Pradip Krishen’s journey from film to forest

01 February 2014

IT WAS A LITTLE PAST 5 AM as we drove out from Jaisalmer into the alternately sandy and rocky terrain of the Desert National Park, a 3,162 square-kilometre swathe of the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. We were heading specifically for a large dune that goes by the evocative name of Gaja Matha—“elephant head”. For the first time in four days, Pradip Krishen reserved the front seat of the Innova for himself. He had to direct the driver, he said, and proceeded to do so silently, with several elegant turns of the wrist. Just as the driver began to enjoy speeding through the smoky pre-dawn darkness, Krishen uttered a gentle but firm injunction: “Thoda haule le lo, chinkara vagairah aa jaate hain” (Take it slow, there might be chinkaras). Reluctantly, the driver decelerated, lulling the other four still-drowsy passengers back into a potential return to slumber. Krishen, though, remained thoroughly awake. Within minutes, he brought us to a stop with a quiet exclamation: “Was that a hedgehog?”

We drove back a few hundred metres. Sure enough, there was a sad, not-very-spiny ball of quills, rolled up in the middle of the road. Krishen and the rest of us got out for a look: Mithva, Krishen’s younger daughter, accompanying her father into the desert for the first time; Arati Kumar-Rao, a freelance photojournalist working with Krishen; Nishikant Jadhav, a retired Indian Forest Service officer whom Krishen affectionately calls his “Tree Guru”; and myself.

“He’ll go to hedgehog heaven,” said Mithva, as tender an animal-lover as her father.

“The great insectivore hunting ground in the sky,” said Krishen.

“The insects are already here,” Kumar-Rao said. It was a strangely affecting sight: the thin, sticky trickle of blood, and the insects lining up to devour the creature who would once have devoured them.

Back in the car, Krishen and Kumar-Rao described how long it had taken them to arrive at the Rajasthani name—just the name—for the specific habitat we were driving out to see. The sandy desert is self-mulching: a top layer of dry sand protects a lower layer of wet sand, providing enough moisture for plants to grow and a whole ecosystem to emerge, creating what might be called the “jungle of the desert”. Krishen and Kumar-Rao spent many trips asking local people what they called these sorts of areas with vegetation. They received answers ranging from the banal and slightly baffled—“registan?” (desert?)—to place-names, like Gaja Matha. Between themselves, they had begun to refer to it as the “SBK habitat”, using an acronym derived from the three plant species most commonly found in the sandy Thar: a spidery herb called seenio; bui, or desert cotton; and a large thin-stemmed bush called kheemp. The coinage had almost stuck when a 19th-century reference—James Tod’s two-volume classic Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan—finally gave them the term they were looking for: roee. Suddenly, the word was everywhere they looked. “Yes, going into the roee means going into the jungle,” our Jaisalmer hotel owner affirmed. “Hmm. You never mentioned it when I asked last year,” Krishen said, slightly disgruntled. That persistent trial-and-error approach to research—eclectic reading plus the pursuit of local knowledge, all the while also devising his own ordering system—exemplifies Krishen’s work.

In the Innova headed toward the roee, we grew collectively still, arrested by the grandeur of dawn breaking over the desert. Krishen’s voice interrupted my own reverie. “When you’re shooting a film,” he said, “there’s a moment at dawn that’s ephemeral. And if you have two or three dawn shots, you need to get matching dawns—a cloudy dawn can’t be followed by a clear one. But the classic is what we used to call RFD, Rosy-Fingered Dawn. Which, of course, is from the Odyssey …”

Like all good storytellers, Krishen is adept at using little sparks from his past to illuminate the present. Once at work, however, that leisurely digressiveness is replaced by a sharper focus. On each pre-dawn trip, we walked the dunes for hours, with Krishen, Kumar-Rao and Jadhav stopping to look at—and photograph—not just lizards and birds and gerbils, not just big trees and shrubs, but also the most minuscule grasses. They knelt, they hunched, they lay flat on the ground to examine everything from the roots of a shrub where a lizard had taken up residence, to the fuzz growing on an old cowpat. There was great passion here, an exhilaration and intensity difficult to describe. Yet there was also an immense sense of calm, an immersion in the present that took the form of an unhurried attention to landscape.

Barren expanses, which the locals called thal, were interspersed with the roee—stretches of vegetation that, even to my untrained eye, transformed the desert from a dry nothingness into a world secretly throbbing with life. Krishen was mostly happy for us to tramp along peacefully as he pointed out the flatter plains, or pediments, that are the oldest parts of the desert, and educated me about common plants like the khejri (“this is where you get the sangri from”). But in an instant his voice would drop to a hush, and everyone would suddenly start whispering dramatically: “Egyptian! Egyptian!” A sighting, as it turned out, of a raptor called the Egyptian vulture.

AN UNFAILING SPOTTER OF SPECIES, Pradip Krishen is a bit of a species unto himself. A highly regarded naturalist and ecological gardener, he is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006), one of India’s most popular books on an ecological subject, and he has just published another—an equally exhaustive yet supremely readable guide to the Jungle Trees of Central India. In an earlier life, Krishen was a highly regarded filmmaker. He directed Massey Sahib (1985), In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989) and Electric Moon (1992)—all, to different degrees, cult films for a generation of writers, directors and discerning movie-goers.

After Electric Moon, however, Krishen stopped making films and went into a hibernation of sorts. When he re-emerged into the public eye after a little over a decade, it turned out that he had spent much of that time teaching himself about trees. Almost simultaneously, he had been teaching others: leading walks into Delhi’s wooded tracts, helping protect the heritage environs of the city’s Sunder Nursery from being cloven by a flyover, and trying to create a microhabitat there. Krishen’s explorations extended into Rishikesh, with a “Wildflowers in the Rain” walk at a friend’s resort, and to Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh.

Krishen’s success remains astounding to most people. “He’s an amateur who outdistances the professionals,” said Amita Baviskar, who has, as a sociologist and activist, long engaged with environmental concerns herself. Krishen has also pretty much invented the shape of the profile he now inhabits. As the documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who started his career working with Krishen, put it: “How many people do we know who are amateur tree biologists and photographers and writers? Essentially, no one.”

IN APRIL 2013, I travelled with Krishen from Delhi to Jodhpur, where his most recent project has unfolded in the shadow of what might be India’s best-preserved medieval fortress: the 15th-century Mehrangarh fort. In 2005, the Mehrangarh Museum Trust (MMT) invited Krishen to “green” the fort’s surrounding area, then an eroded, rocky wasteland dominated by the invasive Mexican species Prosopis juliflora—the mesquite, or vilayati keekar—also known by the rather appropriate local name of baavlia, “the mad one”. “Maybe [the MMT] had in mind something like a garden,” Krishen told me during one of our several interviews, on the road and in Delhi. What they got instead is an ambitious ecological restoration project on a scale unprecedented in India. Krishen has spent the last seven years trying to return the area to what it might have been like five or six centuries ago, before it was inhabited by people—and before the late 1930s, when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur, in a well-intentioned bid to provide the subjects of his desert kingdom with a source of greenery, scattered the seeds of Prosopis juliflora across it from an aeroplane.

A year before the MMT invited Krishen to Mehrangarh, the trust, which is headed by Jodhpur’s former maharaja, Gaj Singh, asked him to resuscitate a moat filled with old stone rubble at the 12th-century Nagaur Fort, about 138 kilometres north-east of the city. Based on his own research and the guidance of the late Dr MM Bhandari, a botanical doyen of the Thar desert, Krishen sowed a nursery of plants native to the Nagauri desert. “It just flourished,” he said.

But Nagaur was no precedent for Mehrangarh. The first—mammoth—task was to rid the area of baavlia. But in terrain as rocky as this, how was it to be removed? Using chemicals was not feasible in a place where water run-off is collected for human use. After trying everything from cutting the baavlia at ground level (it sprouted back with even greater vigour), uprooting it using compressor-driven auger drilling machines (too slow and expensive) and even blasting it with small charges of dynamite (which shattered precious rock formations), Krishen’s team hit upon a solution entirely in synch with his preference for the small-scale, ecologically friendly and local. Thirteen Khandwalias, traditional sandstone miners from the region, were hired to manually excavate the baavlia, and then dig pits in the hard, dark, volcanic rhyolite rock to receive new plants. But once all the baavlia was removed, Krishen felt a quiver of doubt: what if they had successfully pulled out the only thing that could grow in this inhospitable landscape?

For two or three years, Krishen’s team experimented with the newly dug pits, planting a variety of lithophytes. These are plants specially adapted to rocky conditions that survive through succulence (storing water in their tissues); by growing massive penetrative roots that draw water from far away; or by using moisture from the short monsoon season to germinate, flower, fruit and die out—what Krishen described as “dying to live”. Today, seven monsoons after Krishen first arrived, the roughly 70-hectare Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park (RJP) is the first outdoor museum of desert plants in the country. On my first day there, on a blazing summer afternoon, I expected to see no visitors. But a couple from Jaipur soon arrived, with their three-year-old and two of her friends. Sachin Sharma, one of two local men being trained as naturalist guides, led them along one of the park’s four walking trails. “Everything you see is volcanic rock, 750 million years old,” Sharma announced to the impressed young banker and his wife. He pointed out the spiny leafless kair, a variety of caper that produces pinkish fruits often pickled in Rajasthan—“achaar khaya hai aapne?”—and the less familiar rabad bel, a Madagascar native brought to India around World War I as a potential source of rubber. I asked the couple how they heard of the park. The banker said he had taken a guest to the marble cenotaphs of Jaswant Thada—“I was looking at the fish in the lake there when a gotakhor (diver) suggested this park. Jaanwaron ka to restoration apan dekhtein hai, chidiaghar mein (we see animal restoration at the zoo), but this is a wonderful initiative!” His wife chimed in: “Conservation of the desert plants we have seen for the first time, specially in such a personal way.”

The wilderness of RJP is approached through a visitor centre artfully housed at Singhoria Bari, a historic city gate. The centre is more of a “garden space”, Krishen said, “where we can explain [the desert] to people in miniature.” Krishen was responsible for nearly every detail: not just the division of the space into a dry gravelly side and a grassy side, but also a lovely guide booklet to the park’s plants; the photographs on the panels; the pale green gate with exquisite brass hinges modelled on a tiny desert plant called tumba; the naturally rippled sandstone paving. Like all of Krishen’s work, it is curated with a lightness of touch that produces the effect of naturalness. As Devinder Yadav, who had been a Mehrangarh gardener for years and is now RJP supervisor, said with satisfaction about the park, “Aane wale dinon mein aisa lagega ki apan ne koi kaam hi nahi kiya” (In the future, it will seem as if we haven’t done any work at all).

DESPITE THE ENCYCLOPAEDIC BREADTH of Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters, Krishen knew almost nothing about natural habitats—desert or forest—until the 1990s. He had, however, often accompanied his naturalist or wildlife photographer friends to jungles. “I remember standing in Manas National Park with Ashish Chandola and Joanna von Guisen,” he said. “I didn’t know what birds they were discussing, but I remember thinking, what a perfect place to be. But I never dwelt on it. There was nothing inevitable about becoming a jungler.”

As someone brought up in the cradle of Nehruvian India, the youngest child and only son of an officer in the civil services, it was assumed that Krishen would follow in his father’s footsteps. His decision not to do so was the first of many ways in which he broke with the world he grew up in. His several abortive attempts to collaborate with government bodies form a fraught pattern of hopeful attachment and inevitable betrayal that feels almost personal. And yet, Krishen has not strayed too far from the bureaucratic gentility of that world: his relationship with the state and state organs, though conflicted, has remained crucial—and relationship with the market, non-existent.

Krishen spent three charmed childhood years in Africa—he remembers travelling by train from Mombasa to Nairobi, where his father was posted, seeing “giraffes cantering, the whole savannah in front of you”. The family returned to Delhi in 1958 and, by 1970, had settled into the house Krishen still lives in, on Kautilya Marg in the capital’s diplomatic area. Young Krishen spent a brief, happy time at the Elisabeth Gauba School—then “a tiny little private school in Hailey Road, run by an Eastern European lady married to a Punjabi”—before being sent off to Mayo College. He was 11, and hated it. But he lived up to familial expectation, doing well enough to join St Stephen’s College for a BA in history, and later Balliol College, Oxford.

His academic credentials seem to have been impeccable—the historian Shahid Amin, at St Stephen’s a year below him, makes much of his college essays—but Krishen insists he had no deep interest in history and was “a bit of a jock”, playing tennis morning and evening and destined for the IAS. But things changed at Oxford, where Krishen attended lectures in everything from anthropology to politics. He also began to watch films. Krishen described Balliol in the late 1960s as “radicalising”. “It was very social, very left-wing,” he said. “I loved it. It loosened me up. I came back a completely different person.” In Bargad (The Banyan Tree), Krishen’s aborted 1980s television series, a central character named Badri goes from Allahabad to Oxford in the 1920s, where, according to an official synopsis, he “comes under new influences: left wing politics, curious questions about India, which he suddenly realizes he knows next to nothing about”, and gets a glimpse “of India through British eyes”. The Bargad script is the first fiction credited to the writer Arundhati Roy. But she and Krishen researched Bargad together, and they were close enough for one to wonder: was Roy’s fiction Krishen’s fact, transplanted to another decade?

But unlike Badri, and unlike his father Prem Krishen, England was where Krishen decided against the civil-services route. He recollects meeting the writer and academic Alok Rai, who had already been at Oxford for a year. “[Rai] said, ‘Kyon bhai, kahan se ho?’ (Where are you from?) I said Dilli. He said, ‘St Stephen’s College?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Before that public school?’ Yes. ‘After this, IAS?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe.’ But the scorn in his voice ...” Krishen trailed off, grinning. Rai, now an old friend, told me the rejection of bureaucratic ambition—“that ‘I will not surrender my independence thing’”—was what brought Krishen and him together. “The decision not to go into government was a very big decision,” he said.

Krishen’s father thought so too. “He said, ‘What do you want to do instead, become a boxwallah?’” Krishen recalled. “I’d say things like ‘the media’.” He nearly joined the Indian Express, but instead took a job at Delhi University’s Ramjas College as a temporary lecturer in history. In 1972, he signed up for an MPhil at Jawaharlal Nehru University. There were, he admitted, some excellent teachers at JNU, “but the kind of Marxist history being done there didn’t excite me at all. Any work on modern India seemed merely meant to prove that the British were horrible.” The Ramjas staffroom did not enthuse him either. “Some very bright people—but there was something grey about them.”

But Krishen’s frustration with academia didn’t really matter. He had already planted a foot in another camp. He had come back from Oxford in 1971 steeped in cinema: Godard and the French New Wave, but also Hungarian and Polish filmmakers such as Roman Polanski, István Szabó, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski. “The more you burrowed in, the more esoteric it was, the more interesting it seemed,” Krishen recalled. Between Delhi’s plentiful cultural centres and active film clubs, such as Celluloid at Delhi University, the young lecturer started watching a film a day. Meanwhile, he had married his college sweetheart Sonu, and she had joined the National School of Drama (NSD), then a beehive of activity under Ebrahim Alkazi—so he was also watching theatre.

In 1974, Krishen bought a turret camera of World War II vintage. He described his first experience of working with the film camera as “ignominious”. With theatre director Bhanu Bharti, Krishen shot a short film for Doordarshan on a Rajasthani folk theatre form called rammat. They returned from Bikaner and handed in their unedited footage. When they returned three days later, it was untraceable. It was the first of Krishen’s difficult encounters involving the state broadcaster.

Krishen considered applying to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune but was advised against it by its director Girish Karnad, whom he knew through friends. Karnad suggested he instead apprentice himself to director Shyam Benegal, who wasn’t yet famous, though he’d made Ankur and Charandas Chor. Krishen went to Bombay and told me he spent two and a half months “being a nuisance”. “But [Benegal] was very encouraging,” he said. “It demythologised cinema for me. But I still had no idea how I was going to break into filmmaking.”

Krishen’s break was really a series of events. From about 1972, he had become very interested in the Manganiyar musicians of Rajasthan, visiting them in the desert with the great folklorist and ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari. When a wealthy acquaintance named Alok Jain offered to play patron, Krishen proposed a documentary on the Manganiyars—“Jain being a Marwari, it was a very good fit,” he said. Jain agreed to fund three weeks of research in Rajasthan, and a trip to England, since editing 16mm was somewhat tricky in India. “On the day I caught my plane back, the Emergency was declared,” Krishen said. “I never heard from Jain again.”

Meanwhile, Georges Luneau, a French director Krishen had met through Kothari, asked if he would like to assist on a film about folk performances of a Rajasthani epic. Krishen imagined Luneau “leaning across to me and asking, ‘How do you want to compose this shot?’” Instead he ended up on wake-up duty, and carrying the heavy bags. “But it was a film—a leetle bit imagination, a leetle bit fantasy, very French, not very good,” Krishen said with a grin.

It was on the strength of assisting on La Ballade de Pabuji (The Ballad of Pabuji; 1976), however, that Krishen got his next opportunity. Television News Features, which called itself “India’s first television news feature agency”, agreed to match Krishen’s teaching salary of Rs 1,200. It was a chance to leave what he saw as the dreariness of academia for filmmaking, and Krishen took it. TVNF, co-founded in 1973 by the late theatre critic Romesh Chander, known as Charlie, made 15-minute development and science features on black-and-white 16mm film. “It was a rickety little affair. We had a budget of 15,000 rupees per film,” Krishen said. The silent prints were sent out with a commentary script in English, to be broadcast in local languages by Doordarshan’s regional stations. “Wild sound effects and a music track” were provided on separate magnetic tape. After the excitement of having his own gear wore off, creating features like ‘Metals: The Earth’s Bounty’ began to seem rather dull. “Then,” Krishen said, “I proposed a film about the social life of the honeybee.”

All that exists of the TVNF films today are Krishen’s meticulous synopses booklets. The one for ‘The Social Life of the Honeybee’—Science Feature No. 14—reads, in retrospect, as a clue to everything that Pradip Krishen would go on to do:

The highlight of this film is an explanation of the language of bees. When a scout bee finds a rich source of nectar, it returns to the hive and begins to dance. The dance indicates to other bees [where] the flowers lie. This sequence alternates live-action shots of the dance with animated graphics, so that a viewer can decode the complex message of the dancing bee … [This film] broaches a new concept in science filmmaking—it suggests to the audience that scientific enquiry begins with the perception of order in nature.

In collaboration with his friend and colleague Umashankar, a skilled sound-recordist whom Krishen called “a mine of information on matters scientific”, he went on to produce about 80 science films in three years. He shot and directed 24 of them himself, delegating others to the growing bunch of youngsters gathering at the A-30 Defence Colony office. Some, like Siddhartha Basu and Sanjay Kak, would carve out prominent careers of their own in television and film. Kak remembers TVNF with palpable fondness. “It’s difficult to expain what the excitement was of being able to trundle onto a bus with a cameraman and go off to Punjab—even if you were going to Khanna to shoot a five-minute reel on parboiled paddy. You came back with stock, and Sadhu Ram ji, the lab-in-charge, would say density accha hai (is good), or kharaab hai (is bad). Then everyone would watch and critique the rushes in a very sweet way. There was a playfulness to the way science was being thought of.”

At this time Krishen was, for all intents and purposes, a professor of history, someone with no background in science. Yet the films he made for TVNF seem to have delved into matters scientific in exactly the methodical yet joyful style that makes his books such a rare gift to the beginner. It is as if, having once been a beginner himself, he never forgets what it is like. That combination of simultaneously learning and teaching—delighting in figuring things out for oneself and infecting others with that delight—characterises everything Krishen has done since.

After two years at TVNF, Krishen started to research a film on Kutchi shipbuilding, but it didn’t take off. Then, the culture ministry’s Centre for Cultural Resources and Training put out a call for educational films, allowing Krishen to revive his old Manganiyar project with some of his TVNF colleagues. Kak remembers the Rajasthan shoot as an exhilarating do-it-yourself exercise. “We made our own lights, tracks, trolley, because these things weren’t available,” he said. “Not that we won’t have it: we’ll build one! There was no electricity, so Umashankar would scour the markets, find this tungsten lamp …” But working with Krishen was by no means only about technique. For Kak, then in his early twenties, it was a glimpse of “a life in cinema connected with scholarship … Digging around what you’re exploring, being affected by the larger intellectual discourse. It’s not just a film about musicians in western Rajasthan.”

The 1981 film, By Word of Mouth, no longer survives. But in the same year, Krishen edited a special issue, titled Indian Popular Cinema: Myth, Meaning and Metaphor, of the India International Centre’s quarterly journal. The issue was an early example of serious scholarship on popular Indian cinema, routed through cinema’s relationship to myth, folklore and bardic theatre. It included an analysis of Karz by the Indologist Wendy Doniger, an unpacking of Jai Santoshi Ma by the anthropologist Veena Das, an early exposition of Ashis Nandy’s theory of Hindi cinema as myth, and an interview with Komal Kothari on the oral narrative traditions of Rajasthan. Kothari’s answers to Krishen lay out the bedrock on which By Word of Mouth would have been built: a world of charans, bhats and nats, genealogical recitations and epic tales of Pabuji and Devnarayan, and theatrical forms like khyal and rammat. Krishen’s introduction warns against dismissing the appeal of popular films as the by-product of a commercial apparatus: “the audience ... reserves its most enthusiastic response only for ... 10 or 15 films each year. It is clearly useful to try and explain why.” Yet Krishen’s interest in popular cinema was purely academic. The films that actually excited him were quite different.

IN THE EARLY 1970S, Krishen began to watch the New Wave films coming out of Bombay and a lot of the new regional cinema. The initiation of an “Indian Panorama” section in the annual International Film Festival of India (IFFI) aided access to these films. Krishen started to write for the National Film Festival brochures, producing lucid, well-crafted introductions to subjects such as the Indian cinema of the 1930s, or the films of Satyajit Ray.

Krishen was writing creatively too, and in 1980 he won the Rs 10,000 first prize in a National Film Development Corporation script competition. He told me the NFDC budgeted Rs 9.2 lakh, to turn his adaptation of Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson (“about a bouncy colonial man in Nigeria”) into what would become Massey Sahib. “Our entire art department budget was 35,000 rupees. For a period film!” Krishen said. He borrowed his father’s car and drove off to Madhya Pradesh with Sanjay Kak to look for locations. They needed a small Hindi-speaking town, ideally with a bazaar full of character and a genteel, colonial air. Pachmarhi, surrounded by protected forest on three sides, had once been the summer capital of the Central Provinces. It had a Civil Lines and a bazaar. It fit the bill perfectly.

Location in place, Krishen started scouting for actors. Siddhartha Basu was keen to play Massey, and a sample scene was shot with him and the actor Barry John. Then Basu went abroad, and Krishen zeroed in on a young NSD actor, Raghuvir Yadav, “because he was so nicely built, so compact, sang so well, and was such a good dancer”. What Krishen hadn’t realised was how helpful Yadav would be with the writing. The two holed themselves up for two and a half months, writing and refining dialogue. Massey Sahib had a challenging linguistic matrix, said Krishen, “Indians speaking Hindi to each other, British people speaking English to each other, British people speaking Hindi to servants, Indians speaking Hindi to tribal characters who didn’t really speak it.”

Paratein udhedne mein bada maahir hai Pradip” (Pradip has a talent for unravelling layers), chuckled Yadav, who went on to act in all of Krishen’s projects, and told me he still hopes Krishen will someday make and cast him in another film. For his part, Krishen professed admiration for Yadav’s command of spoken language. “Raghu was a wonderful dialogue creator,” he said. “Being an actor, somebody who rolls things off his tongue, he just knew exactly what worked.”

If the NFDC had had its way, Yadav may never have got the role. After Basu’s departure, the NFDC urged Krishen to get “known names”—they meant those Shyam Benegal had made famous. (Krishen would later describe them in an 1991 summation of India’s parallel cinema in the journal Public Culture as “the new Trojan Horse of the decade, the vehicles for smuggling a new kind of cinema into the fortress of the popular film.”) They included actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who had been at NSD at the same time as Krishen’s wife and who has fond memories of the period. “I would often bum meals off them—they took me into the comfort of their home,” Shah said in a phone interview from Mumbai. He remembered Krishen as “a youthful, long-haired fellow who drove around on a scooter”, and recalled being “in awe of his learning. You could call me the awed younger brother.” Shah lost touch with Krishen after he moved to Bombay. “Then one day I received a script from NFDC—and in those days there was one script a day coming from NFDC—so I said I have too much work,” Shah said. “Then when I heard it was Pradip’s script, I was very excited. I would have given my left arm [to do it]. But I didn’t hear from Pradip. [Later he] called me to watch it, and I was charmed, completely. It was consummately made. And I have to say Raghuvir Yadav was the right choice.”

Massey Sahib was released in 1985. Like almost everything Krishen has ever done, the film was held up for a long time by an unsympathetic bureaucrat. But when it came out, it created quite a stir. The artist MF Husain was inspired to make two paintings, one of which became the cover of the “Indian Panorama” brochure at the 1986 IFFI. For the filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee, one of the teenagers who stayed up late to watch Massey Sahib on Doordarshan, it was remarkable for putting “a whole social cross-section under a microscope” while refusing to toe any simple political line. “It was neither pro-elite nor anti-elite, just hugely personal,” Banerjee said in a phone interview. “For the first time, I saw a colonial officer as a human being.” Krishen’s Anglicised upbringing and ICS family background may have helped draw out the empathetic portrayal of “Adam Sahib” from Barry John; while Massey, the Indian Christian “type-babu” stuck between worlds, may have gained from the fact that Krishen’s mother Vimla was raised as a Christian. Yadav’s marvellous cinematic debut as Massey won him two Best Actor Awards, at IFFI and at the Venice Film Festival.

The film featured another memorable debut: Arundhati Roy played Saila, a character she later described (somewhat unkindly) as a “tribal bimbo”. It is true that Saila essentially existed to present a picture-perfect version of indigenous Indian femininity—there’s even a moment when she stops to pick a thorn out of her foot, framed in a classic Khajuraho mudra. Roy’s tribal nayika—likely the only “heroine” of Indian film to display unshaven armpits—certainly made an impact on the nation’s alternative youth. Banerjee confessed to “a massive erotic fascination” with the sultry, “from-the-soil” Saila. “Of course Arundhati Roy is probably as far as anyone could be from the soil,” Banerjee said. “But at that time I could totally identify with Massey’s obsession with her.”

ROY, who met Krishen through his wife, was thrown by her first encounter with the Kautilya Marg universe, where the couple lived in a barsati above Krishen’s parents. “I remember going up the spiral staircase, watching this bridge party below—women with water waves, people smoking cigars—and saying, oh, you have such weird landlords,” Roy said. At the time, Roy was “living literally in Nizamuddin Basti, every morning having tea with the beggars and lepers on Ghalib’s grave”, she told me, while making us coffee in the open kitchen of the Jor Bagh barsati where she now lives. “I don’t think I knew anybody who even lived in a barsati like that, let alone owned a house. It wasn’t in my imagination.”

Massey was shot in the winter of 1982–83 and Krishen’s first marriage ended around the same time. Roy moved in and became a part of the Kautilya Marg universe herself. The two began their first writerly collaboration in 1985 on Bargad, a “swaraj saga” commissioned by ITV, a private company producing fiction programming for Doordarshan. Krishen had suggested that ITV hire Roy as writer. ITV was initially reluctant—perhaps they suspected Krishen of trying to foist his girlfriend on them. “But I was already convinced that she could write,” Krishen told me.

I asked him if Roy had written anything at the time. He pondered this for a bit. “No, only letters,” he said. “But she wrote like a dream.”

Roy remembers those letters well. She wrote them from Italy, where she had gone soon after the Massey shoot, on a scholarship to study architectural restoration. “It was a bit of pirouetting, these letters,” she said. “The response I was waiting for was ‘You should be writing.’ And I got it.”

Today, Roy thinks Massey Sahib “doesn’t fit into the way I look at the world.” But at the time she was “really happy to be in a world where things seemed so much more intelligent”. “Pradip was this much older man who was married, who had children, who’d been to Oxford,” Roy said. “I was just a kid. And he was a wonderful person to learn from.”

Though scripted by Roy, Bargad also bore all the marks of Krishen’s craft. The ambitious 16-hour television series was to follow fictitious 1924 graduates of Muir Central College in Allahabad up to 1950. The fineness of Krishen’s research is apparent in a surviving set of commissioned costume sketches, with the brief “to design a set of clothes worn by a UP upper-class family in which the husband has studied abroad (period 1890–1910)”. Shooting began with actors like Saeed Jaffrey, Supriya Pathak, Pankaj Kapur, Shyamanand Jalan and Krishen’s old companions Barry John and Raghuvir Yadav. But after 70 days, an ITV fund-crunch led an abrasive new producer to insist they shoot fewer scenes and switch from film to video. Sharp disagreements led to a stand-off; Bargad was put on hold and tragically never revived. All that remains of it today is what Krishen wistfully calls “the wedding album”: a series of stills, assembled in the vain hope of finding another producer.

In 1988, still heartbroken over their failed first project, Krishen and Roy embarked on a second one. They were tired of what Krishen called the “behalfism” that plagued Indian parallel cinema—“To say, ‘I’m going to represent landless labour in Bihar’ when you’ve lived all your life in Bombay is absurd.” Roy asked Bhaskar Ghosh, then director-general of Doordarshan, “Why can’t we make a film about ourselves?” Ghosh said, “Write one.” They handed in a script, first titled Chapter Five. Ghosh loved it, and Doordarshan commissioned In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones.

“After Bargad, which was this big, sedate, researched thing, Annie was like doing hand-springs behind it,” Roy said. “For me, if you do something which is very elaborate, has a lot of props, it’s difficult to be too bad. Whereas Annie had no scaffolding; it took a lot of chances.” Roy drew on her own experience to create a whacky, idiosyncratic account of life at a thinly disguised version of the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. Everything about the film was cheekily subversive, including the fact that “Annie” was short for Anand. Dibakar Banerjee (possibly Krishen’s and Roy’s most famous film fan) watched Annie soon after he had entered a similar world, the National Institute of Design, and thinks of it as India’s “first postmodern film”. He was stunned that “a film could be made like that, here—that spoke in English, with people like my seniors, with these remarkable girlfriends”.

And yet the English Annie spoke was unrecognisable outside a minuscule Indian collegiate world—the British film critic Derek Malcolm pronounced that they’d “have to change the title because ‘giving it those ones’ doesn’t mean anything in English”. Krishen had little to do with the writing, but his own memories of being at St Stephen’s College in the 1960s—“it was a little bit of a word factory”—allowed him to share Roy’s excitement about a new kind of casual, linguistically mixed-up, confident new English-speaking milieu. As he said, “Annie was fun because we were celebrating a subculture, a sublanguage.”

Annie was finished at the end of 1988, but Ghosh was sacked by the Rajiv Gandhi government before he could approve the final film. The bureaucrat who took his place, Shiv Sharma, found it worryingly outré. After detailed negotiation over four-letter words (chronicled in Roy’s introduction to the published screenplay: “‘Balls’ chalega. ‘Fuck’ ko toh aapko nikaalna padega...”), “Shivering Sharma”, as Krishen still calls him, tucked the film into an unannounced late-night slot on Doordarshan sometime in March 1989, hoping no one would notice.

Clearly, some people did. Over time, the film became something of a cult classic, a litmus test for film nerds. Watched and re-watched by generations of FTII students, Annie is also available on YouTube. It managed to get two National Awards, including one for “best feature film in languages other than those specified in schedule VIII of the constitution”. “That means English,” Krishen said with a smile.

KRISHEN AND ROY’S NEXT COLLABORATION, Electric Moon (1992), had its beginnings in 1984, when they helped film a momentous event in Indian wildlife history: the reintroduction of rhinos into Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park, where the last rhino had been shot by a European hunter in 1878. One April morning, they set out from Palam Airport behind a cavalcade—five trucks, an Assamese rhino in each—that reached Dudhwa at night. Roy’s commentary for Ashish Chandola’s documentary How the Rhinoceros Returned became her first paid writing assignment.

It was on this trip to Dudhwa that Krishen and Roy first met Billy Arjan Singh. Singh was an erstwhile royal, a shikari-turned-conservationist best known for bringing up a young tigress called Tara, gifted to him in 1976 by the Twycross Zoo in the United Kingdom. Documented in an episode of the British TV series Survival, his rearing of Tara—and his plan to release her into the wild in Dudhwa—was highly controversial. Billy’s greatest critic, Krishen said, was the park’s director, RL Singh, who argued that Tara’s suspected Siberian genes would “pollute the gene pool of the Bengal tiger” and that a tiger used to humans would turn man-eater. But Billy, who, in Krishen’s words, “had the protective hand of Mrs Gandhi on his back,” paid no heed.

A month or so after Tara’s release, Krishen recalled, there were two tiger attacks, “and RL Singh said, see, I told you so. [He] notified Tara as a man-eater, sat up on a machan and killed Tara.” But, in 1985, Billy told Krishen he had merely pretended that the dead tigress was Tara to throw RL Singh off her scent. In fact, the real Tara had just given birth to a second litter, claimed Billy, whose great desire now was to “re-establish contact”. Krishen was suitably excited about filming the encounter. But soon holes emerged in the story—it turned out that the impressive first-person voice of Billy’s books was the creation of a ghostwriter. Worse, other tiger experts grew convinced that the latest photographs he had released weren’t of Tara at all.

Electric Moon was born from this strange skein of fact and fiction in the jungle. Set in a wildlife resort in a fictitious Indian national park, the film’s savage wit spares no one as it unravels the India-as-Orient package: the tourists are annoying, the royals are humbugs, the government officials petty and self-important. Even the exploited servants are opportunistic. The scathing, prescient comment on wildlife tourism drew on the politics of Dudhwa too, capturing the bitter face-off between ex-royals, who saw the jungle as theirs, and the forest department officials of independent India, who were its new thekedars, or contractors.

Electric Moon, shot in 1991, was partly funded by the BBC’s Channel 4, and drew great performances from Roshan Seth, Raghuvir Yadav and Naseeruddin Shah (as the dour forest officer Goswami). But Krishen was deeply disappointed in other actors, including Leela Naidu who played a memsahib ex-princess (with lines like, “We’ve just enough time for a quick little drinkie”). Naidu’s legendary reputation drew journalists from Delhi to Pachmarhi, but her flat dialogue delivery drove Krishen up the wall. Shah agreed that Electric Moon “wasn’t as funny as I hoped, and acting had a lot to do with that. Imagine a Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron made with a lesser supporting cast.” For Roy, it was the international cast and crew that caused problems. “[Those days] there were a lot of Raj films where white folks were the bosses,” she said. “Here all the decisions were ours, and it led to a lot of tension.”

Electric Moon ended up being Krishen and Roy’s last creative collaboration. “After Annie I realised that I’m a solo act. I don’t negotiate,” Roy told me. “In EM there’s a difference between the script and the film. It was a good film, but the ‘fuck you’ part of the script had been torn down.” Roy had signed up to write another script for Channel 4, but when Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, also commissioned by the channel, was released, Roy’s famously scathing response (‘The Great Indian Rape Trick’) to its representation of Phoolan Devi, became a turning point in her career. The Channel 4 honeymoon was over. Roy, already moving away from film writing, could now devote all her time to what would become The God of Small Things. Krishen, meanwhile, began his own new journey.

THE MID 1990S WERE DIFFICULT YEARS. Making the sort of films Krishen did, that too out of Delhi, seemed increasingly frustrating—it was simultaneously too crowded (“every collaborator took something away, instead of adding”) and too lonely (“I was a freak—lunatic fringe”). Being in cinema had also begun to feel too public. “I wanted to do something internal and meditative and small, that wasn’t about projecting anything to anyone,” Krishen told me. “Around 1997–98, as The God of Small Things became kind of meteoric, I thought, why don’t I just become Arundhati’s wife?” True, Krishen never had to worry about a roof over his or his family’s head. But unlike many others born to privilege, he used his to take risks—and the risks were always immersive. Krishen’s next project—an escape from film, which itself grew out of some of his film friendships—was no different.

Krishen and his old friend Golak Khandual first met Nishikant Jadhav, then the director of Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh, about shooting permissions for Electric Moon. Over several long jungle walks, Jadhav became a close friend. Krishen returned to Delhi, but the quiet of Pachmarhi (“no TV, no music, ekant [solitude]”) beckoned, and he asked Jadhav to look out for available land. In 1993, Jadhav found a plot, seven kilometres outside Pachmarhi, in Bariaam village. It belonged to a Muslim family and so did not infringe on the law barring the sale of adivasi-owned land. Krishen leapt at the chance, and he, Jadhav and two others became co-owners.

Khandual, a trained architect, was persuaded to design a house, and he and Krishen began to divide their time between Delhi and Bariaam. Their growing involvement with Pachmarhi included a plan to revamp the town’s natural history museum, housed in the Bison Lodge where Captain James Forsyth had built the region’s first Forest Bungalow in the early 1860s. In keeping with Krishen’s adventures with bureaucracy, once their new design was approved, he told me, the museum director was transferred, “and we never heard from them again.”

Krishen had also been petitioning the Indian Army to prevent unplanned development in the town and, by 1995, he had founded a Pachmarhi chapter of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Through INTACH, he put forward suggestions for an integrated plan for the whole Pachmarhi plateau to the urban development ministry’s Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO). In 1998, the TCPO produced a different plan, which Krishen said was “floating on a gravy of corruption”. (“Wherever there was a sethji, there was a special land use zone.”) Krishen reversed gears, leading an eventually successful effort to cancel the TCPO’s plan.

Soon, he received notices charging him with having built a house without municipal sanction, and on forest land. The ensuing legal tussle became part of the “Forest Case”, which was only resolved in the Supreme Court in 2012, with an order to the state government to exclude Bariaam village from the Pachmarhi Wildlife Sanctuary. Between his jinxed Pachmarhi projects and the disillusionment with cinema, “I lost my way a little,” Krishen told me. And yet, though not immediately apparent, Krishen’s slow drift away from his previous life was leading inexorably towards a new one.

Krishen had been tentatively exploring the Delhi Ridge near his Kautilya Marg home since 1973, when he got his first dog, Kuttuji. By about 1980, it was familiar terrain. “But I didn’t know the plants at all,” he said. It was in the 1990s, alongside his trips to Bariaam, that Krishen suddenly began to notice the trees.

At the time, Jadhav remembered, “Pradip knew only one tree—mango.” But how does someone with no background in botany begin to train himself not just to recognise plants, but to decipher the specialised language used by experts? “You need to have a personality that’s sufficiently anal,” Krishen said, poker-faced. “Even if a fog of incomprehension is staring you in the face.” We were sitting in Krishen’s cool, dark study, where he is to be found every morning, working away doggedly and systematically on a desktop computer that held the archive of text and photographic material which would coalesce into Jungle Trees.

“The first ability to hone was how to recognise a tree,” he said. “One was learning to look at clues, which usually had to do with family character. If your leaf had a winged petiole, chances were that was probably from the Rutacae, which is a citrus …” he trailed off to pick out a large, green, hardbound book from the shelf to his left: Dietrich Brandis’s The Forest Flora of North-West and Central India (1874). “This became my bible for a while. I first literally marked off every tree, in blue, so that I wouldn’t look at anything else.” He opened the book to reveal blue highlights, and margins full of little penciled symbols. “‘A’ was for ‘alternate leaf’. This squiggle means ‘serrated leaf’. These three leaves, ‘trifoliate leaf’. And so on.”

Krishen made the process sound almost clear-cut. Later, though, in a moment of happy immodesty, he informed me that the few enthusiastic forest officers there are in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are “just waiting for my book because it’s a huge resource”. “Say Mr Nigam at Satpura National Park wants to know what the trees are—where does he turn? Does he open Witt, does he open Brandis? They’re not friendly. There’s no help there. It’s just verbiage. It’s very, very hard.”

Krishen’s gift to amateur plant enthusiasts is to have made that process much simpler. Suprabha Seshan, an ecological gardener who runs the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, where Krishen has taught, described his style as “field botany as it should be: a life skill that is handed down by doing”. Trees of Delhi has spawned admirers across the country—often people who knew nothing about trees and didn’t think they could possibly learn, until they stumbled upon the beautifully photographed, lucid, often entertaining volume, which has sold nearly 20,000 copies. Jungle Trees, which took four years and 37 trips to central India to complete, had an eager readership awaiting its publication this month. Two thousand people signed up in advance for a special early edition.

“He doesn’t use a botanical language,” Seshan said. “His little descriptions are informed by his love of language—his use of local terms, for instance.” Yet a meticulous aesthetic sensibility remains, whether Krishen is crafting a paragraph or the furniture he makes from satkattha (“miscellaneous”) timber acquired at auction. “There are botanists who know as much as he does, but no one who could have created RJP and its brochure and signage,” said Baviskar. “It’s about how to make things accessible to people, with quirky touches.”

Krishen’s nature walks mirror the whimsical, engaging style of his art and writing. One May evening on the Ridge, Krishen pointed out, within minutes, a prickly pear, which isn’t native to Delhi, and which he used to think was an escape from cultivation, but has recently discovered may have been deliberately planted to protect native vegetation from browsing animals. He pointed out, for beauty, curtains of spider webs with neem flowers caught in them; and, for pure fun, the hard-as-iron hingot nut, which people used to drill into, fill with gunpowder and set off as a firework. He urged an accompanying 12-year-old to collect some bright red, bead-like seeds called ratti, which are so consistent in mass that they were once used to weigh jewellery. At which point the penny dropped—in idiomatic Hindi, “ratti bhar” means a tiny quantity—and I experienced the thrill of having made the etymological connection, as if for myself.

Alok Rai, Krishen’s go-to man for Hindi-language finessing since Bargad, remains impressed by his ear for linguistic detail. “He can hear stuff he doesn’t necessarily deploy himself,” Rai said. That enjoyment of other people’s language is apparent in Krishen’s attentiveness to film dialogue, and in his exceptional talent for mimicry. Mithva remembers having her father read Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ aloud to her, with the voices. But whether he is bringing to life an agitated Ugandan diplomat or a drunken Pachmarhi carpenter, Krishen’s imitations never feel like mockery. To hear him mimic someone is never to hear them caricatured; instead, it is to experience the specificity of their presence.

Krishen’s love of the spoken word extends seamlessly to music, and he occasionally breaks into song with untutored tunefulness. His strongest musical attachment is reserved for the Manganiyars, whom he first heard in the 1970s. After his lost film about these hereditary professional musicians was completed, Krishen did not return to Rajasthan for decades. With the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, it is as if his long-forgotten romance with the desert has been revived. This time around, it is not just the people that fascinate him, but the landscape.

But the birds have not replaced the bards entirely. In 2013, Krishen invited a series of Manganiyar musicians to perform in the park on full-moon nights. Every month for six months, you could see Krishen’s curatorial genius at work, in yet another form. There were no arrangements except mats on the ground and a few cleverly placed lanterns. Nothing was manufactured: neither the stunning dawn-coloured fortress behind the musicians, nor the marmalade moon rising into an inky sky, nor the music climbing slowly but surely to a crescendo. And yet, the aching loveliness of the Chaandni concerts was also Krishen’s creation. It is a rare gift to recognise the beauty inherent in things, rather than desiring to impose your own. “It’s like the woodwork he does, you know?” Seshan said suddenly, during our phone conversation. “He brings out the grain of the wood itself.” There can be no better metaphor for Krishen’s relationship with the universe.

Corrections: 1) The rhyolite rock at the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is 750 million years old, and not 750 as the piece earlier stated. 2) A spelling error in Maharaja Umaid Singh's title has been corrected online. The Caravan regrets the errors.

Trisha Gupta  is a writer and critic based in Delhi. Her published work can be read on her blog, Chhotahazri, at

Keywords: Delhi artists Arundhati Roy Doordarshan conservation ecology cinema parallel