I clicked the photo of a dolphin, which won many awards.

“The thing is, I don’t know much about how others click a photo, and I’m least interested in it as well. I believe that whatever I see with my own eyes, that is something new on this planet. So, when I saw a dolphin jumping up, I thought that if I could capture this in a photograph, then I could show something new to people.

I worked a lot behind this photograph. Even my brother was there to assist me. For three to four years, we tracked that dolphin, planning when, where, and how to photograph it. After studying a lot, we found out the time when these dolphins breed.

We clicked that photo because of an offer that we received. The offer was to click the photograph of a mother dolphin playing with her baby. We stood in neck-deep water for four hours. We braved rains by covering our cameras with banana leaves; we also braved the strong sunlight. This is how this photograph “All Smiles” came to be.

“And, yes, this is my favorite photograph. I have clicked many photographs before and after this, but none have been able to inspire me as much as this photograph. This photograph inspired me to continue my work among dolphins.”

From Village Boy to Wildlife Saviour: In Conversation With Ganesh Chowdhury 2
All Smiles by Ganesh Chowdhury (Picture Courtesy: Sanctuary Asia

Myths Regarding Dolphins of the Ganges

“There are many misconceptions regarding the dolphins among the villagers. If someone drowns in the water bodies and a dolphin is seen nearby, the villagers think that the waves made by the dolphins caused the drowning. There are many myths like this.

“But, in reality, these dolphins like mixing with human beings. They come close to humans, even though they are scared of us. The reason may be, among all the animals in the Ganges, they are only blind, and they communicate through ultrasound waves.”

BBC and National Geographic

“I got these gigs through the works I did for Tanmay Ghosh because he was skilled in wildlife photography and was selected by BBC for this work. This is how I also got involved. I got instructions like: “help us arrange this particular snake “… “set up the camera so that we can take the time-lapse “… “please follow where the elephants are going to drink water “… “instruct the cameraman where to place the cameras to capture the elephants”… things like these. 

“But I had to work extremely hard too because organizations like the BBC are very strict about the time. They value time to the utmost. Whether it is the morning or night, if the job has to be done, it has to be done in any way possible. We did not even get time to sleep, sometimes. But I loved my job so much that these inconveniences meant nothing to me. Whether it’s morning or night, whether the food is good or not, none of these mattered.

All I thought about was the shot of the elephant that I will take in the morning… how to make my photograph more beautiful, how to set up my camera, and so on. It was an experience that I learned a lot from.”

From Village Boy to Wildlife Saviour: In Conversation With Ganesh Chowdhury 3
Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury

Wild Reaction

“Wild Reaction, a page dedicated to wildlife photography, was primarily set up because of the involvement of Archan da. He gave me the idea of setting up a page where people can follow up on our activities, where we can spread awareness among people, and increase tourism to Nayachar. We wanted to publicize our work to people so that they can know more about us and our work. Well, we were nearing, almost 5,000 followers.

“When I’m doing my work for wildlife photography, I don’t think about what time of the day it is. I concentrate on the job at hand. My wish is to take this to a much larger stage. I want to make good documentaries. I want to shine the light on people who have worked with me and make sure they get respect for their work. Many people have worked here, and their memories have remained with me; I want them to be proud of their work done here. I want them to remember me and Archan da. 

“I keep working every day; whatever has to happen will happen. It is not given that everyone has to be a success. So I have to keep working, and then I will see what happens. Till now, whatever I have tried my hands at, I have been able to do. If I try to make a chapatti, I’m able to do it. Maybe it is not round, but it is edible. So I think that if I continue photography, I’ll be able to do it, but won’t give up.”

From Village Boy to Wildlife Saviour: In Conversation With Ganesh Chowdhury 4
Ganesh Chowdhury with Archan Mitra (Picture Courtesy: Wild Reaction)

Self-proclaimed “Photographers” & Wildlife Photography

“Everyone has a camera in their hands. If they click the photograph of a bird or even an ant, they will put it up on Facebook and write ‘I’m a wildlife photographer’.

“See, human beings like to emulate others. Even if three people out of 10 like wildlife photography, because of the rest 7, their work is overshadowed. That is why wildlife conservation has to be done by the government.

However, the environment is not the sole property of the government. It is the property of everyone, all the ten people. However, only 3 of them are working for it, including the wildlife photographers, the government, and the conservationists.

“Fashion photography indeed receives a lot of respect, but it is a different kind of photography. It can be done anywhere and anytime. But the same is not true for wildlife photography, which makes it so challenging. This is why many photographers hesitate to pursue this path.

“But the fame, respect, and money involved in wildlife photography are the same as working for film industries.”

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Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury

Aspiring Wildlife Photographers

“The next generation of wildlife photographers must overcome a few obstacles, and then the process of wildlife photography will be easy. These are not very difficult… they need to have courage, they need to be fit and agile, they should be able to cook for themselves, they should not be bothered by mosquito bites. 

“Even in India, Naresh Bedi is a wildlife photographer who won the Padma Shri. So, respect is of course there for wildlife photography, that can’t be denied.

“So, I want the next generation of wildlife photographers to follow these guidelines. If they do, they can earn all the fame and money that is there in other genres of photography. You can stay in the best hotels, visit the best places, visit different countries. You can work in the Himalayas, in Antarctica, in the deserts.”

Conservation Work in India

“As I have said, the environment is not the property of the government; it belongs to the local people. It is the people who need the call of the birds in the morning. When a bird sows the seed of a plant, the oxygen produced is not just utilized by the government officials, but the ordinary people as well. The fish of the Ganges, is it only eaten by the government officials? Can only the government officials bathe in the Ganges?

“If everyone is using the resources of the environment, then I feel the environment is the property of every one of us, If we don’t save the environment… the coronavirus pandemic that the world is fighting against now with time we are going to face much tougher challenges in the future until the human race is wiped off. We still have the time to fix the situation.”

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Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury

Dream Destinations

“There are a few places that I want to visit. I am trying to visit these places through my photographic work. These include the Galapagos Island, Africa, Atlantic Ocean, and the Amazon rainforest. These few places are my dream destinations, and I have to visit them in this lifetime.”

Struggles of a Wildlife Conservationist

“When leading the life of a wildlife photographer, the experience is not that painful. But for those working as a wildlife conservationist, life is stressful.

“If a villager is killing a bird, he has to go and try to save it. He explains to the villager why he shouldn’t kill the bird, but the villager is adamant. He may even be beaten up by the people for this. This happens even when saving snakes. Also, I have been beaten up many times.

“‘He is eating a bird, so who the hell are you to disturb him? The bird is not your personal property, right? It is nature’s gift to him, won’t he eat it?’ I have heard such things. If I try to stop it, I get beaten.

“Then there are snakes. Instead of killing a snake, if I capture it and release it outside the village, that is also seen as a crime. Even then, I am beaten up. These struggles take up a large part of my time.

“Now, people understand what I wanted to tell them. They understand why they must save snakes. If they kill snakes, the population of rats will grow uncontrollably. Earlier, people in my area never used to catch snakes; the snakes were always killed. Today, people call me, my brother, or the people working for me. They say, ‘Brother, we have found a snake here; please come immediately.’ Every year, we rescue around 1,500 snakes from our area.”

A Conservationist First, or a Photographer First?

“Conservation almost never happens without photography. Only after you click a photograph will you be able to show people the need for conservation. You can show the people that a bird is eating fruit, and then it is dropping the seed in the soil. When you tell the people verbally, they don’t trust you. But once you show them through a photograph, they go, ‘Oh my god! This is brilliant.’

“So tell me, should I consider myself a photographer first or a conservationist first?”

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Spotted Owl (Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury)

What I Want From Life

“I don’t have many things that I want from life. I am happy to have been born here. I want to see nature and save nature before I leave Earth. That is what I want my legacy to be. I don’t want to give birth to a thousand kids and give them instructions like “don’t use plastic”, which my next generation will forget.

“I don’t have time to think about family or religion; whatever time I have, I spend it thinking about nature. A man’s life is concise; we are not elephants that we will live for a hundred years. We can’t afford to procrastinate. We only live till maybe 70 years, after which diseases will crop up here and there, and die soon. In these 70 years, I have to fight to save the environment. If I can successfully do that, everyone’s life will be better. If I can’t, everyone will suffer equally.

“Nayachar is an impoverished village. We are trying to plant flowers and fruit trees along every street in the village. But the truth is, few people are willing to do good things. For other things, we can get many people to help. This is the reality of life. As I told you, 7 out of 10 people are exploiting the Earth, and the rest three are trying to save it. Coronavirus has been here for four months now; if we didn’t have the three people trying to save the Earth, corona would’ve killed us all in one month only.”

ganesh chowdhury
Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Chowdhury

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