BOOK REVIEW: THE NATURE OF SRI LANKA BY LUXSHMANAN NADARAJA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Book Review: The Nature of Sri Lanka by Luxshmanan Nadaraja. Hi Magazine. May 2009. Series 7, Volume 2. Page 142. ISSN 1800-0711.
Nadaraja, L. (2008). the nature of sri lanka. Wildlight (Pvt) Ltd.: Colombo. 318 pages. ISBN 978-955-1989-00-2. 13” x 10” full colour and black and white photographs by Luxshmanan Nadaraja. Text by Richard Simon, Dr Sriyanie Miththapala, Arittha Wikramanayake, Shirley W. Perera, Dr T.S.U. de Zylva, Dr Shyamala Ratnayeke, Arjuna Nadaraja, Sri Lanka Thilaka Martin Wijesinghe and Dr Arjuna Parkrama. Designed by Nelun Harasgama Nadaraja. Printed in Singapore.
Starting from around the early 2000s, there has been a flowering of beautiful books on Sri Lankan wildlife. This followed a renaissance in bio-diversity research in the late 1980s notably led by Rohan Pethiyagoda and his team of researchers from the Wildlife Heritage Trust. It is no accident that the flowering of wildlife books followed the renaissance in research and also the elevation of wildlife into the economic agenda from wildlife tourism. All of these books have contributed to a heightened awareness of Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity and had varying impacts on wildlife photographers. Many Sri Lankan wildlife books burden the shelves of my book cases. However, the nature of sri lanka is notable for having an immediate and dramatic impact on how I take photographs.
I had barely skimmed the pages of the book and a deep message had been imprinted in my mind. The need to see the animal holistically in its environment and to return to some of the classical rules of composition. It is not that the books by other photographers did not seem to understand composition and a sense of place. They did. But the imagery which dominated those books (and I confess my own efforts as a nature photographer) were those of the ‘frame filler’. To understand what I mean compare the opening images, such as the Scarlet Minivets in the rain or the closing images of the book, such as the eyes of a leopard peeing through a bush, shown in black and white.
In the early 2000s, new generation of wildlife photographers had begun to comb the wilds of Sri Lanka. They were a tech savvy breed. They carried laptops and their conversations were interspersed with gigs of storage, files sizes in mega pixels and above all the ‘frame filler’. With long lenses (covered in camouflage or sleek black non reflective coatings) suspended on bean bags or Wimberly tripod heads, they looked like special forces units out on patrol. As mile after dusty mile was clocked, sightings of leopards and other animals were measured in terms of ‘frame filling’. If it was not frame filling, it did not count. A leopard sleeping on a waterhole embankment at a distance was not worth it and more than one photographer would drive off scornfully confident in the knowledge he had already gardened a few Gigs of frame fillers in his compact flash cards.
Species were photographed ‘frame filling’ almost to the equivalent of a taxonomist looking through a microscope. A bird or mammal once photographed with enough pixel detail to show each feather or hair of fur was deemed ‘done’ and safely ticked off the list. A few charismatic species such as the leopard could never be done because the thirst for more was unquenchable. The obsessive ‘leopard hunters’ lived hell on earth as the fire that burned within for a better leopard image could never be put out.
Luxshamn Nadaraja’s work is refreshing reminder of basics. Seeing the natural world for its beauty and aesthetics. A communion with nature. A leopard is not a leopard until it is seen in the context of its habitat. Many of the wildlife books somehow had the overpowering presence of the photographer lingering in the consciousness of the reader. An image was something about the photographer’s skill to get close, oh so close and his or her array of technologically advanced, vibration reducing prism technology, apochromatic lenses, write speeds to the flash cards and so on.
Suddenly, we now have a book, where the world seen a calmer, quieter place. Technology has become irrelevant and the photographer has been banished and we are left to enjoy images where no one needed to get close. We see an Ashy Prinia singing in the reeds, like how we would see it. Elephants, even a group of them, are small, like we usually see them, dwarfed by the vastness of the wilderness.
Although it is billed in a sense as Luxhmanan’s book, I interpret it as joint effort with his wife Nelun Harasgama Nadaraja, the designer of the book. Nelun has designed many of the beautiful wildlife books which have come out recently. But here in this book there is a natural symbiosis, her creativity has found the raw material to lay out a creation which is different from other books. The quality and the sense of space in the images lend themselves to her characteristic bold use of white space. There are many double page panels like this. Others may use the entire page but are not enslaved by ‘frame filler’ images which need the subject species to be all encompassing. An oriental dwarf kingfisher is boldly laid across a double page spread (in of one the largest books of its genre) and is diminished but enhanced by virtue of it being only a sixteenth of the space. The designer and the photographer both have an empathy for space which fuses well in this book.
Perhaps I exaggerate a little. Not every image is about taking a step back and showing a living being in its environment. Luxshmanan has a fair number of images which are frame filling and some pages are seemingly busy with a montages of rectangulalry cropped images, packed against each other. Nevertheless the book is underlain by a confidence to give space and to see the wilderness in its entire vastness and for it not to be measured by the sum of the individual animals which have to be captured in the ‘frame filler’.
The book goes beyond the collaboration between photographer and designer. There is a series of chapters written in different styles and by people from different backgrounds. Arjuna Parakrama’s essay is thought provoking and written in a quality of English which transcends narrative and is art in itself. In contrast, the famous bird photographer Dr T.S.U de Zyla narrates a few stories in the typical camp fire anecdotal style so common in the older issue of the ‘Loris’. Other excellently written contributions to the book include those by Richard Simon, Dr Sriyanie Miththapala, Arittha Wikramanayake, Shirley W. Perera, Dr Shyamala Ratnayeke, Arjuna Nadaraja and Sri Lanka Thilaka Martin Wijesinghe.
Photography is always a subjective and the choice of individual images are an emotional choice of the photographer or one that was needed for a particular topic. As a result every reader will have images they see as being a little weaker than others. But the book as a whole is wonderfully crafted and will influence the way others photograph and publish their work in the future. Sri Lanka has been blessed with many wonderful books on wildlife in the last decade. I think this book more than any other, demonstrates the ability of its citizens to combine authorship, photography and design to produce books which are both meaningful and beautiful.