The filmmaker and the entrepreneur: Shekar Dattatri and Ramki Sreenivasan
Among the carnivorous legless reptiles of the suborder Serpentes—snakes, in other words—is a periodic process called ecdysis, which has to do with shedding of the skin. Last August, a phenomenon called “synchrony” of ecdysis was observed among Florida Cottonmouth snakes, where snakes within an insular ecosystem shed their skin at around the same time. This is the story of a similar synchronicity. Here however, the two actors are human: a snake-loving filmmaker and a bird-loving entrepreneur. Both grew up in Chennai, both are passionate naturalists, both want to effect change in the world, and both decided to shed their previous professional skins at broadly the same time.
Shekar Dattatri is a wildlife filmmaker whose films—on Olive Ridley turtles, Silent Valley and Nagarhole among others—have won him a profusion of awards including a Rolex Award for Enterprise and the Edberg Award from Sweden. A self-taught filmmaker, Dattatri made films for the Discovery channel, National Geographic and the BBC, before turning his back on them. Principled, passionate, punctilious and perfectionist, Dattatri, 54, calls himself a ‘recluse’ because he lives alone in a three-bedroom apartment in Chennai.
Across the Kaveri river lives Sreenivasan Ramakrishnan (or Ramki as he prefers to be called), 45, a garrulous Bengaluru-based entrepreneur who worked at Procter & Gamble before starting—and selling—his own successful marketing analytics firm, Marketics. When I call him garrulous, he says, “Like a laughing thrush,” referring to birds that belong to the genus, Garrulax. Ramki, no surprises, is a birder and photographer.
Ramki and Dattatri had heard of each other, of course. Most people who grow up in Chennai experience not seven degrees of separation but just one or two. When they finally met in 2009, both were ready to move from one professional avatar into another.
At that time, Ramki was in a professional limbo. After selling his 250-person firm, Marketics in 2008, he embarked on a mission to document India’s rare birds like the Austen’s hornbill, Bugun’s liocichla, and the broad-tailed grass bird among others. Sighting these birds, let alone photographing them, is the Holy Grail for most birders. And yet, something was missing. “I was growing increasingly disillusioned with wildlife photography because it does nothing for wildlife,” says Ramki. “I discovered that entire species and ecosystems were disappearing. Just because you love wildlife doesn’t mean you become a protector of wildlife. Conservation is interventional. Photography is not. In fact, today, wildlife photographers are part of the problem.”
It was at this questioning stage that he met Dattatri. The timing was fortuitous. Like Hamlet’s malaise and Arjuna’s angst, both men were experiencing the ennui that envelopes successful professionals mid-career, forcing questions about the meaning and purpose of life.
Dattatri was used to being approached by admirers with the same tired question: “What can I do to help conserve wildlife?” Dattatri would tell them about the “unglamorous” part of conservation: the hard work, the threats from vested interests, and the dogged persistence that was necessary. Most people never came back. “Ramki is one of those rare people who puts his money where his mouth is,” says Dattatri.
They met in Ramki’s house. What each thought was a casual meeting ended up laying the groundwork for Conservation India, a wildlife portal that would become their joint venture. Within a few hours, both men had agreed on a blueprint. Wildlife conservation in India, they agreed, did not need another NGO, but rather, a free, open, neutral portal that disseminated authoritative, authentic, well-curated information. Presciently, Ramki had already registered a domain called Conservation India (CI), which became the name of their nascent venture.
At that time, conservation in India had very little readable material in the public domain. “It sat in people’s heads or in scientific literature,” says Ramki. Some NGOs and individuals such as the Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program (WCS) and tiger expert and conservation zoologist Ullas Karanth drew upon science for conservation. But the general public, even avid wildlife-lovers (or wild lifers as they are called) had little knowledge about basic things such as the range of a tiger, how long it lived or what it ate. Ramki and Dattatri wanted to change that. They wanted to bridge the gap between wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists. “Both Shekar and I have been influenced by Dr Karanth,” says Ramki. “He has brought about meaningful outcomes by mixing science with advocacy, policy and ground-level action.”
They thought about how to fund the venture. They didn’t want to be beholden to sponsors. They considered selling merchandise on the portal, but discarded the idea as too commercial. In the end, Ramki decided to fund it himself. “Like the rest of us, Ramki loves the outdoors but chose to go way beyond,” says Bittu Sahgal, co-founder, Sanctuary Asia magazine. “Through CI, he helps ordinary people fight the good fight more effectively.”
Their work too was pretty much evenly divided. Besides funding the venture, Ramki designed the technology back-end including coding, hosting, security and design, and most importantly, the custom-built automated news round up, somewhat like an RSS feed. It is refreshed with the latest conservation news several times a day. “We are heavy lifting through the technology so that each of us can devote our time to our other interests. We have no fixed assets or employees,” says Ramki.
Dattatri had connections in the conservation community. His standing as a filmmaker who “would walk away if anything smelled fishy,” as he says, gave them credibility. Dattatri curates most of the content. Ramki gets involved in campaigns and networking. Together, they designed the look and feel of the site.
Today, CI gets a traffic of anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 visitors a day. The site has had over one million unique users. Perhaps just as important, they have earned the respect and goodwill of the conservation community because of their stance and their stories. Students of conservation visit the site, sometimes ten times a day. “Credibility is our greatest strength,” says Ramki. “And Shekar brought that to the table. He is a details guy, perfectionist, punctual—like a Rolex,” Ramki laughs.
Ramki speaks in a specific cadence that I initially cannot place. I struggle to identify it and then realize that Ramki’s cadence belongs to a subspecies: boys who grew up in Chennai, studied at Vidya Mandir perhaps, like Ramki did, then went on to college elsewhere, perhaps at BITS Pilani and did different things. This is the cadence of a highly articulate explainer who connects disparate ideas and spins webs; who doesn’t say in two words what can be said in ten. Ramki belongs to this persuasion, as do many other people in my acquaintance. They presume debate and therefore assume that they have to persuade.
If you are interested in Indian wildlife, the CI portal is a must-visit. Besides the daily news round up, there are lyrical articles about say, Mangalajodi in Orissa where villagers once killed and now protect birds. There are periodic campaigns that take on issues such as hydel projects, wetland rules, saving Amur Falcons and the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary. “Experts and authorities write for us for free out of their interest and passion, but everything gets vetted,” says Dattatri. “It is not as if they are doing me or Ramki a favour. It has to be someone with domain knowledge, not some random person’s opinion.”
Karanth was not only a mentor but also an early adopter of the site. He lists out the reasons why: “CI highlights urgent, emerging conservation issues in real time. More than that, it provides a clear signal—distinct from all the noise out there—for anyone interested in accomplishing conservation in the real world.”
It took two men. This is their story
Dattatri was one of those kids who loved wildlife from childhood. Like most of his generation, he grew up in a book-loving middle-class family in Chennai. Unlike most of his peers, his parents gave him the gift of indulging his interests rather than obsessing over school marks.
When Dattatri was 10, his sister gave him a Gerald Durrell book called Rosie is my Relative, about an elephant. Soon, Dattatri borrowed his sister’s library card and began reading up other nature books in the British Council Library. By age 12, he graduated to books by Jane Goodall, George Schaller, Konrad Lorenz, Jim Corbett, Salim Ali, E.P. Gee, and many other wildlife writers. Dattatri had his life planned out. He would study wildlife biology all the way to a PhD and spend his life working with animals.
At age 13, Dattatri walked into Chennai’s famous Snake Park and “ambushed” Romulus Whitaker, the founder. “I don’t know where I got the confidence but I said, ‘Mr Whitaker, I know how to handle snakes and I want to be a volunteer here.’ If it had been anyone else, they might have said, ‘Little boy, go away, come back when you are 21 with a letter from your parents.’ But Rom said, ‘Sure, okay, don’t do anything dangerous.’
‘And so my journey began’
Dattatri was studying at Chennai’s P.S. High School then. He began volunteering on weekends at the Snake Park, first as an errand boy for the keepers, then accompanying them while cleaning the reptile enclosures, then taking tourists around the park, and then announcing tours and information over the public system. The Snake Park published a cyclostyled magazine at that time. “Rom showed me how to develop negatives. I went to the British Council library and read up on photography.” An older friend loaned him a prized Nikon camera. Pretty soon, Dattatri was spending day after day in the Snake Park dark room developing, fixing and glazing photographs. His school attendance suffered. He began spending two days a week, then three and then four days a week at the Snake Park. Being a back bencher, his classmates covered for him. “Somehow I got through from one class to another. I would get 33 marks, my teachers probably gave me 2 grace marks and promote me to the next grade,” says Dattatri.
Right in school, Dattatri decided that he would not get married. He wanted to be a “free bird” doing exactly what he wanted to do. Sometimes though, life would intervene. After spending his twelve years of schooling pretty much around snakes and animals, Dattatri realized that he had no college admission. Worse, the application deadline had passed. The only option open to him was Loyola College, which was autonomous. Dattatri applied to Loyola. On the same day, he also posted an “impassioned letter” to the principal stating why he had to give the lad admission even though he had poor grades and virtually no attendance in school. The principal called him for an interview and regarded the lad with a twinkle in his eye. Dattatri got into Loyola and continued his usual pattern of absenteeism. “At Loyola, all the students would quake when they were to enter the principal’s office because he was a stickler for attendance,” says Dattatri. “But Father Kuriakose would see me and say, ‘Ah, snake boy, what have you been up to?’ with a big smile.”
He began working with a graduate student named J. Vijaya (now deceased). They did local expeditions with the Irula tribal folks from Chingelput district. Dattatri describes them as “amazing bush people.” Dattatri would accompany Viji and the Irulas into the scrubby, thorny wastelands outside Chennai. “You and I may see nothing, but an Irula can spot say, 15 species of snakes, 13 amphibians, mongoose, hares, monitor lizards, jackals,” says Dattatri. “Irulas are incredible at finding wildlife. They know which season to go where, and which ponds to go to in order to find fresh water turtles.” Dattatri photographed them all.
In the early eighties, American filmmakers, John and Louise Riber came to Chennai to do a film on snake bite. Since Whitaker was in and out of the country, he deputed young Dattatri to stand in for him. For close to two years, he followed the Ribers around, watching, listening and asking questions about framing shots, and developing content for wildlife films. This experience caused him to jettison his dreams for a PhD in wildlife biology and turn instead to photography and filmmaking. Whitaker, Dattatri and a couple of others formed a film making company called Eco Media.
An early assignment was for Sanctuary Asia with editor Bittu Sahgal as the producer. Sahgal sent a professional Bollywood cameraman to film at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Problems began almost immediately. The cameraman had no interest in filming otters and elephants. He wanted action and starlets. When the Bollywood cameraman upped and left the tiger reserve (leaving his equipment and assistant behind thankfully), Dattatri, knowledgeable about wildlife took over the filming. “Shekar is extraordinary because he is an entirely self-taught naturalist, social scientist and film maker,” says Karanth. “In his ability to communicate complex conservation stories effectively and aesthetically, he has few peers globally.”
Soon National Geographic and Discovery came calling. Dattatri made films for them for a decade. Alongside he did freelance camera work for Animal Planet, BBC and others. One about Nagarhole shows not just the elephants, tigers and frogs that inhabit the reserve but also ends with an unabashed plea for conservation: “For what is at stake here is not just the preservation of a legacy but the safeguarding of India’s very identity as the land of the tiger and the elephant.”
By the year 2000, Dattatri was well established as a wildlife filmmaker. “Work was always looking for me but I felt hollow inside,” he said. “I was at the top of my game, earning money, winning awards and yet, I was feeling depressed because I was making these beautiful films ignoring the problems all around them—the problems of conservation.”
He decided gradually to become a “barefoot filmmaker.” He consciously turned his back on television, refusing new projects and bought a smaller ‘prosumer’ camera to make the kind of films he wanted. It was in this phase that he made some of his most compelling films. SOS: Save Our Sholas, for instance, offers a poetic yet realistic glimpse into the amazing Western Ghats. Narrated by Valmik Thapar, the film is both an introduction to these shola forests and a call to action—a theme that will suffuse all of Dattatri’s later work. It was at this time that he met some friends in Bengaluru who were campaigning to close down mining operations in Kudremukh, an important biodiversity hotspot. Wildlife First, an advocacy group co-founded by Bengaluru-based Praveen Bhargav had been campaigning since 1996 to stop iron ore mining at Kudremukh. The group filed a public interest litigation and lobbied local politicians. Dattatri suggested a documentary film that encapsulated all the issues. The result was a 11-minute film called Mindless Mining: the tragedy of Kudremukh, narrated in English and Kannada. “I don’t think anyone in the advocacy groups initially realized its use or impact. They looked at it and said, ‘This is nice and maybe we will get something out of it,’” says Dattatri.
Wildlife First showed the film widely: to MLAs and at farmers’ meetings. The film, available on the Conservation India portal is a snapshot of the problem and the solution. “Shekar is one filmmaker who has sacrificed his otherwise lucrative career in making nice films for National Geographic and other channels and instead, put a huge amount of his time to help change decisions in the highest level,” says Bhargav. “His film holds the unique record of being filed in the Supreme Court as an annexure to support the petition which ultimately led to a landmark judgment which was to close down an iron ore mining in the heart of Kudremukh National Park.”
On December 31, 2005, the Supreme Court’s judgment stopped mining in Kudremukh. “It was hugely motivating for me because it showed that I could make these other kinds of films,” says Dattatri.
Ramki’s home office is in Indiranagar, a trendy area in Bengaluru crammed with brew pubs and restaurants. Behind his desk is a lithograph of a Malabar Trogon by John Gould. Ramki collects these and speaks with the ease of a polymath about lithographs.
“I stick to the British period, not because I am a fan of the white man but because I feel that they document Indian natural history very well,” he says. Ramki likes drawings. His first job, before he got an MBA, was as a freelance cartoonist, he says—which he did for a year.
Ramki rides to our first meeting on a bicycle. We meet at Yogisthaan, which serves good food in a garden setting. Tall, slim, and bearded, Ramki is vegan and a yoga enthusiast. He practises advanced Ashtanga yoga and pranayama, pretty much every day. Recently, he has also started running “sub 10K” distances.
Ask Ramki why he is attracted to birds or wildlife and he is, for a change, speechless. “I like birds and mammals because they are the most visible denizens of the wild,” he stammers.
“But I don’t want to give an anthropocentric reason and call it a connection to nature or that it gives me peace or whatever.” We go on to talk about other things. Later, Ramki returns to the thought. “I like wild places where I can walk: forests, grasslands, scrublands, desert. My fundamental passion is trekking.”
Ramki still manages to go on one trek a month. He and his wife, Swarna, have one adopted son, Shiva, 5.
On weekends, they go to the Valley School to listen to lectures and also meet up with their friends, birder Shashank Dalvi, and his wife, Vishnupriya, an ecologist who live there.
Birding has been Ramki’s longest preoccupation. In between, Ramki still mentors a few start-ups—18 Herbs, a company out of Madurai is one he mentions but there are others. He likes the start-up ecosystem and speaks with the same passion about being an entrepreneur.
But for this we have to go back a couple of decades. In 1998, at the age of 25, Ramki co-founded Intercept, an advertising firm, that quickly grew to multiple locations across India. By 2002, it was obvious that the company, like many of its kind, would be the victim of dotcom bust. Yet, the founders were loathe to shut down the firm. “One day, in our guest house in Mumbai, I had an epiphany,” says Ramki. “It must have been a hot summer’s night. I was probably staring at the fan in the non-AC room and suddenly, I decided that enough was enough.”
Ramki moved from Chennai to Bengaluru with a heavy heart and started Marketics, a data analytics firm in 2003. It must have been hard for the lad from Luz Church Road to explain the move to his parents. Not only was he shutting down his firm but rather than take up a sensible well-paying job, he was starting another entrepreneurial venture. The gene must run in the family. Ramki’s only brother, C.S. Swaminathan, is a co-founder of media outlet Founding Fuel. “Once people have tasted the freedom and creativity that comes with entrepreneurship, they can never go back to a regular job,” Ramki explains.
It was at this time that serial entrepreneur and partner at venture capital firm Growth Story, K. Ganesh met Ramki. “Intercept focused on digital advertising and was way ahead of its time. The same with Marketics, which was doing big data and Knowledge Process Outsourcing before those words were invented,” says Ganesh. Ramki and his two co-founders pitched to Ganesh who ended up investing Rs1 crore or about $200,000 in their nascent venture. “I liked the fact that despite losing money through his previous start-up, Ramki was not taking the b2b (back to banking) or b2c (back to consulting) path that many of his start-up peers were doing,” says Ganesh.
In 2007, the four partners—Ganesh says that the company was divided four ways pretty evenly—sold the firm to WNS for $65 million. They distributed the money to about 120 employees. As CEO, Ramki and his co-founders decided to share the wealth, even with employees who were not eligible. “I can guarantee that 99% of his employees will come back to work for Ramki if he starts another venture,” says Ganesh. After the sale of Marketics, Ramki didn’t start another business venture. He turned wholeheartedly to conservation. “Is he capable of building much larger firms, having been a pioneer in the big data and KPO space? Yes, 100%,” says Ganesh. “But conservation needs people like Ramki, because people like me won’t do it. By saying, ‘enough’ to wealth, he has shown great maturity, equanimity and contentment.”
This yin-yang quality was evident when the two men met recently in Bengaluru. Dattatri had come to Bengaluru for a couple of days and their time together followed a similar cadence. They met with a wildlife biologist, brainstormed about what to do, met with conservation professionals and planned future campaigns. Ramki’s charisma has to do with his energy and enthusiasm tempered with his ability to back off and allow people to do their thing. At his heart, he is an egalitarian.
Ask anyone about Ramki and a few words will pop up with regularity: wildlife of course, and entrepreneur too, but more than anything, he is someone who doesn’t play by the rules. “I prefer to influence rather than command,” he said. “I am anti-establishment and I am not bound by rules.” This contrarian yet egalitarian quality is necessary in conservation. Journalist Bano Haralu knows this first hand in their well-documented, and successful campaign to prevent the massive killing of Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Ramki, she says, connected multiple groups and brought the campaign to fruition. “He was astute in knowing how to highlight the news in a manner that would get maximum impact,” says Haralu.
Thanks in part to the success of their campaign, Haralu quit her job as a television reporter and became founding trustee of Nagaland Wildlife Biodiversity Conservation Project. Ramki designed her website and logo and continues to give her his time and effort. “I never wanted to start an organization but our work together gave me the push,” says Haralu
Dattatri too has “pushed” associates into the path of wildlife, in his case, education. Bengaluru-based artist, designer and educator Srivi Kalyan heads the Master’s in Earth Education and Communication program at Shristi Institute of Art Design and Technology.
“In the four years that I have known Shekar, we have talked a lot about educating youngsters about conservation,” she says. “I would say that my current position (as an environment educator) is in part because of our conversations.”
Wildlife conservation is harder than most other causes because it demands a way of seeing and thinking that doesn’t come naturally to people. The holistic web of nature where each species is linked to the other is not obvious and cannot be explained in as clean a fashion as educating girls or erecting toilets. People who love the wild are aplenty but those who make it their life’s work to fight for it are few. And for those who choose to fight, the bad news keeps coming.
Elephants get electrocuted, entire lakes of fish die one morning, and forests get fragmented. Those who love nature, with deep and abiding passion, have to confront one sobering fact: most humans don’t care about wildlife and are oblivious to the damage that they are inflicting on the earth. Conservationists also have to routinely watch videos of their beloved animals and birds being mutilated, poached, trapped and shot. That takes spine, guts and the stomach for watching and digesting horror. It also takes a certain frame of mind.
“A conservationist cannot afford to be pessimistic,” says Dattatri. “Yes, we do lose many battles, but unless one keeps fighting to save nature, whatever little is left of it will also disappear.”
Profiles of Unusual Partnerships: Where two worlds, and two people come together, to create a bit of magic. This series celebrates men and women who reach beyond their silos and engage with other professionals in a passionate way.