Salim Ali, without question India’s greatest ornithologist, was a prolific writer. Apart from his many books, he wrote a large number of scientific papers, essays, and popular articles for a variety of journals and magazines. He also broadcast radio talks and gave public lectures as well as interviews.
This body of Salim Ali’s work has never before been gathered together. This collection of all his shorter writings presents a fascinating array of topics as diverse as the Indian landscapes and birdlife that were his passion. Whether it is the colours of a bird’s feathers or the ecology of the Himalaya mountains or an insightful conservation message, Salim Ali’s evocative writing style makes reading this book enormously pleasurable.
“You don’t have to be a birder to enjoy this anthology…On the other hand, if you are a birder, you’ll find yourself transported by delight…Here be riches beyond compare, a real fest” Pradip Kishen, Outlook
“Tara Gandhi has done birders, nature-lovers, conservationists, researchers, lovers of good writing and practically anyone with a ticking and inquisitive brain a gigantic service by producing this anthology of Salim Ali’s writings…for anyone remotely interested in nature in general and birds in particular, and even those just appreciative of sheer good writing, these two volumes are invaluable” Ranjit Lal, Biblio
Tara Gandhi was a student of Salim Ali. She received a fellowship from the Bombay Natural History Society for her M.Sc. in Field Ornithology, and later worked for conservation programmes with the World Wildlife Fund in New Delhi, the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai.
The starting points for this collection were Aasheesh Pittie’s A Bibliographic Index to the Ornithology of the Indian Region (1995), prepared from volumes 1 to 90 of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) between 1886 and 1990, and the computerized database of the ENVIS Centre at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) office in Mumbai. All papers, articles, and miscellaneous notes authored or co-authored by Salim Ali were listed from these sources.
Upon my request the BNHS library sent me a bulky package containing copies of virtually every document in my list. Since most of Salim Ali’s writings were published by the BNHS, the majority of this collection is from BNHS sources, namely JBNHS, Hornbill (their magazine for general readers), and BNHS reports. However, many interesting articles by Salim Ali appeared in other journals, and even in obscure newsletters, popular magazines, and daily newspapers, so a special effort went into obtaining such pieces. Friends and well-wishers gave me much help in this direction.
Over the years, Salim Ali was widely interviewed and frequently called upon to give lectures and speeches, as well as talks on the radio. The scripts of some of these were published, along with some that remained in manuscript form; these too have been included.
Salim Ali’s personal papers are lodged in the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi. In this treasure house I found a number of drafts and manuscripts (some of which were perhaps re-worded and published subsequently), correspondence, interviews, book reviews, and, most precious of all, field diaries and notes dating as far back as 1910, when he was just fourteen years old. Characteristically, he maintained field notes unfailingly, year after year, but never kept a personal diary. At the time of my visits to the NMML, these original documents had not been fully catalogued, making the search rather bewildering. Salim Ali’s own meticulous lists of over a hundred articles (excluding his BNHS publications, which are more numerous), lectures, 36 radio talks, 38 book reviews, and other work, gave valuable leads.
The field diaries and notes were for me the most exciting. To have in hand these little books, which Salim Ali would have carried in his pocket-always ready to whip out and note down some observation-was thrilling, and an unsurpassed privilege. Some of these diaries were so battered that the loose papers within them had been tied together with rough twine. Opening the weather-worn covers and turning leaf after leaf of those brittle yellow pages, closely filled with his beautiful and perfectly legible handwriting, transported me to where they were written. This was specially true of the special diary in which he made day to day notes during his arduous Kailas-Manasarowar trek in 1945. The quality of the air, the aroma of the grass and the crunch of the earth underfoot were for me made palpable by these gems.
All the bird entries in these field pocket-diaries were scored out, presumably to indicate that they had been copied into his larger and more formal species notebooks. Some sample pages have been reproduced in the present compilation.
This cannot be seen as the final, comprehensive collection of Salim Ali’s shorter work. While every attempt has been made to include his well-known ‘classics’ that have been reproduced or excerpted repeatedly (such as ‘Flower-Birds and Bird-Flowers in India,’ ‘Economic Ornithology in India’, ‘An Ornithological Pilgrimage to lake Manasarowar and Mount Kailas’, ‘Scientific Ornithology and Shikar’, and ‘Bird Study in India: Its History and its Importance’), there is still the possibility of more anthologies of his remaining published and unpublished writings and talks that conceivably remain to be discovered.
I have not attempted (of dared!) to edit the text of Salim Ali’s work: that would have been sacrilegious. He was a perfectionist and would never have allowed the slightest error to mar his written work. This can be seen from his flawless JBNHS articles, obviously scanned by his eagle eye, with which he habitually eliminated the most innocuous of errors. Any occasional printing mistakes that had to be rectified in this collection were notably found only in non-BNHS publications which he could not oversee. Working long before the days of word-processors and PCs, he used his elegant, almost calligraphic longhand for drafting, and a manual typewriter for the fair copy. ‘I prepared all the first drafts in my own hand (no dictating) and devoted a great deal of time to chopping and changing, rephrasing passages and altering words, and compressing sentences as much as possible so as to be terse and to the point. I firmly believe that besides providing factual scientific information to the reader it is just as important to make the account pleasurable reading.’ This was the high standard he set for his staff and students-a daunting example. In my own experience as his student, I could see the care with which he made elaborate corrections down to the last misplaced comma or minute grammatical error in my field reports.
The first time I saw Salim Ali was when I was a nineteen-year-old biology graduate living in Mumbai. While searching job opportunities in the newspapers, I came upon a notice from the BNHS calling for applications for their field ornithology M.Sc. research programme. Captivated by the prospect of a career studying birds, I wasted no time applying and promptly an envelope stamped with the BNHS hornbill logo arrived, calling me to an interview.
On entering the rather formidable BNHS building I expected a grilling, but was relieved when Mr J.C. Daniel, then the Curator, only checked my certificates. The relief was short-lived and I was unprepared for what followed, which was a summons from Salim Ali himself. I had never imagined that the great man, then President of the Society, would have time to meet a mere M.Sc. applicant: I dare say I felt much the same as the young Salim Ali did the first time he went to the BNHS, ‘the feeling of nervousness-almost of fear and trembling…’ I was led to an airy room where behind a rough wooden table sat a surprisingly small but impressive figure with his white goatee beard, bright eyes, and famous hooked nose. This was 1968, when he was in his seventies, but he still looked strong and wiry, with the weatherbeaten fitness of an outdoor man.
‘So’, he said, his tanned face creasing into an unexpectedly friendly smile, ‘you want to do field work.’ I cannot remember if I had the courage to reply, but when he spoke next it was a determining moment in my life. ‘We don’t take girls for field research. You see, we have to send them off to forests and so on…it is not safe for them.’ He went on to say that if I wished I could do research on the BNHS collection of bird skins, but field ornithology was out of the question.
I recall being shown drawer after drawer of stuffed birds smelling of mothballs with long labels attached to their legs. Through my haze of disappointment they looked pathetically dull and uninteresting and the prospect of studying dead specimens was too poor a substitute for the adventure and joy of bird research in the wild. The musty room, the eyeless birds, and my own dejection combined to make me decide against the offer, convinced that field ornithology was beyond my reach.
While in the 1960s there was no place for female recruits in field research programmes, the next decade saw a surge of women entering conventionally male domains of science and technology. Following this progressive trend, by the mid 1970s Salim Ali admitted women researchers into the BNHS’s M.Sc. and Ph.D. programmes, and today men and women contribute eqully to the study of field ornithology.
Fourteen years after my first distressing meeting, opportunity knocked again. In 1982, I noticed a tiny advertisement put out by the BNHS in a newspaper. It was an almost identical notice calling for applications for a fellowship for their Master’s programme in field ornithology! Once again in a frenzy of excitement, I dispatched a letter of application. Déjà vu: hornbill-logoed letter said I was being considered. This time, instead of being interviewed I was asked to report at the BNHS research station in Point Calimere, Tamil Nadu, for field orientation.
Arriving dusty and hungry after an overnight bus journey, I was met by S.A. Hussain, the senior scientist, and driven straight to an austere field camp, where a dedicated group of students and scientists was assiduously at work. I was put through the paces of the rigorous camp routine of tackling all kinds of field techniques such as bird ringing, collecting insect and botanical samples, walking long distances through scorching coastal scrub land, and eating basic camp food (in strange combinations like iddlis with condensed milk). Undoubtedly, there seemed skepticism about the ability of a thirty-plus city-living married woman with two children aspiring to be a field researcher. But my enthusiasm may have been convincing: I was granted the fellowship as well as the ultimate privilege of being guided by the great man himself.
At this time Salim Ali was living in Mumbai, whereas the research topic he assigned me was a bird study in forest plantations near Chennai. So he guided me via a kind of correspondence course. Like the rest of his students, I found him a hard taskmaster (though my seniors claimed the Old Man had mellowed). He rejected substandard work with scathing disapproval.
I. Salim Ali (1896-1987) –A Profile
Fame and fortune came together for Salim Ali when The Book of Indian Birds was published. Written over extended periods when he was an unemployed young man with a wife to support, ‘refugeeing’ in homes offered by kind relatives, the book soon established itself as a bestseller: the first edition (1941) was priced Rs 14.00 and quickly sold out. Reprinted several times, it pulled its author out of debt and joblessness. The book’s conversational style and evocative descriptions captured the interest of a wide cross-section of scientific and lay readers in India, and in time it came to be regarded as the birdwatcher’s biblie. Salim Ali became virtually synonymous with the birds of India.
The Book of Indian Birds was, however, only a fraction of Salim Ali’s staggering achievements. A self-proclaimed ecologist, scientist, conservationist and no-nonsense pragmatist, his deep knowledge and wide range of concerns in relation to the natural world were unparalleled. His pioneering ornithological work set him apart as an outstanding figure within India’s scientific history, and as the country’s most celebrated biological scientist of the twentieth century. The ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, which he co-authored with S. Dillon Ripley, remains even now the most comprehensive and world ornithology, the work we have done here is nothing. I feel like a frog in the well or a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.’
II. The Present Anthology
This anthology aims to focus on a specific area of Salim Ali’s work, namely all that he wrote outside his books. Spanning the six key decades of his professional life, these writings include scientific papers, short notes, speeches, popularizing essays, radio talks, interviews, public lectures, and some unpublished drafts and essays. This body of work has never before been collected and published as a single anthology.
Salim Ali’s uncommon range of interests is evident in this collection. While birds are undoubtedly the central passion here, the author’s focus is neither compartmentalized nor confined within ornithological boundaries. These shorter works, like his full-length books, illuminate the sweep of his thought, the topics ranging from bird anatomy, bird ecology and behavior to policies for decision makers and beyond to ethics, philosophy, and aesthetics.
III. Life and Career –A Sketch
Salim Moizudding Abdul Ali was born on 12 November 1896 in Bombay (Mumbai), within a prosperous business family which was a fairly typical one in metropolitan turn-of-the-century British India. Orphaned at three, he was lovingly brought up with his eight older siblings by an uncle, Amiruddun Tyabji, and his wife, this couple having had no children themselves. The young Salim was an average student with no aptitude for formal study, but with an ambitious dream: ‘I had dreamed of taking up zoology, particularly ornithology, as a profession when I grew up, and of becoming an intrepid explorer and big-game hunter-a respectable appellation in those days, and even somewhat of a status symbol.’ From the age of nine he kept notes of his bird-shooting exploits and observations but did not acquire the qualifications needed for a natural history job. So, in 1914, when he was about eighteen, his family gave him work in their wolfram mining and timber business in Burma (Myanmar), but allowed him to go back to Bombay over 1917-19 to do a course in commercial law and accountancy. At the same time he attended an undergraduate class in Zoology at St Xavier’s College. This proved an eventful period, during which his friendship with the zoologist H.S. Prater (future author of The Book of Indian Animals) was consolidated, and through him a closer connection established with the BNHS, where Prater worked. After class, Salim Ali ‘spent many hours several times a week in the [BHNS] library or rummaging among the bird collection’ to familiarize himself with Indian birds.
In 1918 he married Tehmina, a distant relative introduced to him by his sisters, who was throughout their married life his constant companion, accompanying him on most of his field excursions and helping him improve the language of his reports. She had been educated in England and had ‘a remarkable “feeling” for colloquial English prose style and ironed out stilted passages to make for pleasanter reading.’ They did not have children and seemed content to live a frugal camp-style existence for long periods during his major surveys, or set up home wherever they were offered accommodation by supportive relatives.
After another five-year stint in Burma, Salim Ali went back to Bombay in 1924, working as a temporary clerk in the family cotton exporting business, until he secured his first and perhaps only proper job at the Natural History section of the Prince of Wales Museum, as a guide lecturer in 1926. From here there was no looking back. In 1929 he decided to train in systematic and field ornithology as a protégé of ‘the doyen of world ornithologists’, Professor Erwin Stresemann, at the Berlin University Museum, taking with him the skins of 200 birds from the BNHS collection as part of his study material. Under Stresemann's inspiring guidance Salim Ali learnt taxonomical work and received his first training in bird ringing. More importantly, he was introduced for the first time to the principles of ecology and biogeography, which he brought home with him to apply to all his future work in India.
On returning to India in 1930, Salim Ali found himself jobless again and was happy to be ‘available gratis’ to undertake surveys of the princely states on a shoestring budget. He conducted several such over many years, starting with the Hyderabad State Ornithological Survey. In these surveys Salim Ali received great support from Hugh Whistler, a retired Forest Service official. While Salim Ali wrote all the ecology aspects in the bird survey reports, Whistler, a skilled taxonomist, wrote the entire systematic portions. Their two-man team covered huge areas, especially the southern and central Indian states. In between, in 1937, Salim Ali went on a bird-collecting expedition to Afghanistan with Colonel Meinertzhagen, a British ornithologist with a chequered past who later become a good friend.
The five year 1934-9, when he and his wife lived in Dehra Dun, he called ‘idyllic’. There, in the Himalayan foothills he worked on The Book of Indian Birds, which had been commissioned by the BNHS in 1935. This part of his life came to a sudden and tragic close when Tehmina died of post-operative blood poisoning in 1939. Salim Ali then plunged himself into a rigorous work schedule, moving to Bombay to live with his sister Kamoo and brother-in-law Hassan Ali in their Pali Hill mansion, which became his home for the next forty-five years.
Among the first distinguished readers of The Book of Indian Birds were Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, and Indira Gandhi. The book was instrumental in leading the American ornithologist Sidney Dillon Ripley to seek out Salim Ali, resulting in their joint authorship of the monumental Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. During the Second World War years Dillon Ripley was serving in Ceylon as a member of the USA’s Office of Strategic Service (OSS). A Ph.D. in biology, he had written several ornithological papers and was connected with the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Natural History. After having ‘obtained a copy of The Book of Indian Birds from a shop in a railway station’, he contacted its already famous author and, with their meeting in 1944, there began a close friendship and collaboration that lasted for the rest of Salim Ali’s life.
Another close friendship was with Loke Wan Tho, a wealthy Singapore businessman who had fled to India to escape the Japanese invasion of his country. A superb bird photographer, Loke involved himself in Salim Ali’s work and was a generous benefactor, contributing much-needed funds for projects. ‘I was happy to discover in him a truly kindred spirit and dedicated co-worker, ever ready to pull his weight and more under all circumstances.’ They travelled together on birding expeditions across the country and abroad. Loke Wan Tho’s death in an air crash in Taiwan in 1964 was a great loss to Salim Ali.
The years 1945 to 1955 saw a spate of book publication by Salim Ali: Birds of Kutch, Indian Hill Birds, and Birds of Travancore and Cochin (precursor of The Birds of Kerala), alongside survey reports of visits to Orissa, Gujarat, and Sikkim (The Birds of Sikkim was published much later, in 1972). After Independence, with the British heads of the BNHS having left the country, Salim Ali first took over as temporary Curator-cum-Secretary for a few years, and subsequently became the Society’s President, a position he occupied until his death.
Now at the helm of affairs, he was able to steer the course of the BNHS and widen the scope of its activities, establishing links with partner organizations in the country and abroad. ‘It has been a period of great intellectual gratification for me personally, and also, I like to feel, of considerable significance in the progress of the Society and the proper projection of its image within the country and abroad.’ In 1959 the BNHS/World Health Organization Bird Migration Study project started, representing the first of many more such nationwide projects. This was also the year when Salim Ali rediscovered the Finn’s Baya-a bird thought to be extinct-by undertaking a special expedition to the area where it had last been recorded.
Through the 1960s and 1970s Salim Ali continued his surveys, travelling to Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. This resulted in Field Guide to the Birds of the Eastern Himalayas, featuring a little-known biogeographic region that interested him deeply:
The abrupt juxtaposition of so many biotopes or life zones-ranging from almost plains level to over 6000m, and from tropical heat to arctic cold-all telescoped within a straight line distance of hardly more than 80 km, has given to the eastern Himalayas a flora and fauna which for richness and variety is perhaps unequalled in the world. Sequestered in the rain-shadow moreover, lie dry, practically rainless valleys which add to the ecological complexities of the jumbled habitats and make the area as a whole particularly rich in flowering plants, butterflies and birds.
During this period the ambitious Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan started taking shape. Salim Ali spent six months in the USA, mostly at Yale University, to coordinate work with Dillon Ripley. He wrote the ecology portions while Ripley did the taxonomy. The first volume was published in 1968 and the final (tenth) volume in 1974.
As President of the BNHS, Salim Ali was assisted by younger colleagues, especially Humayun Abdulali, Zafar Futehally and J.C Daniel, who took over the running of the ever-expanding organization, giving Salim Ali the freedom to pursue his own special interests. A man of simple tastes, few possessions, and no property, Salim Ali lived an almost austere lifestyle, wearing his trademark khaki. He put whatever money he received from his many prizes and awards into research funds. His work was his delight, and out in the wilderness, he was in his element ‘The air is champagne and one is never tired of chasing birds.’
During the last decade of his life, Salim Ali was much disturbed by the deterioration of the country’s diverse ecosystems. He directed his energies towards initiating major large-scale applied ornithology programs aimed at practical conservation, such as a ten-year ecological study of the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan; an extended bird migration project; an ecological study of bird hazards in airports; an endangered birds project; and other such works (many of which are excerpted in this compilation). In addition, he guided research students and set the pace for education and awareness of natural history through the Society’s activities.
His spirit was restless and irrepressible, but age and the cancer that had set in took their toll, and the end came on 20 June 1987. In the words of the naturalist-writer M. Krishnan, ‘Salim Ali was 91 when he died, and till shortly before his end, when sheer physical exhaustion claimed him, he was still fully preoccupied with his work as India’s most knowledgeable and infectively enthusiastic ornithologist, guiding others in their avifaunal surveys and researches and, more rewardingly, personally engaging in field studies.’
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