KK Neelakantan: Remembering the birdman who was a ‘watcher of the skies’

Nature lovers are celebrating the birth centenary of the famous ornithologist KK Neelakantan, better known by his pen name, Induchoodan.

ByMax Martin

Published Sep 22, 2023 | 12:00 PM Updated Sep 22, 2023 | 2:38 PM

KK Neelakantan ornithologist

Nature lovers are celebrating the birth centenary of the famous ornithologist KK Neelakantan, better known by his pen name, Induchoodan.

A highlight of this is a photography exhibition in Thiruvananthapuram from 20 to 24 September, featuring The Birds of Kerala, the title of his 1958 Malayalam magnum opus.

From the time it was published, serially, in the literary magazine Mathrubhumi in the early 1950s, Keralathile Pakshikal inspired conservationists, researchers and activists.

The high point perhaps was the high-voltage protest against the Silent Valley hydel project in the late 1970s that saved the Western Ghats rainforest habitat of the endangered lion-tailed monkey and the vulnerable great hornbill.

“The book was written before I was born, but it influenced me a lot,” E Kunhikrishnan, an environmental writer and former professor of zoology at University College in Thiruvananthapuram, told South First.

Also read: Rare bird in the Indian subcontinent sighted in Bengaluru

The works of Neelakantan

Neelakantan was a professor of English literature at the same college at a different time. He was influenced by English literary and natural history traditions in content, form and the accompanying artwork of his writings.

His style was marked by imagination, simplicity and humanity in the best traditions of great English writers, as writer Paul Zacharia observed.

Glossy ibis. (John Bennet)

Written in plain Malayalam without the trappings of Sanskrit and literary labels in a “flowing, easy, spare, factual and joyful” style, his work would have counted as great literature in any language, Zacharia wrote in a review.

Neelakantan’s illustrations in the rich British natural history tradition attracted many fans. Famous artist Vasudevan Namboothiri was one among them.

Namboothiri would eagerly wait for Mathrubhumi to see those sketches. That was before he himself became the magazine’s celebrity illustrator.

Neelakantan published over 110 scientific notes and articles, mostly in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History and the Newsletter for Birdwatchers. They covered bird calls, mimicry, breeding and feeding.

His teaching career which started in 1944 at the American College in Madurai, took him to Chennai, Rajamahendravaram, Palakkad, Chittoor, Kozhikode, Ernakulam and Thalassery. He retired in 1978 as the head of the department of the University College in Thiruvananthapuram.

He went for long treks in “jungles, swamps and remote villages” …, “a footloose bachelor with birds on the brain”.

His findings

Neelakantan was the first to report on the breeding of black bittern, chestnut bittern, Indian moorhen, little egret and river tern in Kerala, as conservationist PK Uthaman noted in an article. He studied the songs of racket-tailed drongo, brown hawk-owl, and kora.

Bar headed goose

Bar headed goose. (John Bennet)

Perhaps screwpines along the Gayatri river, and dense sacred groves in the backdrop of green hillock near Neelakantan’s birthplace of Kavassery village in Palakkad inspired him, as Uthaman wrote in the Blackbuck.

So did his childhood days at Chitrdurga in Karnataka, where his father was a government veterinary surgeon, and frequent visits to libraries.

He wanted to share those experiences with children, and his work inspired school nature club activities. Birds and Human Beings, for instance, became instantly popular.

“I have not seen such a simple introduction to bird life and birdwatching,” recalled naturalist and photographer Suresh Elamon. He did his BA and MA in English literature at University College where Neelakantan taught.

It inspired Suresh to write two books on butterflies and moths for children. Currently, he is finishing Neelakantan’s biography, Birds and a Man, a bilingual publication with his field notes and memoirs of friends.

“He encouraged us to study nature closely,” Kunhikrishnan told South South First. “That inspired conservationists of our time, and many became active in the Silent Valley movement.”

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Involvement in Silent Valley movement

At the height of the Silent Valley movement, when celebrity ornithologist Salim Ali was denied permission to speak at a public event in Thiruvananthapuram, Neelakantan led a march with his mouth covered with a black scarf. That was as loud as he could get.

An old photo of Neelakantan. (Supplied)

Neelakantan was a strict disciplinarian and did not hesitate to call out bad science and false claims.

“He ensured that we observed the bird closely, and rigorously researched and noted its features before writing,” Kunhikrishnan said.

“Neelakantan used to say that if you don’t write it doesn’t matter, but if you write it wrongly it is a crime against science.”

He founded the Kerala Natural History Society in 1974 and served as a vice president of the Society for Conservation of Nature led by the poet Sugathakumari.

“He was a bit distant as a teacher,” Suresh said. “But later we got very close to him.”

The birdwatching

During the late 1976 to early 1992, the duo would go on long walks and scooter rides to lakes, beaches and estuaries. They would go to see painted storks and grey pelicans in Moondradaippu, Koonthankulam in Tirunelveli and Point Calimere in Nagapattinam.

KK Neelakantan

Neelakantan, birdwatching.

“I still keep 100s of his letters, with all my doubts and mistakes and his patient replies. I was just one among many who received such advice and careful mentoring,” said Kunhikrishnan.

Susanth C, one of the organisers of the commemorative programme in Thiruvananthapuram, recalled: “We were trekking to the Agastyakoodam (peak in the Western Ghats), and he encouraged us to watch birds. Then there was no looking back.”

Neelakantan was prophetic, as Susanth noted. “Back then he warned about the future degradation of city lakes of Akkulam and Vellayani and highlighted the need to protect wetlands.”

These rich bird habitats have dramatically changed. Akkulam Lake has turned into a waste dump, and large parts of Vellayani Lake have been reclaimed.

Also read: A Bengaluru duo’s tryst with our feathered friends

Finding a pelicanry

Early in his career, Neelakantan stumbled upon the largest pelicanry (breeding place of pelicans) in India at Aredu near the shallow, freshwater Kolleru lake between the Krishna and Godavari rivers in Andhra Pradesh.

Painted stork

Painted stork. (John Bennet)

“I craned my neck out of the window (of the bus),” Neelakantan wrote. “I saw something that made me recall the well-known words of Keats: ‘Then I felt like some watcher of the skies. When a new planet swims into his ken’.”

Neelakantan’s 1949 report in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History made Ardeu famous. A bit too famous and noisy. The grey pelicans abandoned the place.

Neelakantan was invited to study and suggest remedial measures. But conservation efforts were very slow. A decade after his life, Kolleru was declared a Ramsar site in 2002.

“His work inspires yet another generation of nature lovers,” Susanth said. And they have serious work to do.