By Abhishek Mande Bhot
Anand Shinde has been photographing elephants for the last two years in Kerala trying hard to dispel the notion of elephants being mere crop destroyers.
This is an account of his unusual love for the beast!
t is pouring in Thiruvananthapuram and Anand Shinde has been holed up in his office. Shinde works as a photographer for a national newspaper.
He has a 6 pm assignment but if the rain doesn't stop it'll be cancelled and he will most likely have to wait it out indoors till the sky clears out.
Shinde is used to the unpredictability.
About two years ago, when he was transferred from the newspaper's Mumbai offices to Thiruvananthapuram, he found himself in an alien city that spoke a language he didn't speak or understand.
Work, as always, consumed him but there was more he wanted to do... shoot a project on the ancient martial art form of Kalaripayattu or the colourful Kathakali dance form.
But a phone call from Bandeep Singh, the photo editor of Fortune India magazine, would change his life forever.
'Agar aap Kerala mein ho toh haathi dikha do' ('If you're in Kerala show me some elephants', he said.)
Those words -- Shinde quotes them verbatim -- got him started.
"I was apprehensive initially. But Bandeep asked me to give it a shot anyway," Shinde says.
By the time he'd moved cities it was mid-April, which meant he was just in time for Thrissur Pooram, one of the most popular temple festivals in Kerala that sees a large group of elephants from various temples congregate at Thrissur.
"I shot some pictures and sent them to Bandeep. He asked me to shoot some more and suggested I visit some of the elephant centres in Kerala."
And that was the beginning of how elephants changed Anand Shinde's life.
Shinde's wife, Shriya Patil, also a photographer, was the first to witness those changes in her husband.
"Earlier, expenses, the home loan, the EMIs used to get to him. He was materialistic.
"Being with elephants made him realise that there was more to life than money; it made him calmer."
Soon after Thrissur Pooram, Shinde made his way to elephant rehabilitation centres in various parts of the state, concentrating primarily on Konni, Kottoor and Kodanad that were the closest to Thiruvananthapuram.
"The media coverage on elephants has largely been negative and largely restricted to the destructive nature of the animal.
"But what I saw of elephants in the centres was drastically different.
"They came across as being friendly creatures. And I was keen on knowing how one could change this popular perception.
"When I showed a colleague who covers the wildlife beat for the paper pictures from Kottoor and discussed the idea with him, he helped me get in touch with V Gopinathan the (then) Chief Wildlife Warden."
Gopinath (who has since been promoted and is now the head of Kerala's Forest Force) seemed enthused with the idea and granted him further access to the centres.
It was in the Kodanad rehabilitation centre that Shinde met Krishna, a baby elephant with whom he would forge a bond.
Krishna had been separated from his herd and much like Shinde found himself in unfamiliar surroundings quite so suddenly.
"I can never put a finger on it but there was something that drew me to him," Shinde says.
"I would sit before his cage for hours much to the amusement of the mahouts and the workers.
At first he would simply observe Krishna.
According to conservationist Daphne Sheldrick, the moment you take the baby elephant out of its natural surroundings, you reduce its chances of survival by 50 per cent.
"Often the forest department is blamed for this, but it's not really their fault," Shinde says.
"Mostly, they withdraw into a shell, soon they get depressed, sometimes they get injured and then they give up.
"The elephant is a very emotional creature. So the first big task for any rehabilitation centre is to get the baby elephant to play.
"If you see it playing, that's the first sign that it is adapting itself well to the new surroundings. Half your battle is won right there."
Krishna wasn't showing those signs. To make matters worse, he had also managed to fracture his leg.