An important aesthetic aspect of a book, especially of the large coffee-table variety, is its relative proportions; not only height and width but depth of pages and even distribution of weight. It’s a sort-of extension of the Golden Mean, which not only influenced mathematics, painting, architecture and music, but also monopolized the proportion of text to page of books between the 16th and 18th centuries, creating spatial harmony that gratifies the senses and intellect.
As soon as I held a copy of photographer Luxshmanan Nadaraja’s The Nature of Sri Lanka I knew the book was perfect in external form, but then the designer, Nadaraja’s wife Nelun, is as excellent in her field as Nadaraja is in his.
The top half of the cover features a dramatic black-and-white picture of a steep Yala outcrop with a small, lone, iconic figure in the landscape – an elephant on the peak’s ridge. It’s stark, striking and reflective: the antithesis of the ultimately benumbing multi-hued, paradisiacal images that so often adorn wildlife books. The bottom half features the title on a snowy white background, which, now pristine, will be challenged by the swift deterioration most books face in Sri Lanka.
The Nature of Sri Lanka starts not with a Contents page but an introductory collection of imposing double-page spreads demonstrating why Nadaraja is the country’s outstanding contemporary wildlife photographer. Just as Dominic Sansoni has the unerring, intuitive ability to press the shutter release at the optimum moment to capture his human subjects, so does Nadaraja with wildlife.
Arresting images include a green pit viper descending a tree in gloomy Sinharaja, a close-up of a leopard caught in the motion of stalking prey, two jackals seemingly conferring on a jungle-enclosed path, an alien-like fungus in the Knuckles, and lastly the outlines of grazing sambhur on a misty Horton Plains.
At this magical juncture the observer/reader stumbles through the mist, leaves the green world behind, and encounters the first text – the Introduction, “Death-Row Recordist”, by that master of literary ceremonies, Richard Simon. The title signposts Simon’s view that Nadaraja has become a chronicler of the country’s shrivelling wilderness and wildlife. With advanced climate change to arrive, “One day, and probably quite soon, they (the photographs) will be all that is left”.
“Luxshman would only have to turn his camera to right or left to show you some vile work of man.” Nadaraja should consider shifting his lens for a future project. There are now a number of pictorial books depicting the country’s wondrous landscapes and biodiversity: a gritty book of despoliation (comparable to Stephen Champion’s photographs of human destruction), is needed to hammer home the reality in a manner that words cannot. Thus Nadaraja could help delay the time when his pictures of perfection are all that’s left.
Nevertheless, Nadaraja’s images are put into sobering context in the main section of The Nature of Sri Lanka - ten essays of varying style by respected environmentalists. The book’s internal design is excellent, too. Clever juxtaposition and presentation of the images in expansive double-page spreads, in appealing upper half-page isolation on a blank background, and in rich montage, ensures the visual effect is so engrossing that you may neglect the text, as often happens with coffee-table books. Don’t, although insufficient space means I cannot do them justice.
The first essay, Sriyanie Miththapala’s “The Nature of Sri Lanka”, echoes the title of the book and emphasizes the theme: “The nature of our nature is in deep, deep, trouble.” Her use of “nature” not only covers the troubled environment but that of human nature in the context of a fragmented society. “Do we have it in us to repair the damage we have wreaked within and without? Can we, even now, conserve what is left of our own Eden so that we can protect the nature of our nature? Can we even now, choose to take action? If we do, do we know how?”There follow images from the forested vastness of the peak wilderness and Knuckles range to the smaller world of insects (a cluster of iridescent beetles on a twig is engaging), fungi, wild flowers, birds (check out the Ceylon Whistling Thrush) - and another green pit viper, this time in close-up revealing details of every scale. A criticism is that many of the obscure fauna and flora – especially insects and flowers – are not identified or just given their scientific name. The only constant in this lack of caption uniformity is the image’s location.
The paucity of photographs accompanying “Horton Plains” by Arittha Wikramanayake is puzzling though matches the short, succinct text. That cannot be said of “Kumana” by Shirley Perera, which Nadaraja illustrates with plentiful images of Yala. There are sloth bears with playful cubs, a comical adult sitting and scratching its belly, and an action-blurred spat between a bear and leopard over a slain sambhur, the following image showing that the bear won. Contrasting studies of leopards – one asleep in a tree, another lying on its back in repose, others climbing a tree, on the prowl, at full speed (Nadaraja captures feline movement wonderfully), and an endearing cub peering out from behind a leafy branch.
Elephants appear throughout the book. Many of the images are in black-and-white, a form that dramatizes these creatures. Calves play an important visual role, usually seen tucked between adult legs. Herds are either caught eying the lens collectively when they know of Nadaraja’s presence, or are caught in their natural state (a high angle image from Wasgamuwa is impressive). There are several studies of wise, old tuskers. Some images amuse: there’s a calf with some twine wrapped around its head, and several pachyderm posteriors.
Smaller creatures are photogenic subjects too. Witness a distant silhouetted peacock ascending a slope, a gathering of hundreds of moths, the stern, red, black, and yellow-stripped face of a Coppersmith Barbet peering out from its hole-in-a-tree-trunk nest, and two dung beetles at work, pushing their precious ball of excreta with hind legs.
Another notable sequence accompanies Shyamala Ratnayeke’s “Wasgamuwa”. It begins with a grainy black-and-white image of a hundred-fold herd of buffalo against a backdrop of darkened hills, and continues with birds of a different feather (you’ll be stunned by the innumerable flight positions of a swirling flock of Ceylon Swallows), sci-fi insects (check out the gossamer-winged blue percher), and delicate (but frustratingly anonymous) fungi, one with an extraordinary lacy cap. And the sequence ends in thick forest with a gap through which the light of the rising sun glows mystically.
Arjuna Nadaraja’s “Wilpattu” has the attraction of landscape images of Kudremalai seemingly imbued with legend and history. Besides which, an exquisite barking deer, a whip-snake in bizarre pose, and a herd of spotted deer on the run, demand attention. But Martin Wijesinghe’s “A History of Sinharaja” is seminal as the rainforest, the last example of the once vast lowland tract, Sri Lanka’s ecological gem, and rightly designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Being an ornithologist’s paradise, birds dominate, in particular a Ceylon Bay Owl taking a nap. Other rainforest denizens are on display: unfamiliar flowers (apart from that of the pitcher plant), insects, and a head-cocked Sri Lanka Kangaroo Lizard.
The concluding essay, Arjuna Parakrama’s “Notes on Sentinel Arrengas and Self-Righteous Activists”, provides a challenging hypothesis regarding the “relative failure of conservation” in Sri Lanka. This, Parakrama asserts: “Has more to do with ‘elite capture’ of the movement, which . . . seeks to save (the nature of) Sri Lanka from (ordinary) Sri Lankans. This phenomenon is best described as conservacation because it is mainly geared to ensuring the future preservation of the country for the holiday enjoyment of an enlightenment educated urban middle and upper-class pretend-apolitical club.”
The Nature of Sri Lanka is simply a phenomenal photographic achievement, derived from the art of nature, combined with appropriate description and analysis of many of the country’s beleaguered ecological wonders. It’s indispensable and a vital accessory for those who attend Nadaraja’s forthcoming exhibition.
Luxshmanan Nadaraja's latest exhibition of photographs also titled 'The Nature of Sri Lanka' will be on at the Barefoot Gallery from December 18 to January 24, (weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Most of the images exhibited will be new, with a few drawn from his book "The Nature of Sri Lanka".