Arun Ganguly has been photographing his garden for some time. These are lush images of plants and flowers, captioned meticulously, sent to his friends and acquantances.
Ganguly, 83, has been well-known in professional photography since the 1970s or so.
But these graden images are different. He has taken them with his smartphone and he has photographed everything that has been growing in two patches at his Bhowanipore home in south Kolkata, including the smallest of small plants.
So we have a picture of the thick mop of a leafy plant with tiny leaves around a bigger, sturdier plant, captioned: “Carpet of minute plants”. Or an intense spread of grass, titled Green Kylings grass. Ferns and orchids grow from walls and pots, toadstools descend from a pine log, a dried thistle plant still thrives on the garden wall, insect nests grow on the bark of a mango tree and a cluster of Bengal figs gleam on a tree on the garden wall probably born of “bird droppings”.
One of the patches is a cemented square where he has his potted plants. The second one is a green courtyard with a mango tree, whose shade is cool but not very conducive to flowering plants, except the hardy jasmine, and serves more as a vegetable patch.
Looking at green is always comforting. But Ganguly’s eye captures every leaf, every tendril, in such exuberance that in a world devastated by death and disease, this brings another, deeper comfort, with the claim that every form of life is precious. Every bit of life deserves to live and be celebrated.
And it is often beautiful, when seen closely, and you do not have to go on long journeys to find it. You can travel in many ways.
Ganguly has put together these images as a photo documentary titled Nature’s Kaleidoscope, which he shares online. His tryst with plants began long ago.
As a small child, he was given a book to read by his father Dhirendranath, who taught mathematics at Dhaka University. “The book was called Gaachhpalar Golpo (Stories of Trees and Plants) and written by Hemendraprasad Bhattacharya. It described the plant world through stories,” says Ganguly. The large Ganguly family lived in a beautiful house with a garden that was tended with utmost love and care by his father. This, too, captivated Ganguly’s young mind with its abundance of colours.
After his father’s retirement — Ganguly was the youngest sibling — the family moved to the Bhowanipore house, the ancestral home, where Dhirendranath tried gardening again, even if only on two square patches, one of them cemented.
Ganguly, who was going to a neighbourhood school then, became his assistant. Now, he lives in an apartment adjacent to the old house, but visits it regularly to photograph the plants. “I wanted to study botany and do something for the country,” says Ganguly.
But certain things were not to be. His mathematician father wanted Ganguly to study “pure science” with mathematics, which he did at the intermediate level, though he was weak in mathematics. In college, he studied commerce.
Just out of college, he took up a job in the accounts department of the advertising agency Clarion.
Certain things are also to be, however. Ganguly was already writing for Amritabazar Patrika’s section for young readers. “The book my father gave me was my inspiration.” Around the same time an elder sister gifted him a box camera.
He began to take off with his camera to visit different festivals of the country. His first saw the Himalayas when he visited Manali during Dussehra, when he was 30. “A spring flowed where I stayed and its sides were covered with flowers and plants.” He took many photographs.
“But what was I to do with them?” He wanted to know them, identify them.
It started another adventure. He went to the Botanical Gardens Herbarium, where an official, Mr Balu, was a great help, as was the library there. Ganguly also discovered by chance a book by M. S. Randhawa, civil servant, art historian and botanist, titled The Kumaon Himalayas.
Ganguly wrote to Randhawa, who directed him to another book, Flora Simlensis by Joseph Hooker, a detailed account of all vegetation in the Simla region. “I used to get books from abroad, but I found that the maps in these books were changed for security reasons,” says Ganguly.
During lunch hour at Clarion — one whole hour — he would drop in at Oxford Bookstore to browse. There he found a botany textbook by Lawson and Sahani. “I was a journalist basically. I wanted to know what the flowers and plants were called in English,” says Ganguly. A book called Orchids of Arunachal informed him about orchids, a small variety which grows in his home garden.
From book to book, Ganguly learnt to read his plants.
Now he uses Google Lens on his phone to identify plants. “I have identified Maiden’s Hair fern growing on my wall with this,” says Ganguly.
He eventually joined the photography department at Clarion after 13 years of work, but after five more years there — he remembers a Bata campaign he worked on and also Satyajit Ray dropping in once in a while — he left to become a professional freelance photographer.
A distinguished career followed for four decades or so, which saw him travelling with his cameras across India, working on various assignments for tourism and development projects, including power plants. “I would work five cameras, shooting in black and white, colour negatives and colour transparency.” His work brought him close to Raghu Rai.
Ganguly is also the author of a book on Rabindra Sarobar, titled The Lure of the Lakes, made with his photographs and his writing. The book took years, and the photographs reflect the lakes and their surroundings in all their splendour — and the changing seasons. America nature writers Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs have been two major influences on Ganguly.
He has given away almost all of his work to the commissioning agencies and his equipment to a photography school. From 2018, due to health reasons, he has retired from an active work life.
And the digital camera always left Ganguly cold. So now he only has the phone camera. It has been a friend and also a form of travel.
During lockdown, he used it to take photographs through his window. He called the collection ‘Beyond My Window’. “I travelled with my mobile phone camera with photography as its fuel,” he says.
Nature’s Kaleidoscope followed this year. It gives him great pleasure to watch plants grow. “I share their joy of growing,” he says. He has recently rescued a banyan tree sapling from a wall and replanted it in a pot, to the horror of some, as the roots of banyan trees can be destructive for constructions. “Observing them keenly, I can see the play.”
“Photographers develop another eye. By looking at things constantly, we develop another way of looking at things,” says Ganguly.