Spending time in the wilderness with animals and reptiles in particular fascinated Sandesh as a youngster. Bike and car rallies too. It was his love for wildlife that stuck on, as he grew up, while the others fell by the side. He took to wildlife photography very early in life and ventured into filmmaking as time went by. Today, the name Sandesh Kadur is synonymous with wildlife filmmaking. Here, we feature an interview of Sandesh by his sister Sangeetha Kadur, a wildlife illustrator, as she brings out the little known side of Sandesh.
- Outdoor life was packed into your growing-up years. Cycling sure did bring the forests much closer to you. How best would you describe those days?
Getting a bicycle in my teenage years opened up another world, which typically until then was just a little too far out of reach. Now Bannerghatta National Park was all of a sudden just an hours’ cycle ride away. So instead of going to school, I used to happily cycle past school into the wilderness, spend the whole day surrounded by elephants & birds & get back home at just the right time to not get into trouble.
- You were into rallying. This is a facet of your life that very few people know of. Where did this fit in to the scheme of things?
Actually, my entire family was into rallying back then, so it was a natural thing for me to get into it myself. Initially it was on a moped – a Hero Puch with 2-gears, then onto a motorbike – Suzuki Shogun and the Yamaha RX100, and then I graduated to the 4-wheeler section and rallied along-side my uncle Prakash Kadur in a Maruti-Suzuki Gypsy 4X4. The rally bug had bitten me at an age when speed was everything – you had to get from point A to Point B faster than the previous time. It was great learning, good fun but short-lived.
With his Suzuki Samurai, 1994
At the K-1000 rally, 1995
Where it fit into the overall scheme of things – I got very comfortable driving long distances – day, night didn’t matter. I became more aware of the mechanics of vehicles and how to fix things, all necessary skills to have when you are out in the middle of nowhere.
- Almost every inch of your room wall was plastered with wildlife posters. Why did you collect so many posters?
That was an era before Google and computers and what not. It was an age of print, paper and posters. So, I used to collect a lot of literature, especially all things related to nature and the natural world. I used to go to a used paper shop and asked the person there, Yatish, to keep aside anything that came in, related to wildlife. Whatever I found fascinating went up on the wall. The room looked like a mess, but I found solace in this mess of information all around.
I love travel, so consequently I loved maps and still do – maps took precedence over all other things, and I would often lose myself for hours just looking at all the fascinating places to visit around the world, someday. The map of the Indonesian archipelago was one of my top favourites.
- You put in a lot of effort into digging and building your own fish-pond. You grew a Silk Cotton tree, put up a bird feeder and grew a little forest for yourself in the backyard!
As an urban dweller, I tried my best to transport myself into another world. Luckily, we had a beautiful large backyard in the middle of the bustling Chamarajpet, near the Mysore Road circle. Here, I planted a Silk Cotton tree and dug out a small pond and put in feeders for birds. It attracted mostly a plethora of House Sparrows, but unbelievably, within a few years I had a Paradise Flycatcher as a resident in my little forest patch and a Shikra used to swoop in to grab sparrows that came in to drink water. It was amazing to see that when you create even a little bit of natural space, the wilderness truly did come in.
- Many injured and rescued creatures made their way in and out of your room. A huge Black Kite perched atop a chair was just one of them. Could you share any heartening stories about these pets in your life?
I wouldn’t call them as pets. The only pet I had at that time was Pommi – a seriously short-tempered, but loyal and lovable Japanese Spitz that barked a lot. The other animals were not pets, they were being rescued and rehabilitated in my room. Once they were ready to go back, then they were released back to the wild.
There were a lot of these animals around from time to time, everything from Black-backed Woodpeckers to Pariah Kites, snakes & star tortoises. I remember the juvenile Black Kite had fallen out of its nest and a friend of mine called me to take care of it. The bird was in a state of shock. Slowly, it came out of shock and when we tried to feed it, all it did was try to stab us with its beak. I learned that day that if you are not careful, even a young bird like that could inflict a fair amount of damage. Over the next few days, the bird started feeding straight out of my hand. We were overjoyed when we realized that the bird was ready to fly and we took it back to where we had rescued it. As soon as the kite was released, it flew onto a ledge on the rooftop and the parents immediately swooped in, landed next to the juvenile, and reassured it. It was a full-fledged family re-union, with a lot of high-pitched squealing involved. It made me feel very proud to have been a part of this successful re-introduction project!
- Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and many encyclopedias stacked in your bookshelf – how have these books inspired your journeys? What are your favourite reads?
I was captivated whilst reading the stories in these books and I believe that these books have made me a better naturalist and a better storyteller. I used to follow Kenneth Anderson’s trail and I remember bunking college once to go to Sivanipalli in Tamil Nadu. I kept the book in my bag, opened it occasionally for directions, and followed the dirt track all the way, to where the Black Panther of Sivanipalli was from. It was an amazing adventure for me – going solo, no mobile phones and no maps – just the storybook to guide me.
On another occasion, my partner in crime – Kartick Satyanarayan – and I, sat high up on a jamun tree, on a full-moon night in the forests below Doddaragihalli Betta in Bannerghatta National Park. The very first time we did this, we had the most gorgeous sighting of a leopard that walked directly under our feet in full-moon light. That was just amazing! Reading shikar stories by Corbett and Anderson inspired all this.
- What was your first tryst with a camera like? Along the way, how did the transition from a photographer to a filmmaker happen?
My very first tryst with the camera began when I was about thirteen years old. My father, Dr. B.N. Vishwanath, an entomologist by profession, but photographer at heart, taught me the basics and occasionally allowed me the use of his Nikkormat camera. That was enough. I have been hooked to photography ever since.
Sandesh in 1996 and 2008
American photojournalist, Burk Uzzle, once said, “Photography is a love affair with life.” In a nutshell, that summarizes why I still do what I do. Holding a camera allows me to focus, observe and see things in detail. The body, the mind and the tool work in seamless harmony to create an image that the mind has seen, before the picture is captured.
Filmmaking came to me at a much later stage. I worked three different jobs for half a year, before I could afford buying my very own still camera while in college at the University of Texas at Brownsville. The college had a very active science foundation known as the Gorgas Science Foundation, headed by senior professor Lawrence V. Lof. He saw my enthusiasm in photography and gave me my first opportunity to work on a documentary about the Western Ghats of India. This was when my photography transformed into cinematography and soon after I became fully enraptured in the world of wildlife filmmaking.
- Your works have been widely aired on big networks such as BBC, National Geographic and Discovery. A big portion of your work entails challenging work out in the field. Can you tell us about the experience?
Working for the big networks had always been a dream, but in the early years, I just assumed it was too far-fetched to be a reality. It took a long time before opportunity came in the form of making a documentary titled ‘Mountains of the Monsoon’ for the BBC Natural World. Ironically, this title was the same as what I had used in my first film whilst still a student at college. But this documentary followed my personal journey as a still photographer working in the Western Ghats. This was when I realized the importance and value of building a core team that can work well together to bring about a film. Working on a film is a very different experience compared to working as a still photographer, where it’s relatively easy enough to do everything by oneself and see the end result. Filmmaking is all about team-building and having the right team is critical to success.
Working in the field is and should be an exhausting experience. One of my early producers once told me, if you have time to sleep, then you are not working hard enough! There’s so much to do each day, time-lapses, travel long distances, early wake-up calls every day for months. This is something one can do, only if one has an internal drive that pushes them.
- As a naturalist, photographer and filmmaker, you have explored some of the most remote and extreme landscapes within our Indian subcontinent and outside. Which are the ones that remain close to your heart? Which are the ones that call for immediate attention?
The two large landscapes that I’ve spent a majority of my time in, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas, are the ones that are closest to my heart. There has been a tremendous amount of work in the Western Ghats, both in terms of science and conservation. The Eastern Himalayas on the other hand, has innumerable problems right now – dams, road-building, mining, etc. This, coupled with the fact that its on the border with Tibet, makes it an area of grave concern. Just in the last ten years, another 200 odd new species have been discovered in this region, adding to over 300 new species in the previous decade. This region calls for immediate attention and serious conservation action.
At 17,100 feet above sea level, Lake Gurudongmar is one of the highest elevation lakes in the Eastern Himalayas
- Tell us about building ‘Felis Creations’ and how it has grown. Is there a bigger dream you envision for it? How do you intend to create content that inspires conservation?
In one of the previous questions, I touched upon team building. Setting up Felis Creations is the realization of that dream. Felis consists of a team of talented individuals who have their heart in the right place and a dedication to work towards the motto, “We Create to Conserve.” To this end, Felis creates content to connect people to help conserve the planet. We’ve had several very well received short films; the Wild India National Anthem has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve also produced coffee-table books in collaboration with ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), which focuses on India’s two global biodiversity hotspots – the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats. Films and books are two very different forms of visual medium that can be very powerful tools to help aid conservation.
- Your two landmark publications, ‘Sahyadris’ and the ‘Himalayas’, have drawn focus to the two biodiversity hotspots. How have these books made an impact?
The Sahyadris book was a part of the UNESCO submission dossier along with several of my documentaries about the Western Ghats. With these highly powerful visual aids as ammunition, the Western Ghats was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site very recently.
These books are really geared towards policy makers, who with the books in their possession have the power of knowledge to help make ecologically conscious decisions, and that really is the hope and reason for producing the books in the first place. That, apart from the fact that before this attempt, there was nothing out there that compiled information about two of India’s most biologically rich places.
- You are a Senior Fellow at the acclaimed International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). How important is it to be able to ‘make’ a photograph? What is it that sets a conservation photograph apart from the rest?
To me, photography now is all about ‘making’ the image. I’ve taken many images in the past, but now, unless its just snapping pictures on my phone, I tend to spend a lot of time pre-visualizing an image before going about making the shot happen. So this way, you plan it out. And that’s the fundamental difference in photography – either getting the shot by plain luck, or planning the shot and executing it really well. When you start ‘making’ a photograph, you realize your journey as a photographer has just begun.
Conservation photography lies at the very heart of what I do. A lot of times a conservation photograph is ‘not’ a pretty picture and it’s usually something that people pass up on. But that, to me, is really the story I want to tell with a powerful conservation message attached to it. It’s a photograph that can change people’s perception, attitude or behaviour, and that’s what is the most important purpose of a conservation photograph.
- What is the latest project that is keeping you busy and excited?
I’ve been very fortunate in the last few years to be involved in some fairly big BBC documentary series – following India’s monsoon to highlighting the Wonders of India. But most recently, I’ve been very happy to be involved with the BBC’s landmark documentary series, Planet Earth 2, a follow up to their very popular Planet Earth series that aired exactly ten years ago. In the new Planet Earth show, I’ve been involved in the making of Grasslands and Urban episodes. These two episodes took me between the world’s tallest grasslands, that of Kaziranga (my new home away from home) in North East India, to the urban landscapes of Mumbai and Jodhpur. In this new immersive series, we document the troubles of life deep within the grasslands and in Mumbai and Jodhpur – the challenges and adaptations of wildlife to their urban environments. All very exciting stuff! The series is set to be released in October 2016 – stay tuned.
As for the projects I’m currently working on, you’ll have to wait to hear about them – some of them won’t be completed until 2019!