Clicking their lives frame by frame

Caught on camera Photography has opened new vistas of creativity to the children of elephant handlers in Karnataka. Asha Krishnaswamy writes about an

Clicking their lives frame by frame

Children of mahouts in elephant camps in Kodagu and Nagarahole turn into photographers every summer. These children, who might have never had the privilege of even going to a school get the luxury of holding sophisticated cameras.

It is not just a summer camp for children but a process of identifying their own surroundings, exploring the hidden talent in them and exposing the same in the form of taking a picture or drawing lines or even discussing among the participants.

The unmatched experience that the camp offers makes these children wait
eagerly for the annual camp conducted by renowned photographer D K Bhaskar and his team. This four-year old initiative isexclusively for the children of mahouts, who take care of elephants everyday.

Bhaskar, a Mysuru-born US citizen, is on a unique journey as a nature photographer and conservationist. He prepares for at least six months before arriving at elephant camps in Gonikoppa, Anechowkuru, Ponnampet, Dubare and Sakkarebailu. This time he has brought four students from an agricultural university in the State of Georgia and some students from Bengaluru to be part of the camp, which would go on till May 25.

Like the previous camps, this time too the participants have the luxury of holding Nikon cameras and click what they see around them. The main subject would be of course, mahouts, their daily routine and their family. The participants are assigned different tasks. Parameters are set for the budding photographers to ensure that all aspects of mahouts’ lives are recorded.

All for a cause
The documentation is on for many years now. Bhaskar has now brought it to a decisive stage where the audio and video footages of conversations, music, art, culture, traditions, dreams and aspirations of the mahouts and their family members would be captured. Finally, it will take the form of a book to explain to the world that mahouts are endangered, and the real meaning of conservation is co-existence of man and animal.
Bhaskar, a familiar face in the hamlets of Nagarahole and Gonikoppa, says, “As high as 97 per cent of the children of mahouts do not go to schools. But the world is transforming. There could be around 50 mahouts in these forests. Mahoutry is no more attractive.”

Mahouts who were patronised by maharajas at one time, are now on par with truck drivers. Their children are at cross roads. Unless the present generation mahouts get what they deserve, it is not possible for the next generation to tend to elephants. It is time for mahouts to turn into teachers and educate the society on the significance of conservation. CLIC Abroad, headed by D K Bhaskar has been working towards achieving this objective.

This non-profit organisation is working in Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Odhisha besides Karnataka. It is roping in local volunteers who have similar goals. Bhaskar recalls, “Last time, Dinesh, son of a mahout in Nagarahole, attended our workshop. The 8-year-old boy had never seen a school. In our art camp, he just picked some crayons and began drawing. He captured on paper the daily life he had seen around him. The images were so well imprinted in his mind that he came out with wonderful drawings. Unfortunately, there is no vent for him to express himself.”

In the past Bhaskar had brought African-American students from the US and other countries to elephant camps in Karnataka and also elsewhere in India.

No camp is held without the involvement of local children. Students who meet at the workshops become friends and remain so for long. Some of them have been communicating with the village children directly. Some of the Indian village children have been dreaming that one day they could visit their American friends in America. “We have been working on setting up this process too. Our focus is now on India, but we have been approached to engage children in countries like Finland and Ethiopia,” he says.

The journey of Bhaskar from Bengaluru to Amazon to the UK to Augusta to Cannes in the US has been very eventful and challenging too. After graduating as mechanical engineer from Siddaganga Institute of Technology in 1991, he worked in Bengaluru.

By that time, Bhaskar had also found that his passion was photography and not engineering. An SLR Cannon camera gifted by his brother changed the course of his life. As a lover of gadgets, he began fiddling with the camera and then fell in love with it.

He had also become a sort of disciple of renowned wildlife photographer E Hanumantha Rao. He began capturing the winged beauties of Bengaluru lakes and got it published in magazines and newspapers. It was Deccan Herald which published his first photograph, recalls Bhaskar proudly.

In a chance encounter, 15 years ago, he met a professor from the UK who was studying the biodiversity in Nagarahole. Bhaskar expressed his desire to work in the Amazon forest. And, his dream came true when he went to the rain forest on an assignment. He later took up an assignment with Durham University Wild Life Trust in 2002. In 2004, he went to Brazil to study the rainforests as a research scientist.

His passion resulted in the book – The Fragile Forest: Inside Brazilian Amazonia. Readers can traverse the forests through his amazing pictures and words, which have poetic quality bringing the forests alive. This Fulbright scholar proudly recalls how he convinced an editor of a magazine of Augusta to organise a ten-day festival of photography.

Advocating co-existence
His passion to do something back home saw the birth of Children Learning International Culture Abroad (CLIC Abroad).  He has been teaching the basics of photography to lesser privileged children in the villages of India. At least 400 students have participated in his workshops conducted in forests.

Bhaskar says the social message he is trying to spread through various activities is that the conservation of communities is vital to the future of both animals and the landscape. The way forward is co-existence with larger approach to traditional knowledge and sustainable way of life.

“Karnataka has one of the strong frameworks for conservation. Biodiversity situation is well protected, thanks to well intentioned people. Karnataka has one of the highest literate crowd in the field of conservation,” he says.

Bhaskar can be contacted at bhaskardk@gmail.com

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