Saturday, June 18, 2005
Passing the Buck. This was the title of a 30-minute documentary which I saw in 1985. The film opens to the soft strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar as a prelude to a dramatic sunrise. The sky was awash with shades of pink, flaming orange and pearl-gray moments. As the orb ascended and grew larger, in its centre appeared a black dot. The dot came closer and grew bigger till it attained the profile of an aircraft. On the tarmac of an airfield somewhere in Pakistan, this huge US military cargo aircraft taxied to a halt close to a posse of sombre bureaucrats. As the cargo of six large wooden crates touched the soil of Pakistan, Ravi Shankar’s sitar strains lifted to a soul-stirring crescendo. Six pairs of black buck had arrived from Texas, USA, to reclaim the home of their forbears.
For once, passing the buck was not a mere idiom but a real-life happening to re-establish the species in Pakistan. Ravi Shankar was so saddened by the extinction that he especially composed the music for the film. He wanted to spread the message of compassion for wildlife. When watching the film, it never crossed my mind that just two decades later, a Cambridge-educated Indian from a cultured family would join rich friends to hunt a black buck and two rabbits when our law does not permit so.
Black buck is endemic to the Indian subcontinent alone, that is it is not found anywhere else in the world. However, back in the 1960s the US Department of Fish and Wildlife had launched a programme to introduce selected "game" birds and mammals to the USA from other continents. Black buck, blue bull, chikor, kaleej pheasant and black partridge were shortlisted for introduction from the Indian subcontinent.
Happily, all of them are flourishing there as exotics normally do. The idea was not to create a living gene-pool but where Pakistan is concerned that is precisely what it came to mean for the black buck. If we in India remain complacent about poaching, one day we too may face the sad situation faced by Pakistan. Birds and animals have been a part of our mythology, folklore, epics and literature since time immemorial. The Mughal court patronised the use of birds and animals as essential elements in the composition of landscapes and portraiture. The painters of the Rajputana and Pahari Schools also used animals and birds freely in their creations. Take, for instance, the book Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art (Marg Publication, 1999). Its jacket is adorned by a magnificent portrait of a black buck (circa 1610-20 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Among my favourites in this book is the depiction of "King Solomon’s Court", attributed to Madhu Khanazad (circa 1600, collection of the Aga Khan). Solomon, seated on his throne, supervises the feeding of birds and animals of all imaginable species gathered around him. There is a line of servants bringing trays heaped with food. The two rabbits in the front are flanked by a pair of black buck. The very same animal was allegedly killed recently by M.A.K. Pataudi and his friends.
In another Marg publication, Painters of the Pahari Schools (1998), there is a creation titled "Princess with a Black Buck" (attributed to Chhajju of Chamba, circa 1800). The princess is the epitome of refined beauty. She plays a stringed instrument for the benefit of her pet, a well-groomed black buck. The black buck’s look of adoration of his mistress is simply mesmerising. It is unthinkable that anyone would hunt such a delicate animal; surely not Pataudi, who comes from a family which had espoused the unwritten code of ethics of field-sports.
But the beauty lines and grace of the black buck and the doe are on best display during the mating season. The doe gather in small exclusive groups. One male establishes dominance by driving all other suitors away, then shows off his prowess to the ladies of his harem. He parades before them with a look of playful arrogance, his head thrown back till the tips of his long, grooved horns touch the tail region. The next moment he may break into a 100-metre sprint, clocking 40-60 kmph. That display over, and he struts back on a smooth trot. Next, he may want to display his agility by leaping 4 to 6 feet in the air while circling on a fast trot around, by now, his admiring harem.
And what of the rabbits. You have to be lucky to chance upon them on a full moon’s night; they will put up mock fights or play hide and seek or simply gambol about as though in a trance. It is a show fit for the gods.
You may not have seen the Taj in moonlight nor the sunrise over the Nanda Devi massif but if you have seen the black buck entertain his harem and the rabbits in a "trance", yours will be a fulfilled life. How can anyone with a modicum of humanity snuff out such innocent lives? If the laws of our land can be compromised by the likes of Pataudi, it is time to close ranks and ostracise such people from society for ever, as natural justice.
The buck stops right here or not at all. — B.S.