Sky Islands. The words instantly conjure up images of expanses of land enveloped by stretches of sky, in lieu of water. That may seem like a fantasy to the city-bred, but it isn’t far from reality for someone like Ian Lockwood, who grew up amidst the Palani Hills. As an 11-year-old, he first visited this serene space on a family camping trip in the spring of 1981, but each visit now is, for him, a journey of the spirit. The camping gear has made way for an explorer’s tools—cameras, binoculars, maps, notebook, GPS.
Educator, photographer and writer with an enduring interest in the ecology, landscapes and cultures of South Asia, Lockwood has a special fascination for the tropical forests, obscure mountain peaks and conservation themes in the Western Ghats/ Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. While he makes his living as a teacher (and has taught photography, environmental science and geography at several schools in South Asia), he uses hand-printed and digital imagery to emphasise the need for conservation in the hope of making a difference to the environment.
Sky Islands: An Endangered Indian Landscape by Lockwood, spotlights South India’s Sky Islands through black-and-white fine art prints. On view at the NCPA Mumbai’s Dilip Piramal Art Gallery for 10 days until December 3, it celebrates those breathtaking landscapes and underscores the urgent need for their conservation.
Each photograph is a chapter from his three-decade-long exploration of the Palani Hills and the southern Western Ghats—areas rich in biodiversity, vital for water regulation, but threatened by human activity as well as climate change.
Step into the gallery, and a sea of images in black-and-white transports you to the high ranges. Steep cliffs covered in grasses and Shola patches drop dizzyingly to the plains below. Amidst the stark contrasts of dramatic falls and scenic terrains that once were and have now been decimated by new plantations, you will come upon the graphic portrait of a wandering man on the edge of the Valparai Plateau near a viewpoint named ‘Seen God’. A wealth of life experience is evident in his eyes. Then there’s the unflinching gaze of pilgrims trekking up and across Sky Islands in the Cardamom Hills on their way to the temple at Sabarimala—an annual pilgrimage that’s a symbol of the close relationship between human communities and the natural ecosystems. Rhododendron arboreum, a fire-resistant tree species found on the edges of sholas or scattered in montane grasslands, makes a stunning image in close-up—as do tree ferns, which are key endemic species of the Sky Islands.
Hemisphere, the High Range from Kattu Malai is an eye-catching image of the Eravikulam Plateau and neighbouring Grass hills of the Anamalais. Apparently, this picture of the largest undisturbed Shola/grasslands mosaic in the Southern Western Ghats was many years in the making. “It involved a number of challenges including the granting of permission from the Kerala Forest Department, then several days of trekking and an unforgettable night spent camping on this elevated point (Kattu Malai),” recalls the photographer.
Originally from New England, Lockwood spent his formative years studying and exploring the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu where he attended Kodaikanal International School. Among his mentors were the naturalists Romulus (the herpetologist, wildlife conservationist, and founder of the Madras Snake Park), and Zai Whitaker, who had attended the same school along with his parents. “Here was somebody who was doing something quite different—working with snakes and crocodiles and conservation issues,” exclaims Lockwood. “His wife was a dorm parent in our school then, and Rom would come up to Kodi (short for Kodaikanal). I went on several hikes and fishing trips with him.”
The impressionable lad was fascinated not only by the Whitakers, but several ex-students who became filmmakers or engaged in artistic pursuits—people from Auroville, for example, who had studied in the same school. “That gave me an exposure to a deeper kind of lifestyle, a different way of doing something meaningful with one’s life. I think those things were important to me in terms of what I wanted to do,” says Lockwood, whose parents were also very encouraging in letting him follow his own path. “Mainly, I developed my interests by just going outdoors. We had a hiking programme that got us out every weekend. On those trips, we would encounter different species, walk in different kinds of forests. That was (and still is) part of the school’s extra-curricular activities.”
While he was exposed to this terrain during his early teens, Lockwood didn’t understand the significance of what he was seeing until much later. His aha! moment came only after he completed his college studies in the US and returned to spend six months as a volunteer with the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) based in Kodi. His job with them was to go out and meet other NGOs in the region. Thanks to his interests in geography and travel, he had the opportunity to meet several other conservation-oriented people and to help build relationships and connections. “This was an age before the internet, so communication was quite different,” he points out. “I had the chance and privilege of face-to-face meetings with other people, and also the opportunity to see other landscapes beyond the area that I had grown up in.”
Amazed by what he saw, he decided to document his observations. “I was interested as a photographer in being published, in sharing my work, but I always wanted to do it with a conservation focus. I didn’t want it to be just pretty pictures. I was interested in landscape photography for conservation. That was a really important part of it,” reiterates Lockwood.
His passion for the Western Ghats was further fuelled by the influence of his father, Dr Merrick Lockwood, who introduced Ian to the art of large-format photography, encouraging him to record the ever-changing landscapes. When the young enthusiast joined the PHCC in 1993, he was introduced to the broader concept of the Western Ghats—not just as a geological wonder, but as a fragile ecosystem under threat. His stint with the PHCC marked the beginning of Lockwood’s deep dive into documenting the Western Ghats, which has lasted over three decades.
Some of the pictures in this exhibition are from film, taken some time ago—but scanned and printed for the first time. Lockwood finds that interesting because it was a whole different process. “In this exhibition, I’m trying to combine various techniques and share what I’ve done. I exhibited in Mumbai in 2001, so in a sense this is a follow up. It’s a bit late, 20-plus years, but I’m filling the gap.”
He and the organisers use ‘sky islands’ as a theme and approach. “The term was coined in the 1950s in the United States, but I find it’s a term that helps us to explain the very special nature of the South Indian hills, the hills that are also in Sri Lanka, where the hilltops are so different from what is down below,” says Lockwood. “In fact, some of my colleagues use the term Shola Sky Islands. Shola is a forest type, it’s composed of many species and it’s a generic term for them in southern India.”
Traditionally, a Shola would be like a patch of forest in the fold of a hill. It’s a unique part of the Nilgiris and the Palani Hills. They have what is called montane grasslands, to distinguish them from grasslands which are low down, as they are found high up on the tops of mountains. He adds, “We just call the show Sky Islands because we want to introduce the term. By giving it that name and then using black-and-white imagery, what I’m trying to do is show this as a very special and fragile landscape.”
The exhibition is designed to give an aesthetic experience that will probably tap into people’s emotions, that they might not feel, say, if it was in colour. There are different ways of seeing things, and this is Lockwood’s way. He doesn’t do exhibitions often because he’s teaching, and he finds colour photography good in the context of documenting and sharing, but when it comes to photography as art, he believes that black and white is really powerful.
In essence, what he is documenting is a landscape changing as he is growing and changing. Lockwood keeps returning to the Palani Hills because it is home. He studied there from 1978 to 1988, when Kodi was a “pretty sleepy town”. He adds, “But now it’s changed dramatically. It’s been built up and has become a popular place. I think that’s what energises me, that the change has happened in my own lifetime.” He refrains from calling this a change for the worse. “I’m staying neutral in what I say the change is,” he says, with a laugh, “but so much of it is negative! That’s the gist of what I have been documenting. But I try to be non-judgemental. I am a glass-half-full rather than a glass-half-empty kind of person.”
Nevertheless, ceaseless growth is a big concern for environmentalists like him. “The pressure on that sensitive ecology, those ecosystems is intense. How do you find that sweet spot? On one hand, tourism is an economic growth strategy, but it’s also throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he laments.
While his passion is the outdoors, education is essential to Lockwood. He remains closely associated with Kodaikanal International School, because he is interested in environmental education. “That is of great interest to me, and I want to support it. I really feel that environmental education is something that everybody needs,” he insists. “We’ve seen a change in the last couple of years, we all realise that we need to do a better job with the environment. That’s one of the exciting things here, raising awareness and support for this environmental centre at the school. This new initiative is to promote environmental education using the Kodi school as the base, for their students and for other visiting students. And to form a node of environmental learning.”
“I was interested as a photographer in being published, in sharing my work, but I always wanted to do it with a conservation focus. I didn’t want it to be just pretty pictures,” says Ian Lockwood, photographer
Share this on
Lenny, Lockwood’s son and the fourth generation in this Indo-American family to be privileged to walk these hills, sometimes accompanies his father on his treks. “It will be him and future generations that will take on the mantle of conservation in a warmer, more crowded world defined by uncertainty,” says the photographer, who inherited his love for nature from his parents and grandparents. He has obviously passed it on to his son and hopefully, to his many students and future generations of art lovers too.
(Sky Islands: An Endangered Indian Landscape by Ian Lockwood is on display at NCPA, Mumbai, till December 3)