My wife and I were recently discussing people we admired. High on her list was the artist and writer Manjula Padmanabhan. She had just seen Manjula’s evocative graphic ‘Let it Grow’: and had previously read and liked her play Harvest, her illustrated children’s story City Market, and her very adult short story collection, Hot Death, Cold Soup. High on my list, indeed on top of it, was M. Krishnan (1912-96), likewise an artist and writer of varied gifts, originality of expression, and singularity of purpose.

Krishnan was, among other things, an accomplished writer in Tamil. He grew up in Mylapore, as the youngest son of the celebrated novelist and social reformer A. Madhaviah. Krishnan’s own last work was a detective novel in his mother tongue. A posthumous collection of his Tamil essays, edited by the scholar and naturalist, Theodore Baskaran, has recently been published by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam under the title Mazhaikkalamum Kuyilosaiyum.

Krishnan was also a pioneering wildlife photographer. The camera he used was called (by himself and his acolytes) ‘Super-Ponderosa’. It was put together from pieces garnered from here and there; a lens from East Germany, a cap and shutter from Malaysia, nuts and bolts from Burma Bazaar, the lot held together by some neighbourhood string. But it, and he, took staggeringly good pictures. Some are represented in a 1985 collection called Nights and Days (published by Vikas); others, better still, will soon appear in a book put together by Ashish and Shanti Chandola and T. N. A. Perumal.

Then again, Krishnan was a marvellous prose stylist in his adopted language, English. Growing up, I spent many enjoyable hours in his company, reading his fortnightly ‘Country Notebook’ column in The Statesman. Much later, I had the privilege of making a selection from essays he had published over fifty years. The standard of the writing was so consistently good, and the subjects treated so compellingly relevant, that the choice of what to leave out became almost more difficult than what to include. I finally winnowed fifteen hundred pieces down to sixty-eight; these published by Oxford University Press in 2000 under the title Nature’s Spokesman: M. Krishnan and Indian Wildlife.
Lastly, Krishnan was a precocious environmentalist and conservationist. He knew and practiced ‘environmental education’ before that term had been coined or subject had been born. Consider thus his essay ‘Nature Study’, printed in The Hindu on 18 May 1947. ‘The school approach to nature study’, wrote this former school-teacher, ‘is fundamentally unsound. It is based on the theory that one must proceed from elementary, understandable things. There is simplification and selection, and logical, reasoned steps guide the approach. But the fact is that nature is not simple, logical and reasoned—thank God that it is not. There is no need to fully understand anything in all its structure and complexity to be alive to its charm… What makes living things fascinating is their behavior, not their anatomy. Children in primary schools should get to know the common wild plants and birds of the locality; birds because they are so easily watched. They should learn, a little later perhaps, the stories of the domestic animals. They should be taken out to see nature for themselves, and be given pleasant books, with gay, colourful illustrations… Children love them, and will readily interest themselves in any text if it is free from morals and illustrated in colour.’

Krishnan continues that ‘it is in high schools, however, that nature study can be made really interesting and worthwhile. Occupation and instruction, without dullness, can be provided by giving the students a plot of ground for growing things in—not a bed for the bean seed only, but a miniature market garden. I am convinced that if the school could go to the trouble, and trifling expense, of maintaining a poultry–run, a goat–pen (not too near the miniature garden), a pigeon–loft … [and] a middle–sized School Dog, the scholars would acquire virtues and knowledge that a whole board of teachers cannot help them to get. [R]egular nature study outings, supplemented with lessons in field identification and methods of observation, will help them to develop a keen, live interest in nature’.

Krishnan was an ecological patriot, who believed that the essence of Indian-ness lay in the species and habitats distinctive to the land. When, in the first flush of Independence, the nation was restless to build—to build dams, steel mills, atomic plants and the like—Krishnan warned (in an essay published in The Hindu in December 1958) that ‘we are a very ancient nation too, and there are vital matters in which we need to be conservative rather than constructive’. He complained that ‘particularly we are given to the introduction of exotic plants in our desire to beautify the countryside and make up by plantation for the annihilation of jungle and woodland that we have been responsible for during the past fifty years… No country in the world has a flora so rich in exotics as India’. He recommended that we cultivate ‘a narrow sort of patriotism in our floral preferences’. In other words, to be truly Indian, one must plant (and protect) Indian.

All his life, Krishnan underlined the connections between conservation and nation-hood. An essay of 1974, printed in the Times of India Annual, put it this way: ‘If we are wise, we can save India and her magnificent heritage of nature for the generations of Indians to come, and safeguard the physical and organic integrity of our country, threatened today—we can give them a country to be truly proud of. Will we?’ Twenty-two years later, in a column published in The Statesman on the day he died, Krishnan suggested that the snag ‘seems to lie in our Constitution, evolved by men with formidable knowledge of legal and political matters and hardly any of the unique biotic richness of India—they do not even seem to have realized that the identity of a country depended not so much on its mutable human culture as on its geomorphology, flora and fauna, its natural basis’.

In India, as elsewhere, wildlife conservation has chiefly operated by punitive methods: by the preservation, through policing, of wilderness areas from ‘the intended and unintended consequences of human actions’. But, as Krishnan suggested in an essay of 1955, one must look forward to the day when wildlife would be kept safe not from, but by humans. ‘No man truly interested in a country’s fauna’, he wrote, ‘will deny that the ideal is where there are no parks or preserves, but where the beasts and birds are ceded territory and unmolested by virtue of a highly informed national consciousness’.

Speaking strictly in career terms, Krishnan was conspicuously unlucky in the timing of his birth. For, in his day, there were no serious publishing houses active in India. If Krishnan were alive now, publishers small and large, desi and foreign, would be beating a path to his door, offering seductive advances to allow him to take an extended breather from the world of freelance journalism, thus to give them books based on his photographs, his essays, and his crusading environmentalism. I have the honour of belonging to a most gifted generation of Indian writers, but I will say this: in terms of talent and originality M. Krishnan comfortably exceeded us all.