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Meet Sumit Sen

Meet Sumit Sen

Following his childhood passion for nature, Sumit Sen is one of India’s most accomplished birders and nature photographers today.

Ex-banker, financial whiz, creator of www.kolkatabirds.com and digital photography aficionado speaks to Bittu Sahgal about birds, tigers and the love of nature photography.

Who is Sumit Sen and why does he pursue birds?

I am a good Kolkata boy, born and brought up in a lazy atmosphere reeking with revolutionary thoughts. My genes are all mixed up. I have doses of DNA from celebrated artists and leading thinkers. I guess the amalgam led me to choose birds as my inspiration and nature photography helped me express myself. Confusion often makes for unique nesting places! On a more serious note, my family migrated to Kolkata from Dacca, Bangladesh just before the partition of India. I can also trace at least three generations of legal professionals in our family tree.

And now you are a Kolkatawallah good and proper?

Although I consider myself to be a Kolkatan, I have spent a fair amount of time outside the city. Four years in New York, a couple in Mumbai and many months travelling across the length and breadth of the country. My dad worked in Kolkata and reached a position of eminence with the then, Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (now CESC). More to the point, he was a talented photographer and a keen naturalist. Which further explains the source of my inspiration.

And what does your family say about all this given as how you are travelling most of the time?

They love me and they love what I do. My wife and I share our love for nature with our two kids, a strapping lad of 18 and a beautiful 15-year-old daughter, currently swatting for her 1st board exam.

And where did you study?

Calcutta. I went the predictable route… majoring in economics from Calcutta University and then the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

There would be little natural history input there I would wager.

There was no need for inputs. I was always deeply attached to nature. My oldest nature books date back to 1960 and I used to receive a new one on each birthday from my father till he passed away. My Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India by D. V. Cowen (1961) was acquired for the princely sum of Rs. 22 and 30 paise ! – not that I took to trees with its help, but that is another story.

Nature was virtually always in your blood.

You could say that. Corbett, Adamason, Gee, Prater and Whistler were memorised well before the Pythagoras theorem. I sketched too and kept notes. When you start down this path of seeking knowledge from the wild, you never leave.

A Black-rumped Flameback picking insects off a fig tree. Photography by Sumit Sen.

With one of the best visited websites on Indian birds, and an image portfolio that is the envy of wildlife photographers, might I ask what you really are – banker, or birder?

I think the simple answer is that at heart I am a nature lover. I enjoyed banking and handled senior responsibility with a degree of success – but banking never took away the attachment to nature, though it certainly diluted the focus and commitment for many years. As far as birding goes, it is a part of the whole framework of the living world around us. I am as curious about a praying mantis as I am about a beautiful nuthatch. Given the complexity and breadth of life around us, I consciously chose to focus on this part of the animal kingdom. I will still watch a mantis stalking its prey – though I would not go out looking for one. But to answer your question, birder or banker, I would have to say – birder.

Any favourites?

Not really. No bird ever failed to grab me and I cannot point to one that ‘turned me into a birder’. I enjoy observing House Crows as I might a Mountain Hawk Eagle’s effortless flight. Lifeforms with which we share our world always turned me on.

Where does the tiger fit into your scheme of things?

I am as passionate about the tiger in the Sundarbans as I am about the sparrow chirping on my rooftop. The tiger is just one species and my passion runs across 1,230 bird species. It probably involved the same complexities for the tiger and the 1,230 bird species to evolve and survive. To me each is an independent function of an evolutionary miracle worth understanding and unravelling.

The lure of megafauna usually blinds most people to the joys of the relatively insignificant. Does this bother you?

Part of the obsession with the tiger is, perhaps, due to our own feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. Mankind is in awe of the big and powerful or there would not be wrestling channels on TV. From the perspective of science, the tiger is just another threatened species – its fate is as symbolic of our times as the fate of the Greater Adjutant Stork, the difference being that one is a feared beautiful predator and the other is a skeletal carrion eater. But as a birder, I am delighted with all the hoopla surrounding the tiger. The efforts to save the tiger have direct influence on the protection of bird habitat – I am all for saving the magnificent beast.

Sumit, you still have a clipped, business-like way about you. Why did the banker in you lose out to the slush-and mud-stomping naturalist?

There is a story here. I once had to choose a venue for my bank’s annual conference. The usual destinations – Mauritius, Goa and what have you allowed everyone to hit the high spots in the evening and helped bring the team together. I convinced my team that Ranthambhore was a magic place and that spending long hours together in Nature’s lap would really help knit the team. That visit in the late 90s changed everything for me. I realised I had to plan for a life that brought me closer to the things I loved most. That the organisation I worked for changed the way it was doing business in India at around the same time and was also supportive of my desire to find new challenges for myself only helped smoothen the difficult transition from banker to naturalist. In the end, I figured that ulcers, four a.m. flights, 14-hour conference calls and missed targets were hardly signs of a good life.

Let’s switch tracks. What led you to venture into serious digital photography so much before the rest of the herd?

I was an avid photographer till in the late ‘80s. When I picked up the camera again in 2000, the technology had changed to digital and I decided to join rather than fight. Initially, all I wanted was to satisfactorily document birds, for which a digital camera was infinitely more suitable.

A rare image of an Osprey buzzing its potential prey. Photography by Sumit Sen.

Would you advise other wildlife photographers to go digital? Any tips that might save them the angst?

It’s a complex, involved subject and probably deserves more space that you would provide here! But the key issue involved is the choice of equipment and the ability to post-process. Presuming that someone with a film-based single (SLR) lens reflex camera wants to consider changing sides, he or she must opt for Digital SLR (DSLR) – regular digicams just will not do the job. Post-process is almost half the digital story. The ability to handle image-processing software, understanding levels, curves, sharpening, colour space... all go towards achieving better digital images. Apart from this, the same rules apply if you want winning images. But digital is infinitely more convenient.

You have just returned from Lava and this issue carries a piece by Bikram Grewal and you about this wonderful place. What is it about that place that seems to draw you like a magnet?

Etched on the sides of the Algarah road is a line from Rabindranath Tagore: “ Be still my heart, the great trees are praying” – that really sums up my feelings about Lava. Lava is not just the best place to watch great birds, it is a mystic, ethereal place of enormous beauty. It is the sort of place where you don’t mind not seeing a bird the whole day – but it would be sacrilegious to suggest that possibility for Lava!

And the Sundarbans? You and I both seem to discover deep stirrings at the very mention of the place.

Sundarbans is where man stopped. It is where Nature’s writ runs and the story of Bonobibi and Dakshin Roy is all about an agreement to keep a part of Sundarbans under the control of man and the rest under the protection of nature. Sundarbans is immense, foreboding and mysterious. I think it makes both of us recognise our own insignificance, which is probably why we are writing The Sundarbans Inheritance together.

A young chameleon is fair game for birds. Photograph by Sumit Sen.

What is your take? Does the Sundarbans tiger actually hunt and kill humans?

Are you asking if they are man-eaters? I believe the Sundarbans tiger will treat any creature that ventures into the swamps as fair game. Having said that, the image of the man-eater painted by story tellers is of tigers that purposefully go out in search of human prey. This is not the case with the Sundarbans. Here, humans actually travel far from their homes to enter the tiger’s abode, where, in thick forest everything that moves and is edible will supplement a diet that includes crabs and fish! These tigers evolved differently from mainland tigers. There is nothing unnatural about adding a new, edible lifeform in the process of this evolution.

Any blood-thumping stories of your own you want to share?

Well, I saw a tiger on foot in Simlipal when I was just nine. I also saw a lost baby elephant in Betla struggling to escape from a mud hole and saw it rescued and revived by its ‘aunts.’ The adrenaline was certainly coursing through me when I saw a peregrine snatch a wader in mid-air in front of my eyes and when I saw thousands, literally thousands of butterflies mud-puddling in Buxa. All this before I was 10. The adventure has just never stopped ever since my grandpa, a hunter, first took me out on endless jungle and fishing trips.

And now, with years under the belt, what is it about wildlife that rocks your boat?

Hard to say. Even a few hours on the outskirts of the city is a rich experience for me. Etched in my mind is a sunset elephant ride into Manas, with the mist rising over the river and a herd of wild buffalo milling about and snorting, as a tigress dragged the buffalo it had killed only moments earlier on the river bank. It is the whole picture – not any particular part.

Let’s end on Kolkatabirds: It’s a great site and has to be a huge amount of work. It’s clearly not commercial, so why? And how does it run?

Call it an indulgence, or a life’s mission. The site is my way of sharing both the joy and the science of birding. When I log on (together with almost 1,000 people who visit the site daily) it gives me great satisfaction to know that we are an identification resource for 950 species, provide hotspot descriptions for over 30 birding sites, provide hard information on bird-flu, and help to network birders from across India. That it is ranked sixth out of the Super Top 100 birding sites only inspires me to reach for the number one spot.

The calm of a Himalayan landscape is part of the magic of being out in the wilderness. Photograph by Sumit Sen.

For more on birding, Sanctuary readers are urged to log on to www.kolkatabirds.com

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVI No. 3, June 2006.


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