An ebullience of elephants


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M. Krishnan (1912-1996) was India’s pioneering naturalist and has the distinction of writing the longest running weekly nature column in the history of the Indian press – his ‘Country Notebook’ in The Sunday Statesman. The masterful prose was accompanied by black and white photos he himself made in the field, often with improvised equipment, processed and printed to his standards of perfection.

Krishnan used photography to illustrate and supplement his field observation. T.N.A. Perumal, a contemporary of Krishnan, and himself a master of black and white photography, says that Krishnan was unhappy with the branded cameras available at that time. And so, he designed the ‘Elephant Gun’, a home-made camera adapted to give the best results for photographing elephants on foot. And the Asian Elephant was unarguably Krishnan’s favourite subject.

To quote Perumal, ‘Krishnan’s elephant photography is the stuff of legends.’ The story of the ‘Wild rogue’ is quite well known but bears repeating. In 1965 in the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in the North of West Bengal, a fine tusker had been declared a rogue after he had killed quite a few people. Krishnan asked to accompany the Forest Department party that had been entrusted with the task to track down and shoot this tusker. The tusker was found at the edge of a stream and secretions were oozing from his temporal gland indicating that he was in musth. Krishnan requested the Forest Department officials to hold their fire while he approached the tusker on foot and took a number of photographs. The elephant did not react despite the fact that Krishnan was plainly visible. He then returned to the officials and persuaded them that this animal was not a rogue and should therefore be spared!

Wild rogue; Jaldapara, October 1965.

An ebullience of elephants; Bandipur, October 1968.

Krishnan’s amazing patience, his acute powers of observation combined with wit and an elegant turn of phrase have given us some delightful insights into elephant behaviour. Watching a herd of elephants at a waterhole in Bandipur Krishnan says: ‘They had their tails curled in high, tight little circles and held their heads high, with the trunk stretched out in front along the surface of the water as they entered the pool. Once they reached the middle, they really let themselves go, plunging violently head downwards, rolling over and coming up feet first, pushing one another, squirting the water all over, and slapping the surface with their trunks to make the water rise up in white spumes.’ ‘An ebullience of elephants’, Krishnan decided, conveyed the exuberance of the herd in their bath.

An hour with a king; Periyar, April 1960.


Krishnan spent ‘An hour with a King’, a grand old tusker in Periyar. It was in musth and he observed it as it fed on some grass at the water’s edge, bathed and then had a mud bath. To the common observer this might look very mundane but Krishnan had an insatiable and extremely refreshing curiosity. He had of course watched elephants mud-bathe many times, but once when he was alone he too took a cool dip in the river and then on reaching the bank took some soft earth and flung it on his bare back to gauge how elephants must feel after treating themselves in a similar manner!


Krishnan had one particularly close encounter when he was trying to photograph a herd of elephants drinking water in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. He was on foot with his tracker Mara, who knew the area well. They let the herd of 20 elephants go on ahead, and waited a full ten minutes before following them cautiously. Even so they found themselves in a situation with two cow elephants, a mother and a calf and a big tusker in a clearing, with no tree or bushes to hide behind and the wind against them.

Non-cooperation. This little one had walked a long way with its mother in a Bihar forest, and is staging a sit-down strike! Palamau, February 1969.

Tuskers at Nanjapurakatte; Bandipur, May 1974.

Mara asked Krishnan to take off his clothes and led by example, and taking some fresh elephant dung started to smear it liberally over himself and then crouched low. Krishnan followed suit, saying later that ‘it was nauseating but necessary.’ The strategy worked with the two cows and then the cow and calf moving on, not realizing the presence of the two humans. The tusker moved closer to their left and was ‘less than the length of a cricket pitch’ away from them. He was so close that Krishnan dared not even lift his head to look left! Then after what seemed liked ten minutes but, in reality, was much less, curiosity got the better of Krishnan and he stole a look at the tusker. He could see his sharp tusks and his flapping ears, but it was obvious that despite being so close, the elephant was engrossed in feeding. It was then that he noticed that the tusker was standing at a patch of the Mimosa pudica, more commonly known as ‘Touch me not’ plant, which was in blossom. And he watched in wonder as the tusker laboriously gathered the ‘minute, pink badminton balls’ and ate them!

Elephant children; Periyar, May 1970.

Sub-adult elephants at play; Palamau, February 1969.

He was very fond of captive elephants as well, and he recalls nostalgically how he once literally lived next door to an elephant. ‘Each day I would rise to the sound of bells as he was led out for his wash in the pond, and afterwards, sitting idly in the verandah, I would watch Jadhav returning from the bath, black and fresh and newly scrubbed, the little gun-metal bells at his throat tinkling with each movement. All that is gone with the past year. I live once again amidst commonplace men, but I often think of those far-off days and of my distinguished neighbour.’


Krishnan points out that ‘When a mahout wishes to criticize his charge, he does not call the animal by name, but uses the generic appellation "elephant". That implies the brute nature of the animal, and the superior, human status of the mahout, and somehow conveys that sense of impersonal detachment that adds to the effectiveness of any sarcastic comment.’ It is only when one reflects on Krishnan’s words does one realize that we have witnessed this many times over the years and heard a mahout call his elephant ‘Aane’ or ‘Haathi’ in an exasperated or irritated tone.

Young tusker; Mudumalai, March 1964.

Krishnan not only made the excellent photographs that accompany this piece but also photos of tigers and rhino, sambar deer and monkeys, crocodile, squirrel and innumerable birds. He was also an artist, using line drawings to supplement his observations. Besides natural history, he had a keen interest in cricket and Tamil literature.


* Photographs by M. Krishnan; reproduced courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.