Tales of Songbirds and People of BR Hills:
A Conversation with Dr. Samira Agnihotri
Songbirds have been making music for millions of years, producing symphonies, comprehending melody, harmony, timbre, complete with strings, percussion, intros, and interludes. We know these are songs of courtship, defence–the biological motives. The fascination is in understanding the deeper and intricate meanings of these primeval languages–ways in which birds communicate, not just among their own species, but also with other creatures and their surroundings.
Let’s traverse this fascinating world of avian music, and how it has shaped the lifeworld of its human inhabitants in a specific region.
Dr. Samira Agnihotri has studied bird songs, behaviours and the Soliga indigenous community’s interactions with nature for 18 years in the Biligiri Rangana Hills (BR Hills) in south Karnataka. She has produced a bilingual (English and Kannada) CD that contains recordings of more than 100 species of birds. She has closely studied the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, which mimics several other birds.
Dr. Samira is a core team member of Punarchith, an organisation based in Chamarajanagar district. It engages in academic, outreach and advocacy activities related to education, agriculture, rural well-being, social trends, democracy, land and natural resource conservation, active citizenship, alternative livelihoods, and developing a collective among rural youth.
She is Research Assistant to Obaid Siddiqi Chair, Archives, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bengaluru.
Raghavendra Rao: For me, birdsongs are an escape, a conduit to slip into a world of intense calm and healing. That’s what drew me to explore the world of birds. I’d love to know your story of how you landed up studying bird songs.
Samira Agnihotri: I was always a very outdoorsy child, and I was attracted to birds from a very young age. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by them. So, my fascination with birds has been there since childhood. Then, I was given Salim Ali’s book which took me further into the world of birds. So, when the time came for me to choose a career, I had already clearly decided that one way or another, I just wanted to watch birds and follow their song.
RR: The genesis of a region–its spirit, I believe–is drawn out in myths and lore by the people inhabiting it, sometimes differently by different communities. During your time in BR Hills, have you come across an origin story of the region and its people that struck you as profound?
SA: The people who live there are the Soligas, an Adivasi community, and they have their own origin story. There’s only one–that has to do with bamboo–they believe that they are the children of the bamboo. There is a very long story related to that. It connects to their God, Mahadeshwara, who is in the MM Hills, Mahadeshwara Betta, a parallel hill range to the BR Hills.
RR: So, Mahadeshwara is the main God that they worship?
SA: One of their main deities, other than Rangaswamy/Rangappa, in BR Hills. They also continue to practise nature worship, and Dodda Sampige, an ancient Magnolia champaca tree, is also central to their religious beliefs. The story goes that once upon a time, Lord Mahadeshwara visited a childless couple, Sankamma and Nilegowda, and granted them a boon to bear children. However, it was on the condition that when they came of age, the children must be given to Mahadeshwara in his service. Sankamma gave birth to twins–Bilayya and Karaiyya. When they were older, they were given to Mahadeshwara in his service, as promised. Bilayya agreed to go with the Lord, but Karaiyya went into the forest. When Mahadeshwara went looking for him, he found Karaiyya hidden inside a bamboo sheath. Mahadeshwara, who saw Karaiyya’s love for forests, then instructed Karaiyya to serve him by staying on in the forests as their guardian and protector. And that’s how Karaiyya became the progenitor of the Soliga people. There are epic folk songs on this story that are sung both in the BR Hills and MM Hills.
RR: How beautiful! So, in a way, it’s like the Soligas are the guardians of the forests.
SA: Definitely. Not just in mythology, but in real life as well.
RR: So during your time, Samira, when you were interacting with the Soligas, was there an elder that you deeply connected with, whom you learnt a lot from?
SA: There are several such people, not just one person. And many of them are sadly no more. And vast amounts of knowledge have been lost with their passing.
RR: But when you say the knowledge has been lost, wasn’t some of it passed on?
SA: Some of it has certainly been passed on. But with the passing of an elder, an entire generational knowledge system is lost, and all of it would be impossible to bequeath.
RR: Creatures, stories and mysteries of the deep forests are particularly intriguing; something to do with them being further away from our human grasp, even imagination-wise. What are some of the more elusive and endemic birds you’ve seen in the forests of BR Hills?
SA: The Slaty-legged crake is a very common forest stream bird, but it’s very tough to spot. In 18 years, I have seen it just twice.
SA: But you hear it all the time. It’s very vocal in the monsoon, so you know it’s there, but it’s very hard to spot. It’s very shy.
RR: That’s true for most birds, I suppose. I mean, you can hear them more than you can actually see them.
SA: Absolutely. And then the Nilgiri flycatcher has the most beautiful lilting song. It’s found only in certain patches in the upper elevations. Then there are some migrants you see once in a while, like the Chestnut-winged cuckoo, the Nilgiri thrush, and, I think, the Black bittern. I remember these three sightings very vividly, and they were very rare for me.
RR: The word “root” comes to my mind when I think of how deeply connected the inhabitants, the Soligas, are to the BR Hills and its creatures. So, from time immemorial, they’ve been observing nature and the creatures around them. And, you know, I marvel at the fact that they wouldn’t even have used binoculars over the years to observe the birds and how they behave. So, is there a story/folktale that gives us a glimpse into the Soligas’ understanding of the avian world?
SA: There are many songs and stories on birds sung on special occasions. There are these songs, called “Haduke”, that describe not only the physical and behavioural characteristics of birds and animals but also their habitat.* One of the songs sung at the harvest festival every year is about swallows, “Mannhakki” or the ‘mud bird,’ so called because they make their nest from mud. So, that’s how they perceive birds around them–through their behaviour, songs, and flight patterns.
RR: I often think about how people perceive birds. For instance, we call the Greater coucal “Kembootha” in Kannada, meaning “the red devil,” for its reddish plumage, deep red eyes, and perhaps because of its sonorous, haunting song. Let’s hear some stories of how the Soligas interpret bird songs.
SA: The White-cheeked barbet is called “Kutru,” because that’s how its song sounds, and even in Kannada it’s called “Kutruhakki,” “hakki” meaning “bird.” The Malabar Whistling thrush is named “Kaana Gorava,” meaning the herder of the forests, because its song sounds like the whistles of a person herding livestock.** There are some stories around bird songs, such as the one about Kesahakki or Kethanahakki, the Indian cuckoo’s song. It is believed to be singing “Ketha saththa, makka ketta,” telling a story about a man called Ketha who passed away, and his children went astray, because there was no one to look after them. The family fell apart. So, several stories around bird songs convey morals–the one in the Indian cuckoo’s story being the importance of families. Even today the bird is calling and telling that story –“Ketha saththa, makka ketta.”
RR: Can you tell me about your first experience with the Racket-tailed drongos?
SA: It was a beautiful morning in February 2005, during my master’s research on birdsong in the BR Hills. It was early spring, with winter’s traces in the air. I was accompanied by my field assistant, Madha, a Soliga. After walking in the forests for a little while, we saw a Greater Racket-tailed drongo perching on a tree branch, calling loudly. Besides its own metallic calls, it imitated the calls of a flameback and a Crested Serpent-eagle. And I still have that recording, and that moment left a very deep impression on me, and I went on to study the Racket-tailed drongos for my PhD in Ecological Sciences.***
RR: As a researcher how do you integrate Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and knowledge systems to complement your own work? I’m sure they hold a special place in your research and even shape your worldviews on the subjects you work with.
SA: Yes, definitely. I can’t do my work without the knowledge systems that the Soligas have shared with me. When I go into the forests, I’m accompanied by them, and they show me the ways of the forests and the birds in them. Their perception of the forests plays a role in how I see the birds too. A lot of my research has been influenced and enabled by their knowledge systems.
RR: Folktales and stories of the forests and its creatures always, as author Ramya Reddy says in her book, Soul of the Nilgiris, “Create a humbling mystique about nature. You can never know it all…” As a researcher, I’m sure you seek to study in depth, covering as much as there is to learn and know. In your area of work, does one draw a line while exploring and studying nature, heeding the sense of mystique? Say for instance, you’re doing research on a bird, and you don’t know some aspect of it. How far would you go to learn it? Would you catch hold of the bird to study it, or would you consider it too much interference?
SA: I’m always for the least invasive and least disturbing (for the birds) methods that can be used. It depends on what the research question is. Catching would be the very last option, but for some research studies, for example, that look at genetics, you do need to catch the bird. But my work doesn’t involve genetics.
Science always has limitations– no matter how deep you dig, you can’t understand everything. You can only try very hard to do so. One must always be aware of the limitations. Unless you’re actually the bird that you’re trying to study, you never really experience its world in the same way it does.
RR: It’s winter, and the warblers have arrived in Coonoor and in Mysore too. Who are some of our winter visitors to BR Hills?
SA– Some I already mentioned earlier–the species that I saw very rarely. But common migrants are Grey wagtails, Brown shrikes, Asian Brown flycatchers, Spangled drongos, Indian blue robins with their beautiful call, Malabar starlings, and many others. Warblers are, of course, everywhere. And Forest wagtails too.
RR: They come all the way from Europe?
SA: Different species come from different parts of Eurasia. Of course, the wetlands have a lot of waterfowl that come in the winter.
RR: For migratory birds, even as they change homes from season to season, the whole world seems to be their home. However, I believe they do have a sense of belonging to one place, in fact, of belonging to one specific tree that birds are known to occupy after months of absence! In recent years, birds’ migrations have been adversely impacted due to factors like global warming and other anthropogenic ramifications. We have become irrevocably responsible for the birds’ skewed understanding of home, of their roots. What do you think can be done to make birds feel at home again?
SA: First of all, stop cutting down all the trees that we seem to be felling in our urban areas. And stop spraying pesticides in our farms, because the birds eat insects, and pesticide-covered insects can’t really be good for the birds. And make less noise! They can’t hear themselves talking to each other over the din we are making.
RR: And this poses a competition for them, because their mates won’t be able to hear them in the cities, and they need to work harder?
SA: Yes, they’d have to shout louder, put in more energy, change the frequencies of their songs, perhaps they’d even have to move somewhere else. All of this is very challenging for them.
Tuning into the world of bird music paves a path to the mysteries and rhythms of the “wildness” around us. Of the lives that go unnoticed by humans, their moods and histories, their generosity and significance. The deeper you listen, the better you’ll hear the stories our ancestors created and left behind, the roots of perennial wisdom, of truth.