Meet Sabari, who paints wildlife one photo at a time


Sabari has not learnt sketching or drawing. In his 39 years, he does not have even one painting or sketch to his credit. Yet, Sabari has in his possession some remarkable photographs with which he can stake a claim to be a painter. Shot in the background of the forests and wild animals as the subjects, some of the images imprinted in Sabari's frames are practically unrecognizable from painting.


The essence of Sabari's frames, artistic and toned with shadows, is not clarity but the stories they have to tell. The concentration of colours and shades in the single point of the photos are not the result of fortuitousness but of unwavering patience.

A man going wild, photographing the animals there needs no introduction. It was when these images deviated from the clichéd path of photography that Sabari's photographs commanded captions. Without a doubt, Sabari is first of his kind from Kerala to capture the shadows of the wild into the invisible frame of canvas of the jungle.


The thing that caught Sabari's imagination while walking around the nearly full Kabani dam was the muddy mounds. He stayed in Kabani for three days to capture the image of a tusker walking over these mounds. Even after the wait of three days and two nights, there was no tusker in sight. Though Sabari visited Kabani five times thereafter hoping to capture the image he had in mind, his dream remained unfulfilled.


After covering Chinnar, Neyyar, Parambilkkulam and Nagarhole, Sabari went back to Kabani. While sitting with his eyes riveted to the grass around the catchment area of the dam, he finally sighted the tusker. Sabari clicked away at his camera as the tusker, with his head held high and his ears fanning, walked uphill. It is such patient waiting that fetched Sabari the recognition and awards including the best wildlife photography award from Lalita Kala Academy.

Abstract photography


Even after completing a degree in history and taking up the job of livestock inspector with the state's veterinary department, Sabari, the son of Manjeri Elankur natives Theyyunni and Janaki, did not forgo his passion for photography. His love for the wild had become a habit after his journeys with the friends during his school days. As part of the literacy mission, when he visited Nedumkayam and the Akampadam settlement for the first time, what he encountered were the nameless tribal people. Sabari did not have a camera then to capture these woodsmen. In 2008, Sabari took a membership of the Youth Hostel Association and, borrowing a camera from the Thrissur native Hari, he continued his journeys.


The first journey was to Kudajadri. That journey became quite prolonged and covered Bandipur, Muthumala, Chinnar, Munnar and Nagarhole. Sabari says partaking in the wildlife census conducted by the forest department provided him the opportunities to go right into the inner core of the jungles.


"In 2012, during my visit to Nelliyampathi, I sighted a large bird. I took a lot of photographs of the bird. A team from Tamil Nadu stationed there then said it was a falcon. When I showed the photoes to Professor Subair of the Calicut University, he suggested that I send the photographs to the media. Carrying a caption 'first sighting of falcon in ten years,' that photograph was later splashed all over the media."


A new photographer was born that day and was named Sabari Janaki, him adopting the name of his mother as the surname. Taking the company of a second-hand Canon 1100 camera, he continued the journeys in the wild with tigers, bears, deer, wild buffaloes and birds.


"I and Shebir, my friend, were watching the wild buffaloes graze towards the sunset one day at Nagarhole. I was experimenting with my camera using the tips given by Pratap Joseph, an acquaintance from the wild journeys. At that time, kites hovered around the heads of the buffaloes. Stretching myself on the ground and squatting, I captured those images. The result was beautiful and the photoes looked like paintings. From then on, I started focusing on abstract photography” The abstract photos emerge visualizing every frame as a painting," Sabari says about his switch from regular photography.


It was during the trip to Muthumala forests for bird census, that the eyes of a tiger got captured in Sabari’s camera. "There was some commotion around while resting at the camp after trekking from morning to noon. Birds flew up noisily. Monkeys ran helter-skelter. Taking the watchman with me, I came out of the camp and spotted two tigers. Despite myself, I let out a cry. The tigers hid themselves in the undergrowth. I got for myself real abstract photoes, clicking about 10 meters from the tigers and in the thick shadow of fear."

The fruits of patience


With the passion for abstract photography growing, Sabari wanted to get into the mindset of a painter. He visualized the background even before he brought the lens on zoom. It was for a dragonfly that he waited till the sunset at a waterside near Chaliyar mukku, Nilambur. As the blood-red sun set in the west, the image of the dragonfly sitting at the tip of a plant came to the view of the lens.

It was a similar feat capturing the image of a flying squirrel at Chinnar. After covering Munnar and Kanthallur, Sabari reached Thoovanam. Thoovanam is the abode of the flying squirrels. Sabari wanted to get the flying squirrel with the blue sky in the background. Fed up of waiting, Sabari and his friend went to a stream nearby for resting. At that time a flying squirrel came rushing and flew from one branch to another. The visual Sabari was looking for was finally captured. That photograph got the Sanctuary Asia award instituted for the best wildlife photography in Asia.

The stills of tigers from Jim Corbett national park and the images of the sandbanks of Ram Ganga are frames rich in artistry. Even in the image of a herd of elephants walking by, it is the beauty of the background that stands out over the beauty of the elephants. "There is a subject beyond the view in each visual when you look at them casually. When you recognize that subject, you get better images than you had expected," says Sabari from his experiences in the wild. Though the tusker which followed him and the tiger which stared at him at Wayanad instilled a sense of fear, Sabari says from his experiences that if accompanied by people who have the knowledge of the jungle, nothing untoward will happen. ‘Trapped in immortality’, the title of the wildlife photo exhibition Sabari conducted got its name from these experiences.

"Does not your wife object to the dangers of your job?" I asked Sabari. "Photography is not a job for me, it is my passion and Sabina understands that," Sabari says closing in on his life’s viewfinder.