Beyond the Dunes

In the beginning…

 After marriage while I was still in my teens, I moved with my husband, Arun, to his cadre state, Gujarat, where he was a young subdivisional magistrate. I travelled with him in his district from taluka to taluka . Overnight stays in some poorly furnished Public Work Department Guest House, minimal facilities for food and toilets, and my early and mostly undistinguished forays into the Gujarati language, did not diminish my unnatural enthusiasm for travel into the hinterland. When Arun became a collector, things got better, and I followed my father’s example, packing my daughter Misha, sometimes even our dog, and setting off on our travels.

My once-in-six-months visits to Delhi from Rajkot, were on a slow train via Mahsana, where after a change, I caught the Ahmedabad Mail to the Capital. The high point of this tedious journey was the passage through Rajasthan. It became my practice at Marwar Junction to wait for the singers who walked the platform. I would pay them two rupees and lose myself in the Ballads of Moomal and ‘Raja Bharthari”. Their songs formed my first and most enduring bond with Rajasthan–Music.

My love affair with Rajasthan remained in abeyance once Arun was posted in Delhi. But it gained momentum when by a chain of freaky circumstances I found myself in the untried, untested waters of the electronic medium. From writing as a freelancer for newspapers and magazines to writing for television may not seem such a big step, but it is. I took it a step further and jumped in straight at the deep end when I set up my company, and turned Producer.

I had written a script, fiction, based on the life of a young district magistrate, recently married, and freshly promoted as the collector of a district. The Thirteen-episode series (as was then the norm) drew from my life experiences and coming as I did from dyed-in-the- wool background of the civil service the serial naturally had a degree of authenticity. Manzilein was made and telecast at Prime time on the National Network.

After Manzilein came a series of documentaries that took me to Rajasthan. My earliest projects in Rajasthan involved the Heritage Hotels-old palaces and forts, citadels of valour, romance, character, colour and perfect frames. The women in flowing, flaming colours, the men in flamboyant turbans, all in traditional costumes-the twentieth century be damned! And of course there was, as always, the music. But first to the making of Manzilein.

The core unit of the serial comprising director Shiva, Cameraman Zubair, sound recordist Manu, and writer/producer me had come together for the first time. Later, over the years, it became a strong, cohesive team that consistently did quality work. But at that time, the whole media scene, their erratic working hours, the dependence on so many extraneous factors – actors, time bound locations, inexpert technicians, such as lightboys, daylight limitations, audio disturbances-all of these clashed head-on with my well regulated, IAS housewife existence. There were many times when, despite being the producer of the serial, I was sorely tempted to quit. I remember a scene we were shooting in our early days in a garage. A set of poor, ne’er-do-well alcoholic’s shack had been constructed; a single room where all that the ‘drunk’ had to do was to come home in a state of inebriation, fall into a drunken stupor and die.

It was a scene that had taken me a few minutes to write and would fill the small screen for less than thirty seconds, but which took all of eight hours to shoot. For most people (self included at that time of innocence), for whom, dinki baby, multi and fairy are words that don’t mean light, this statement must seem incomprehensible. I too believed that the physical presence of a camera, a few lights, actors and a crew would magically, and quickly, come together like an American cake mix in a microwave, to create scenes, and-oila! a film. It does of course, eventually, but often in a degree of slow motion that would put even the most avant-garde director to shame.

First, of course, was the lighting. I had hoped that a poor dimly lit room would just mean fewer lights but I had reckoned without ‘film technique’. With a battery of lights and ‘cutters’ a room with dim light and shadows was created. To the lighting you add the actors-in this lucky instance, just the one. Shiva explained and enacted the scene for the actor. The brief was simple; our actor had to come into the room, fall on to the bed, raise himself, fall back, and ‘die’. And we did this again and again and again. If he rolled too much to the left he was out of frame, if he rolled too much to the right, he fell off the bed, if he rolled just so, his face was in shadow and couldn’t be seen. If he did all of this right, then he would roll his eyes villainously rather than drunkenly, and if he remembered his look, he forgot or muffed his single word dialogue-‘Laxmi’–his screen daughter’s name.     

To complicate the scene just that much more, in an unfortunate attempt at realism, our thespian had actually imbibed, not freely but fairly, and in this state, if there was one thing plainer than the instructions of the director, it was that I, the scriptwriter had caused his death. He tried to explain to me, in between takes, that he had much to contribute to the episode, and reasoned quite cogently that since reincarnation was not the theme of the serial, his screen death had nipped a promising role in the bud. Thus he would, with unnerving regularity, approach me with an accusing look, and ask why I had plotted his demise. As a conversation stopper this was hard to beat, and as a shot delaying tactic, utterly maddening. After half a dozen such accusations, I too began to blame myself. Why hadn’t had I let him ‘die’ off screen, in some mean alley?

The shooting for this scene had begun at ten in the evening, and it was nearly six in the morning, on a freezing winter morning when the magic words. ‘Pack Up’ were announced. By this time the entire unit was in a fatigued, somnolent stupor, not unlike that of our drunken hero. As the bleary-eyed crew began the journey home there was one person who had completely recovered from the after effects of his drinks and the all-night shoot–our very own veteran of the roll-fall-rise and die routine.

‘Juhiji,’ he said ‘Next time please give me a bigger role. If you don’t give me a chance, how will I expose myself?’  

  

Bharatpur

The Bharatpur sanctuary, or the Keoladeo National Park as it is now known was earlier the property of the Maharajas of Bharatpur–an area of jungle and marshland that was kept as their private hunting reserve, where VIPs and foreign dignitaries came to shoot and hunt. In 1956, the late Maharaja Brajendra Singh converted it into a bird sanctuary, and in 1985, UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site.

Shiva and I set out on our recce of the Keoladeo National Park in rickshaws, since only these are allowed within. Our guide and rikshawallah, Padam Singh was knowledgeable, articulate and generally helpful. He had come here some years ago, and had undergone the mandatory training on the birds and their habitat. He then got his license as a rikshawallah. Like the others he charged thirty rupees an hour and in a good season he was able to send home ten thousand rupees every month to his family.

The next day we toured all day with Padam Singh. The National Park, I discovered, was something of a niche destination visited mostly by wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and bird watchers in a word–foreigners. Indian tourists were fewer in number. He said sternly, ‘They come for picnics and make noise, disturb birds.’       

Padam Singh had a telegraphic style of speaking: ‘This, Pond Heron–Sitting time brown– Flying time–white–sometime called Paddy Bird–outside brown, inside white.’

The Keoladeo National Park is spread over 29 square kilometers, and apart from nearly 400 species of birds, is also home to deer, neelgai, sambhar, wild boar, monitor lizards and giant pythoms. Two of the last were sunning themselves in a small dry clearing at Python Point or Sanpan Mori. The Park is believed to have got its name from two words–‘kela’ and ‘dev’. Legend has it that one of the Maharajas had a dream that a kela (banana) plant had a statue of a deity buried beneath it.  The dream directed the maharaja to retrieve it and install it in a temple and so it was done. A pujari regularly performs arti at the temple and thus the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary became the Keoladeo National Park.

At the heart of the Keoladeo National Park is Central Point with a small very basic canteen, which mostly stocked tea and biscuits. This paucity in the food section is made up by the surprising friendliness of tiny, commonplace creatures like squirrels, sparrows, crows and mynahs. A sparrow and a squirrel sat on my hand and at my feet, as they ate the biscuit crumbs that we offered them. As always, such a sign of favour from birds and animals left us with a huge smile on our faces. Padam Singh, on the other hand, was bemused watching us city folks making such fuss about sparrows and squirrels!

As the sun dipped, a cold wind reminded us that it was time to leave. Bharatpur, especially the Keoladeo National Park, can get very cold, and early mornings touch freezing point; a fact I would discover when we returned for the actual shoot, when the call times were usually at six in the morning. Padam Singh’s rickshaw was generously open to the elements and as he tried to pick up speed, the wind numbed my face.

The next day our first port of call was at the office of the park director, Shruti Sharma, for requisite permissions. She looked coldly at us–unsmiling, unhelpful, unforthcoming and patently unfriendly. After this chilling reception though, the day picked up; the sun was warm, and Padam Singh determined to turn us into experts with a crash course in ornithology. Thus began our voyage into the wonderful world of the sanctuary, and into the unchartered territory of Padam Singh’s vocabulary. A small bird at the edge of the road was a “yellow bitten” a large black and white bird on an island was an ‘adjacent stork’. My hesitant query brought forth an emphatic confirmation. Frantically but stealthily, I consulted my little bird book – thankfully’ bitten’ became the more familiar bittren and ‘adjacent stork’ became an adjutant stork. Further ahead, Padam Singh pointed to a large bird perched on the stark branches of a solitary tree.

That was, he said ‘Tony Eagle’, he informed us. I was by now in awe of Padam Singh’s amazing knowledge but even so, I was a little surprised and sceptical by ‘Tony’. Could Padam Singh really know every Tom, Dick and Tony by name? But Padam Singh was categorical. Out came my little bird book, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I did not need to feel intimidated and inadequate because I couldn’t call out to each bird by its first name. What Padam Singh had shown us was a tawny eagle.

There were birds everywhere-painted storks in majestic flights of colour, kingfisher darting in and out of branches, gray-legged geese calling out to each other with sharp cries, even as the still waters were suddenly fragmented by the quick perpendicular dive of a shoveller.

This abundance of feathered creatures did not, however, ensure that getting a good slide would be easy. Unequipped with a top-class professional zoom lens, my attempts at photography were laughable. Acutely conscious of Shiva’s amused and borderline impatience look, after twenty minutes of attempting to get close to a brilliantly hued hyper kingfisher, I got the distinct feeling that if there was somebody bird-witted in this scenario, it was certainly not the bird. A thought plainly reflected on Padam Singh’s face.

At the end of the day, sitting at the café sipping hot tea, Shiva and I made notes on what we would shoot when the team arrived. We had seen and learned much, walked and laughed a lot. If there was any regret, it was that I hadn’t seen the many-splendoured  specimen Padam Singh had spoken of through the day. The sanctuary was apparently awash with the American Budwatcha, the English Budwatcha and the German Budwatcha, but I had spotted nary a one. My little bird book had no clues either and Shiva was at a loss. Later that night, as I lay in bed, exhausted and chasing sleep, it hit me. The mystery of the elusive budwatcha was solved. Why Padam Singh had seen them and I had not. I had been looking for a bird, but what Padam Singh had been talking of and seeing everywhere, was the American bird watcher, the English birdwatcher, and of course the German birdwatcher.  

 

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