The Smaller Kingdom: Macrophotography in the LRK
“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote,” the contentious American author, Edward Paul Abbey once said.
The Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), was designated as the 15th Biosphere Reserve of India in January 2008. With its barren beauty and desolate dazzle, where the sky marries the soil and the infinities inundate your innermost being with inspiration, it has always been a canvas for creative photography. It provided me with the perfect podium to unfurl the myriad mysteries both outside of and within myself. The complexities in making a simple shot, the attempt of capturing infinity within a finite frame, and “to extract the eternal from the ephemeral” – these persisting paradoxes of the “Desert Wetland” and I embraced each other, as the words of the American proved to be ever so revealing.
It was not just the beauty of the break of dawn – distant, detached, and almost cold, but reassuring with its blessings of warmth and hope, or the flamboyance of the Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor), painting a listless landscape in strokes of pink, or the kaleidoscopic colours of dusk on the Western front of the fickle firmament, that stole my breath away. It was also the smaller forms of life, teeming and thriving in the vastness of the 4,950 km² wastelands, they too call home.
In the last few years, the Little Rann of Kutch has garnered considerable attention because it serves as the last safe haven for arguably its most iconic and prestigious species – the Asiatic Wild Ass (Equus Hemionus Khur). Fewer than 5,000 individuals are estimated to roam the flatlands of the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, a national reserve in the LRK.
The numbers of the Khur dwindled dramatically in 1961, leaving fewer than 400 individuals in the wild. This was triggered by a disease known as Surra caused by Trypanosoma evansi and transmitted through flies. However, in 1972, “sanctuary” status was granted to the area and it came under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Ever since, sustained conservation efforts have resulted in a steady rise in the Khur’s population.
The elusive Ass species attracts thousands of photographers every season to capture its magical silhouette against a backdrop of the glowing birth or the fiery demise of the day. This quintessential golden hour frame has now flooded the internet and social media, and is synonymous with the Little Rann of Kutch. It undoubtedly pleases the eye and kindles wanderlust, but the unique landscape offers many more opportunities to experiment with light and different techniques of photography to create quite a distinctly singular mood.
Apart from the Indian Onager, wildlife lovers hope to get a glimpse of other rare species such as the Desert Fox, the Indian Fox, the Indian Wolf, the Golden Jackal and the Jungle Cat.
33 species of mammals have been recorded to inhabit the salt marshland and we were pleasantly surprised to spot this one.
The Indian Grey Mongoose
We were exiting the park at 10:30 A.M., grim-faced and a little heavy-hearted, as we had not spotted the species promised to us as “sure sighting” by the other members back at the resort le Tokyo, Dasada on the previous eve. Just then, this Indian Grey mongoose ran across the sand path and when it thought it was at a safe distance, glanced back to check on us.
The Little Rann of Kutch is also home to over 350 species of birds, making the landscape an avid birdwatcher’s paradise. Some of them are very rare, such as the Macqueen’s Bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii), the steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis), and the short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), among other species such as the sandgrouse, the partridge, the larks, the kestrels, the falcons, and the various migratory birds, such as the pelicans, the ducks and the cranes. The best time to visit the LRK is between October and April.
I visited the LRK in the third week of December, 2019. While most tourists concentrated on capturing the silhouette of the Asiatic Wild Ass against the magic-hour background, or the winged wonders of the sky, I sought to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the ground. I crouched down low, until my haunches touched my heels, camera around my neck, hope in my heart. I scanned the surroundings, breathing steadily.
And there in that tawny patch was a glitter of gold, a butterfly, perfectly poised, as a model posing for a portrait. Her wings reflected the rays of the setting sun. I held my breath, looked into the viewfinder, hoping that my knees do not crackle and scare my beauty away. Click, pause, click, pause. Much too soon, my subject fluttered a while and disappeared into the air like an evil thought.
An inhabitant of the LRK who usually goes unnoticed
At 8:20 A.M. the following morning, when the sun finally dismissed the cover of the mist, like a child who finally overcomes the comfort of his blanket and rises, I spotted a dragonfly basking in yellow grass three feet away.
I wanted to capture the rainbow colours through its wings. “Don’t hurry” I warned myself. Rooted to my spot, I took a picture. Unsatisfactory. I inched closer until I was within one foot of my subject. I crouched and this time my knees let out a symphony of crackles. But my subject was unbothered. I clicked to my heart’s content. Crouching, standing, bending awkwardly, from all angles.
Photography launches me into a state of meditative madness in which I’m just more aware of everything. It makes me value life – in its myriad shapes, sizes and forms, and makes me feel more alive. Every sunrise brings new light, and for photographers, light is their mana, their springboard to novel opportunities, dream-fulfilling discoveries and most importantly, an opportunity to flirt with their freedom.
People generally think of a desert as a space of limited occurrences and possibilities, but when you venture out there, you realise that it is truly a place that evokes a great sense of freedom. As Rafiki once told Simba, “Look beyond what you see”, I suggest you to keep your eyes open in the desert so as to better appreciate “the Circle of Life.”