With the rise of nature-focused programming, there is no dearth of shows about wildlife, landscapes, and the intermingling of the two. But to truly succeed, a show must go beyond its remit of offering a slice of the natural world, and aim for the sort of narrative finesse that would make David Attenborough proud.
The Sony BBC Earth series Hidden India amply scores on this front. Narrated by Geraldine Jones, the series takes us into the untamed heart of India, scaling mountains and descending into lowlands to give us a peek into the amazing diversity of the fauna that call this country home.
The first episode begins in Kaziranga, home of the magnificent one-horned rhino, whose perilously dropping numbers have belatedly improved due to efforts to contain rampant poaching. Kaziranga is home to a wide variety of species, from tigers to pygmy hogs, and the series lovingly captures the beauty of this giant marshland.
The Indian economy and lifestyle are closely tied up with the monsoon, but so are the rhythms of its wildlife. As the dry season picks up pace, animals must dig into reserves to survive the rising heat. The ubiquitous gray langur can get up to three-quarters of its water requirement from what it eats, making berries, shrubs, and even cacti a suitable target for it.
Not just the locals. Demoiselle cranes fly thousands of kilometres from central Asia to reap the rich, muggy harvest of the post-monsoon season. The village of Khichan in Rajasthan is famous for hosting them, as locals spread out tonnes upon tonnes of grain to welcome the avian visitors whose numbers can go up to as many as 1,50,000 in a single season.
For all its beauty, the wild is also a terribly dangerous place. From a pair of eagles hunting a demoiselle crane to hornets going after bees, eternal vigilance is the price of savage liberty. There is safety in numbers though. While the eagles manage to take down the crane because it is separated from its brethren, the hornet is forced to beat a hasty retreat when it realises it is dealing with not one but an entire army of guard bees.
Ultimately, it is the interaction between human and wild that maintains a precarious natural balance. Himalayan farmers are careful not to destroy more than one beehive at a time – while the village reaps its sweet harvest, the bee colony is not pushed towards extermination. From frogs that feed on insects that can damage crops to the Indian apple snail that keeps a check on algae, the Gangetic basin owes its prosperity to its wildlife.
But utility is not the only relationship that Indians share with wildlife. One of the most stunning, but also hair-raising, scenes in the first episode has a cobra slurp water from the base of a hand pump that is being worked by assorted children. This scene from the Brahmaputra’s bank is a reminder of the easy conviviality, borne of faith, which marks Indians’ treatment of animals.
The three-part Hidden India will tackle other aspects of the Indian outdoors, a gift that, given this country’s breadth and richness, keeps on giving. Be it the exotic or the anthropological, the show splendidly trains an eye on the give and take that marks our interaction with the colossal network of species that is both omnipresent and stubbornly out of sight.