Pretty wild by nature

Pretty wild by nature

Hailed as the first Indian woman to strike an international reputation as a wildlife photographer, Rathika Ramasamy speaks to Hema Vijay about her experiences of capturing rare acts of birds and animals...

The split second before a water snake gulps a fish, birds taking off, deer in mid-air, tiger cubs playing around, nuzzling mongoose, elephants on a stroll, lions on the prowl... A billion breathtaking photographs later, the unassuming girl from the beautiful rural environs of Theni in southern Tamil Nadu is as assuming as ever. Now settled in Delhi, this ace wildlife photographer is someone who went about photography in a modus operandi that is quite unusual — taking to wildlife photography long after settling down into a sedate software career; or mastering action shots of birds before moving on to stiller and easier to photograph animals.

Well, a family picnic in January 2004 to the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur started it all. Captivated by Bharatpur’s birds, Rathika Ramasamy shot numerous photos of them. But when she came back and checked out her photographs, they seemed unimpressive blurs within the frame. Far from putting her off photography, this actually spurred Rathika to return again and again to bird sanctuaries, study the behaviour of birds for days on end, read up volumes on them, explore cameras that support bird photography and take to shooting them again.

Over session after session of self-taught bird photography, she became a master at snapping up dynamic images of birds in flight, in the hunt, in play, in repose... images that delight the eye and thrill the mind.

The Zen moment

Many of us go through many forests without spoting much wildlife. Seeing Rathika’s shots does trigger a touch of envy.

How does she manage to not just zero in on shy wild animals, but also snap up amazing moments and movements in their lives?

“Well, if you randomly visit sanctuaries, you would be lucky if you spot animals. Before visiting the park, wildlife photographers like me do a lot of research of the anmials that make home in the forest, their preferred habitats, living patterns, seasonal behaviour, the watering holes and the forest trails these animals prefer, etc. We check out with the local guides and literature like the Indian Field Guide books.

We learn to read pug marks, get to understand the alarm signals that deers and monkeys give when a tiger is on the move, learn the body language and calls of animals and birds that will tell us just how the animal is going to react just then. Then you get to understand the little hints they give — the tail movements before a take-off, for instance. It is only then that one is ready to snap up the action. If you have to wait and see the action and then decide to shoot it, you will miss the action,” she says.

And Rathika is ready to wait — for hours and hours, with none but the field guide for company; sometimes hidden in uncomfortable hides (in bird parks) so that the birds come close without inhibitions. And she never shoots on the first day, especially with birds. The first few days are devoted to studying the animals.

Having visited most of the national parks in India, Kenya and Tanzania, and having captured the images of all kinds of creatures, what was the most interesting encounter she has been in so far? “In 2010, at the Serengeti National Park, the biggest wild reserve in Africa.

In the distance, we spotted one solitary tree in the vast and endless grassland. We noticed small separate movements on the tree, and we headed towards the tree hoping to spot birds. On getting close, to our utter delight, we saw 16 lions on the tree, with a few small cubs. They were all sleeping, with the exception of the one ‘mama’ lion who kept watch. We were at a five feet distance from the lions; we spent half an hour watching and shooting, it is still unforgettable,” Rathika reminisces.

Now, Rathika is all set to re-explore the Corbett National Park. “For tigers and elephants.

Summer is the best time to shoot tigers and elephants here; elephants will come down from up the hills in hundreds seeking water, with their young ones in tow, as will tigers,” she says. While Rathika regards the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary as her second home, she rates the Corbett as her favourite among national sanctuaries. “It has grasslands, rivers and so many diverse habitats. It is a dream location for any wildlife photographer and the best maintained in the country too.”

The major threat she perceives for wildlife in India is poaching, besides deforestation in the buffer area of national parks, the lack of rehabilitation of people living in these areas and mining operations near forests in the south. “African countries take wildlife tourism very seriously. So far, we haven’t. India needs to do a lot more. The Indian sub-continent is one of the richest regions for animal, bird and plant biodiversity. There is a lot at stake,” she warns.

“There is also ethics in wildlife photography; like not disturbing birds when they are feeding their chicks or nesting birds, not waking up a slumbering animal just to see action; maintaining a distance etc. Many people love wildlife, I just wish everybody respects the ethics involved,” she says.

And how has wildlife photography impacted her as a person? “Patience. A big part of photography is about waiting — waiting for the right moment, waiting for the animal to appear, waiting fruitlessly many a time and returning to wait again, the next day. And I have learnt to live with just the basic amenities — if need be, thanks to the many days I have spent in jungle safaris and parks, without TV, fans, milk...”

Perfect shots

So, is it an understanding of wildlife, a sense of aesthetics and drama, or technical finesse and advanced camera equipment that is key to a great wildlife photograph? “It is a combination, everything plays a role,” Rathika voices. Her favourite photographer happens to be Arthur Morris, the legendary bird photographer. She uses beanbags and tripods for support, unless she is on a walking assignment, and generally shoots in natural light.

While she stays clear of post-processing, ‘because wildlife photography is a record of reality, unlike fashion, food and other genres of photography’, she spends plenty of mind space in working out the image’s composition, arriving at an angle and view that would bring out the best in the moment. She names most of her photographs. For instance, Snow White is one of her egret photographs, which continues to be one of her favourites.

In the decade that she has been shooting wildlife, Rathika has visited countless sanctuaries and happens to be the first Indian woman to strike an international reputation as an outstanding wildlife photographer. She is arguably the best one — male or female — in the country, in dynamic wildlife photography. Other than watching them live, her photos give viewers the thrill of seeing animals in action. Seeing is believeing. Check them out.

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