It is with a deep sense of loss that I announce the death of Sri S. Rangaswami, a close and true friend of the school’s, its founder, Sri J. Krishnamurti, and of students of the school. Sri Rangaswami’s passion for the educational work of the school encompassed almost 40 years of his life and embraced the entire landscape of the valley and its avian inhabitants.
Born into a traditional south Indian Brahmin family, and trained for the priesthood, Sri Rangaswami abandoned the priestly vocation – but not before he had learnt the devotional literature of the Alwars – to join Annamalai University where he studied botany. It was in the university library that he was drawn to the writings of Sri J. Krishnamurti, to whom he remained devoted all his life. Ever since that time he harboured the hope of working for one of Krishnamurti’s institutions.
Sri Rangaswami spent early decades of his career in the Indian Air Force, which he joined immediately after finishing university. He was teaching English to Air Force cadets when he sought early retirement in 1973 and joined Rishi Valley School as Bursar. At school he spent six days of every week doing accounts then, on weekends, he shed his Bursar's hat and, with a crowd of students in tow, set out looking for his bipedal friends. In that inhospitable landscape, he methodically listed almost 90 species of birds in their favoured haunts. He also presided over water conservation programmes, strategically locating small ponds and tanks for thirsty birds to drink from in the summer, planting peepals for them to roost and nectar-bearing erithryna, especially for the long beaked drongos and sunbirds. When he departed from Rishi Valley in 1977, he left behind a legacy of flowering trees and a band of students with an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region.
In 1990 he returned to Rishi Valley without any official designation but with a well-defined purpose — to establish the Valley as an officially recognized sanctuary for birds, and to continue his field ornithology work along scientific lines. The second survey indicated that the number of species in the Valley had more than doubled — earlier years of conservation seemed to have paid off.
In 1994, Mr. Rangaswami celebrated these events with a book, Birds of Rishi Valley and Renewal of Their Habitats. Richly illustrated, with photographs by his friend and co-author S. Sridhar, the book won favourable reviews in many leading newspapers and journals. Harry Miller called some of the prose magical, Sanctuary Asia magazine prominently featured a chapter of the book and Mahesh Rangarajan of the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi described the writing as'.. vintage natural history, reminiscent of the late M. Krishnan.’ He went on to win the Green Teacher Award given by Sanctuary Asia and ABN Amro Bank.
In April 1997, Sri Rangaswami established a Department of Bird Studies as part of Rishi Valley School. In order to create a permanent presence for the department, he upgraded it to its present status, an Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History.
Sri Rangaswami extended the range of the Institute's activities still further by creating an ambitious Home Study Course on ornithology. He single-handedly wrote out all 24 out of the 26 chapters of this course in two months, in a period of feverish creativity. When the designing of this course and production of the study material presented additional problems, he switched roles and became an assiduous fundraiser. The funds he collected now support a scholarship scheme for prospective students which includes housewives, senior citizens, and school-going children, as well as underprivileged members of society from almost every state in India.
As the ninth decade of his life approached Rangaswami began writing his swan song, a book on Natural History. A lifetime’s reading in geology, evolutionary biology, literature and philosophy fill out the final chapters of the book, which forms the end of the Home Studies Course. The publication of the book, which was released by Dr. A. R. Rehmani of the Bombay Natural History, seemed to fulfil Sri Rangaswami’s mission in life. He passed away, on January 10, 2012, barely two months after its publication.
Abiding marks of his presence in the Valley surround us. The stately Peepal tree encircled by sacred Naga stones we see at the entrance to the school flourishes only because of Sri Rangaswami’s constant care. Many had tried and failed to grow anything at the crossroads where villagers waited in the hot sun for buses. He watered the tree in times of drought, raised a platform around it and finally joined the Peepal with a Neem – which for millennia are signs of the sacred, so villagers would protect the site.
In a similar manner the granite Lion Rock would have been lost to the granite industry had not been consecrated as a sacred shrine.
Sri Rangaswami made us aware of a source of beauty that we might otherwise not have seen or heard. His achievements stemmed from his dedication to wisdom, to beauty and to the well being of all living things. The comment of another great naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson's may help to explain the passion of Rangaswami's life work: "If we are to save the birds, we have to make as many people as possible aware of the threats to their survival.... We must save the birds, and in saving them, we will save the earth."