Madhaviah Krishnan, the preeminent chronicler of the natural world, artist, photographer and perhaps only ever “polymathic” nauralist, was born in Tirunelveli on 30 June 1912; the youngest of eight children.
The loss of his father, the Tamil writer and reformer A. Madhaviah, in 1925, coincided, rather indirectly, with a swiftly growing interest in literature, art and the natural world. Never a first-rate student, his early years of education were discordant with the extraordinaire Krishnan would eventually become. In 1927, he enrolled at Presidency College where he nurtured a lifelong passion for Botany. According to Ramachandra Guha’s insightful monograph — in the introductory pages to an exceptional anthology of Krishnan’s essays titled Nature’s Spokesman — Krishnan accompanied his Botany professor on trips to the Nilgiri and Kodaikanal hills; where his innate artistic proficiency came to the fore during discussions on watercolour-painting with his professor’s wife.
Graduating third-class, job prospects were poor; and his family concluded that the pursuance of a law degree would help substantiate the likelihood of employment. Shortly after his convocation in 1936, Krishnan married Indumati Hasabnis on 26 March 1937. During this early period, he wrote, contributing pieces and illustrations to the Madras Mail, The Hindu, Statesman and Indian Affairs; holding a hotchpotch of posts rather “irregularly”. In a fortuitous twist of fate, Krishnan moved to Bangalore in 1942, working for the Maharaja of Sandur as school teacher, judge, publicity officer and political secretary in a potpourri of responsibilities spread over eight years. His subsequent essays on nature and culture would draw much from this reservoir of experience.
In 1949, when the state of Sandur dissolved into the amalgamation of an independent India, Krishnan returned to Madras, and till his death in 1996, carved out — in his characteristic conduct rooted in the self-reliance espoused by Emerson and Thoreau — a career that made him the quintessential environmental writer, and a pathbreaking photographer. Almost indifferent to his public accomplishments, which included a Padma Shri, he was a member of the Indian Board for Wildlife and sat on the Steering Committee for Project Tiger. Never discriminatory in his topic of choice, Krishnan surveyed the natural world with an astute perspicacity and inclusiveness, providing his audience — whom he never patronised, but met at eye-level with the humility and respect given to a reflection identical in knowledge and interests, with a flavour for the lesser-known species.
Krishnan’s avowal that the conservation of India’s natural heritage for future generations was a prerequisite for national pride emphasised the perils of development and of preserving the “equipoise of nature”. His ecological patriotism was a rallying cry for those whose nationalistic fervour did not encompass the environment, but only the socio-political spheres. The major impediment, in his eyes, seemed to lie in those who failed to realise that a country’s identity depended not wholly upon its varying human cultures, but in its “unique biotic richness… its natural basis”.
Krishnan combined the rich tapestry of India’s cultural traditions and patrimony with its natural heritage, and in so doing, interlinked the conservation of one with the conservation of the other. He was meticulous in his articulation, writing powerfully, vividlyand unambiguously. Krishnan’s readers basked in the masterly eloquence of the writer, admiring his clarity of thought in oftentimes incredibly erudite disquisitions. Like Huxley, he decried the onward march of the machine, and wrote stirringly about the “lack of a popular feeling for wildlife in India”. His stunningly prescient observations of the trials and tribulations we presently face at the intersection of human-nature interactions is illustrative of his brilliance, and of the urgency for more Krishnan-inspired ecological patriots to strive towards, and realise that deeper environmental consciousness he so passionately fought for.
This month marks 23 years since M. Krishnan passed away; on 18 February 1996 at the age of eighty-three.