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‘I’m a plant man now’

Pradip Krishen has spent close to 10 years on his book on Delhi’s trees. Conjuring their beauty and oddities, he talks to Shoma Chaudhury about a Delhi few people know

Trees of Delhi
A Field Guide
Pradip Krishen
Dorling Kindersley
360 pp, Rs 799
Pradip Krishen has an odd arc of gifts. He started out as a lecturer in history and ended up a naturalist. But is best known for what he calls his “small, lunatic fringe films” : Massey Sahib in which Arundhati Roy played a “tribal bimbo”; In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, a refreshingly idiomatic satire on college life; and Electric Moon. Though he’s given up on films, his book on trees displays a lingering capacity for lunatic passion.

What got you started on this painstaking book? Were you always a nature lover?

I’m not sure there was a defined beginning... I first got interested in the jungles of Pachmarhi (in the Satpura Hills, in central India) and, with the help of a forester friend, learned to identify the trees there. It must have been around 1993, I think. It took me six or seven months and it was somehow deeply satisfying in the way that it often is to wrap your head around a complex subject — sort of like a giant puzzle. From there, it was a short step towards wondering about the trees of the city I live in. Only far more difficult, because all the trees in a natural forest are neatly accounted for, not so the trees of a city because of the large numbers of brought-in exotics. So it became a puzzle on a gigantic scale, with very few guideposts to help me. But I didn’t know that when I started — I thought I’d bang out a small little book that would take me about a year to write! I don’t think I would have undertaken this book if I had any idea of what lay ahead! As for being a nature lover, I suppose there was one lurking inside somewhere, from a very young age. I grew up in Nairobi between the ages of six and eight, and can remember nothing more vividly than innumerable visits to East African wilderness. Much later, I became an amateur bird-watcher and spent lots of dizzily happy spells in jungles... Ashish Chandola, Joanna Van Gruisen, Raghu Chundawat have been great teachers and great people to go jungling with...

Leaf Lore: Pradip Krishen, at home among what he loves most
A lone carrotwood from Australia; a stunted cocaine from the Peruvian Andes; a singular raintree from the Caribbean — these are some of the most exotic trees in Delhi
Was the book a lonely journey?

I worked pretty much alone, especially in the beginning. My friend, Golak, who is an architect and painter, was a ‘jungling’ companion whenever we visited Pachmarhi, and my forester tree-guru, Nishikant Jadhav, watched my interest growing with avuncular approval. But when it came to actually tracking down Delhi’s trees and systematising the research, I was on my own. There were a few botanists I turned to for help, but like most scientists, botanists like order, and the khichdi of trees in a large city like Delhi is far from orderly! I was very focused from the beginning though, on writing a book that was addressed to the ordinary person.

What are some unusual stories of how tree species travelled to Delhi?

It’s often quite hard to unravel these stories. To unravel the process by which a municipal body picks on an unusual tree to plant along a road or in a park. There’s often a lot of misguided enthusiasm — not much thought about whether or not the tree is likely to adapt to Delhi conditions. I think my favourite examples of introduced trees are a ragbag list of exotics inside Sundar Nursery at Nizamuddin and three kakkar trees in Talkatora Gardens, which are the only ones of their kind in the city. It’s a reasonable guess that the strange trees in Sundar Nursery were brought in and planted by Percy Lancaster who was in charge of choosing trees for planting in New Delhi in the 1940s. It really is a strange collection — a lone carrotwood tree from the south-eastern coast of Australia; a stunted cocaine tree from the Peruvian Andes; a singular raintree from the Caribbean, which sadly died about three years ago... These are some of the 11 or 12 trees which are like stranded relics of the trees that Lancaster experimented with. The ones that didn't do well, so were discarded and not planted along avenues.

The kakkar trees in Talkatora are another kind of story — they are probably about 70 or 80 years old. We know they are native to hot, dry slopes in the lower north-western Himalaya. These kakkars represent someone's inspired guess that they’d succeed in Delhi. And they did! Beautifully! They have grown to a wonderful size and are particularly magnificent in new leaf early in spring. They belong to the lovely genus Pistacia, (same as the pistachio), and I find it odd that no one has wanted to plant these magnificent trees in more places in Delhi. Maybe no one knew what they were.

Which is your personal favourite?

That's hard, there are several. If pressed, I'd probably choose the anjan, from dry, stony tracts in central India, which grows along Pandara Road and portions of Maulana Azad Road, and is also planted on a few roundabouts near the Secretariat. It has tiny, inconspicuous flowers, so it's not an obvious candidate, but the foliage is very beautiful, and appears in lovely, coppery tints and becomes indescribably beautiful in the rains, when the wet trunk appears black and the canopy is at its best. But I feel disloyal to some of my other favourites, singling the anjan out!

Any historic anecdotes around trees...?

There are a few. One I didn’t include in my book, because it doesn’t exist any more, was reported by Royle in the 1820s, I think, as growing in the Mughal Emperor’s garden inside Red Fort. It’s a gamboge, one of the Garcinias, which you find in hot, more humid conditions much further south, and Royle expresses great surprise to find a lone tree growing in Delhi so far from its native place. He said the tree was amply watered by the ‘Paradise Canal’ that flowed through the Fort and walled city, and that milk was poured over its roots. When it was in fruit, it needed a small army of guards to watch over it. There’s no sign of it any more, of course.

Root and Branch: Krishen on a ‘jungling’ expedition
You have a gift for working with wood -- did you train in it? What’s your favourite? And is there a dilemma — a nature lover using wood in his home?

No training. I started working with wood in 1994, and it was love at first sight! I remember entering a friend's garage — he’d just bought himself a hobbyist’s wood-turning lathe, he showed me how to use it, and he had to dig me out with giant calipers five hours later! I experimented a bit, but now only work with waste woods that are routinely auctioned in Kirti Nagar as firewood or for making packing cases. I don't do anything on a big scale either. So no dilemma, really. My favourite wood? Gosh, I don't know, probably bakain or babool or possibly siras. And jhand, which has lovely chocolatey swirls of dark grain. God, don't start me off on this!

Can you talk about your idea for self-sustaining bio-parks?

Not exactly bio-parks — more like native plant landscapes. I first started in 2001, when I convinced some friends to plant purely native plants on their plot in the foothills of Garhwal. The logic is terribly simple: native plants are already adapted to the soil and moisture regime and climate. Once established, they can be expected to look after themselves. We had such astonishing results, I got completely hooked! I then made a disastrous attempt to get a school in Delhi to create a microscopic version of the Delhi Ridge, so that kids could learn all about the ecology of this fascinating place. That didn’t work very well at all. But subsequently, I got started creating a swathe of sandy desert landscape inside a historic fort in Nagaur, in western Rajasthan. More recently, I’ve started my most challenging assignment yet, which is to plant rocky desert plants over 70 hectares of nearly pure rock in Jodhpur... The idea is to create a sort of outdoor plant museum, with trails and written information, so that visitors will be able to appreciate not just the specialised plant life, but also the birds and insects and reptiles native to a rocky desert. It’s very exciting — we’ll be planting this rockscape this rainy season. 

You made a couple of cult films. What made you move away from film?

Don’t know about ‘cult’ films — they were very small, lunatic fringe films. None of them ever found a distributor, so I don’t think you should make out that they were any bigger than they were! But I guess I was faced with a simple choice early in the 1990s — go back to the nfdc to fund my next film, or look to Bollywood. I couldn’t bear the thought of the first, and going to Bollywood, hat in hand, entailed changing the kind of films I was making. So I gave up filmmaking — no regrets there.

What do you think of the kind of films being made in India today?

I don’t follow popular Indian films very closely. What little I see seems much more accomplished. It’s lightened up too. I liked Bunty Aur Babli, the light touch, the brilliant music, the sense of fun, the almost complete absence of male chauvinism. I enjoyed some things about Rang De Basanti. And some of Ram Gopal Varma’s early films...

What about documentaries – do you think that’s a form that is maturing in India?

Sure, lots of interesting new work is happening. People like Rahul Roy, Ranjan Palit, Amar Kanwar, Sanjay Kak, Rakesh Sharma, and even my old warhorse friend, Anand Patwardhan, is still out there in the front trenches! They bring a lot of intelligence and political acuity into play. The documentary movement is going to get even stronger, I think.

Do you ever think of returning to film?

No. I’m a plant man now. Will remain so!

May 20 , 2006

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