Photography

In pictures: Green sea turtles, luminous jellyfish and the many other wonders of the Andaman Islands

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s photographs show the natural beauty of the islands while taking an unflinching look at the environmental damage caused by humans.

In 1998, Pankaj Sekhsaria was fast asleep at a beach in the South Sentinal Island in Andaman when he felt a tugging on the plastic sheet he lay on – as if someone was trying to pull it away. He looked around to find a green sea turtle right next to the sheet. “What a shock it was,” said Sekhsaria. “She was trying to move forward but slipping on the smooth plastic sheet. The actions of her flippers trying to move her forward were tugging at the sheet. She was out on the beach to lay her eggs and we had laid our sheets in her path. We got up quickly, pulled the sheet from under her, moved to another part of the beach so that we could sleep and she could lay her eggs.”

A researcher, writer, activist and academic, Sekhsaria has since been dedicated to the conservation of environment and wildlife, with a focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. His tryst with the islands started almost 20 years ago and has been writing and reporting on the indigenous communities and environment ever since. He has worked on documentary films and even authored books based on his experiences on the islands.

After years of extensively exploring these islands, Sekhsaria has had many thrilling experiences – he has been attacked by a mother bird and witnessed the hatchlings of a Giant Leatherback turtle make their first voyage from nest to sea. He has finally consolidated his visual documentation of these experiences for an exhibit, titled, Island Worlds… of Land and Sea.

The images of deep blue waters, green forests, luminous jellyfish and giant turtles printed on silk cloth will be travelling to Delhi’s India International Centre from July 22 to August 3 after being displayed in Pune, Chennai and Goa.

Jellyfish at Ross Islan (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
Jellyfish at Ross Islan (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).

“The word and the image have been central to my work,” said Sekhsaria. “But mainly as tools of information and of advocacy – in articles, photo features and submissions made to the courts. In the last four or five years, I felt the need to consolidate this work into more creative, even abstract domains.”

Printed on silk (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
Printed on silk (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).

The idea to print on silk came from another exhibition done in Hyderabad that Sekhsaria had been a part of. The photographs, which showed the entire process of how cotton is woven into cloth, were printed on cotton handloom fabric.

“Silk offers a texture and a lustre that, I thought, would do justice to the sharpness and striking colours one sees on the islands,” said Sekhsaria. “We are so used to seeing photographs on paper or on the computer screen that we take that for granted.”

Printed on silk (Photographs by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
Printed on silk (Photographs by Pankaj Sekhsaria).

In 1994, Sekhsaria was an engineering student at Pune University and visited Port Blair for the first time, to meet a friend in the Navy. He spent the next two months travelling the length of the islands – from Diglipur in the north to the southern-most Indira Point. “I went back a couple of years later on a research project through Kalpavriksh and the Bombay Natural History Society to study issues related to timber in parts of the tribal reserves on the islands. Based on those findings, we filed a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court.”

The PIL highlighted timber logging activities inside the Onge Tribal Reserve, which makes up 530 sq km of Little Andaman Island. In 2002, the Supreme Court passed directions for the protection of the indigenous people and the forests of the islands.

Wandoor rain forest (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
Wandoor rain forest (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).

The photographs on display at Island Worlds celebrate the beauty and richness of the islands, while looking at the damage to its natural resources. A photograph of an elephant next to a felled tree demonstrates this well – “The diameter of the log is roughly the height of the full grown elephant and is a stark reminder of the richness and enormousness of the Andaman forests... It never fails to evoke a gasp from a person seeing it for the first time,” said Sekhsaria. “It is amazing how little we are aware of its diversity, and it’s unfortunate that a large section of the settler populations in the islands don’t either. Unless we are aware of what we are surrounded by, we cannot account for the damage that we might be causing.”

In the timber yard at Hut Bay, Little Andaman (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
In the timber yard at Hut Bay, Little Andaman (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).

One of Sekhsaria’s concerns is that there is little acknowledgement of the fact that the islands are located in a seismic zone, where earthquakes and tsunamis are bound to occur. Plus, the islands are home to small and very vulnerable indigenous communities that have been living here for thousands of years. The forests are rich repositories of biological wealth.

“None of these are seen as worth preserving when approving projects and proposals for development here,” he said. “We are increasing the vulnerability of the place and its people.”

A green sea turtle returning to the water after nesting on the South Sentinal Island (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
A green sea turtle returning to the water after nesting on the South Sentinal Island (Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.