Sunday, September 06, 2009

At home in the sky

The pioneer of aerial photography, Gopal Bodhe, has spent the past 31 years taking photographs of monuments, beaches, forts and lighthouses in India. He has just published a book on the Lakshadweep Islands

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The Gateway of India

Gopal Bodhe

In 1978 President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy came for a visit to Mumbai and was welcomed at the airport by the Navy Commander-in-Chief. Later, Gopal Bodhe, the senior Navy photographer, was in the helicopter as Reddy was taken to a function.

“When we were flying over the Gateway of India, I suddenly noticed the central dome,” says Gopal. It was the time of analog cameras and he had only one frame left. Nevertheless, he took a photo of the dome.

Little did he realise then that he had discovered his lifelong passion: aerial photography.

Gopal is the pioneer of this type of photography in India. There are a few others, most notably, Dr. Jehangir Sorabjee, who has published a book of aerial photographs on Mumbai, and Uddhav Thackeray, the president of the Shiv Sena.

Gopal has taken photos from the air of numerous beaches, caves, cities, creeks, rivers, forts, lighthouses and places of worship. In Kerala, he has taken striking photos of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, apart from pictures of churches and lighthouses.

“Kerala is beautiful, but our whole country is spectacular,” he says.

Gopal was in Kochi recently where his latest book, ‘Lakshadweep: A View from the Heavens’ was released by Vice Admiral Sunil Damle, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command at a well-attended function at the Naval Base.

“Undoubtedly, Lakshadweep is one of the most beautiful places I have shot,” he says. “It is pristine and unspoilt.”

So what is Gopal’s method to capture these unspoilt areas? Usually, he flies on a Chetak helicopter. He sits at the back, near the door, which is kept open. The average height that is needed to get a good photograph is 500 feet, while the speed of the helicopter should be between 50 and 60 nautical miles per hour.

“Because there is a lot of vibration, I increase the shutter speed,” he says. Initially, the helicopter does one circle above the monument so that Gopal can gauge the right height and the angle at which the helicopter should fly. Then he passes instructions to the pilot.

Then the pilot does two more rounds, while Gopal takes numerous photographs. “Later, I will select the best ones,” he says.

Of course, the ideal climate to take clear photographs is in April and May, before the monsoons begin and then in September and October. “In the winter season visibility is poor,” he says.

In his long career the most difficult place to shoot has been Ladakh, where the temperature hovers below minus five degrees Centigrade. “I was shivering and we had to put on oxygen masks,” says Gopal.

Because of the cold weather the door could not be opened. Nevertheless, he took spellbinding pictures of the Indus river, lakes and mountains, as well as the highest motorable road in the world: Khardungla Pass.

In Kochi, with the help of a Navy personnel he stretches out a 60 feet long photograph of the pass. It is a spectacular picture that reveals the bleakness of the terrain, devoid of any trees or vegetation, and yet the greyish landscape is eerily beautiful.

So what are the benefits of aerial photography? “I am writing the history of India through images,” he says. His book on Mumbai has a collection of snaps taken over 12 years.

“By studying my photographs you can see how the city has changed over the years,” says Gopal. “There are so many new flyovers and buildings. People can refer to my photos after a hundred years and observe the changes.”

He gives other examples: After the 2004 tsunami, some islands had disappeared in the Andamans, but these can be confirmed by studying Gopal’s photographs. Recently, Gopal had read a news item which stated that the beaches of Orissa were sinking because of global warming.

“Again, this can be verified because I have taken numerous pictures of the beaches,” he says. Incidentally, he is the only lensman to have aerially photographed 8500 kms of India’s coastline.

So far, he has published seven books – on Maharashtra, Goa, the Ancient Trade routes of Maharashtra, Mumbai, Lighthouses of India, the Mahalakshmi Temple, Kolhapur and Lakshadweep.

Thanks to his innovative work, Gopal has plenty of admirers. One of them, Dr. Jehangir Sorabjee, says, “Gopal has done a systematic documentation of the country’s coastline and many structures. He has been an inspiration for many of us.”

Adds Mumbai-based journalist Mini Pant: “Bodhe has a wealth of photographs that no one can ever equal. He has to be given credit for having such a deep pride in India’s heritage and history that he has documented for posterity.”

But ever since he retired from the Navy last year Gopal has been finding it difficult to get sponsors. The only exception is the Mumbai-based Patel Engineering for whom he takes aerial photos of the structures they are making. To surmount this drawback, he is planning on getting an unmanned aerial vehicle from Canada, on which he can mount a camera and take photographs.

His next project includes places of worship and creeks and rivers of India. At 62, he is fit and alert. “Health permitting I would like to do this for many more years,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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