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...
book a lonely journey?
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
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
some unusual stories of how tree species travelled to Delhi?
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
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.
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!
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.
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?
and Branch: Krishen on a ‘jungling’ expedition
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!
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.
a couple of cult films. What made you move away from film?
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.
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...
documentaries – do you think that’s a form that is maturing
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.
ever think of returning to film?
No. I’m a
plant man now. Will remain so!