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Vol. XXXI No. 5, June 16-31, 2021

The Indian connection with My Octopus Teacher

by Ramnarayan V.

Why should Chennai celebrate the success of the movie My Octopus Teacher, which was adjudged the best documentary feature at the 2021 Academy Awards? Because the wife of its South African maker, the naturalist extraordinaire Craig Foster, has a Tamil name and a Chennai connection like Kamala Harris, the US Vice President? True, Swati Thiyagarajan is indeed Foster’s wife, and she is indeed Tamil, but her Chennai connection is much stronger than that. She was born here and went to Sishya School at Adyar until she moved to Rishi Valley School, where her father, too, had studied. Her parents Usha and Tyagarajan – a son of T. Sadasivam and M.S. Subbulakshmi – live in Chennai.

Swati has been described as “an outstanding environmental journalist” by Prannoy Roy, founder of NDTV, where, as Environment Editor, she produced and anchored the iconic, long-running series Born Wild (also the name of her first book).

It is while growing up in Chennai that Swati developed and nurtured her love of animals and birds, guided by her father and his late friend Siddharth Buch whose guided tour of the campus of the Theosophical Society and the Adyar estuary laid the foundation for her lifelong love of nature and her fierce commitment to conservation. Buch belonged to a distinguished family originally from Kutch, Gujarat, that intermarried and seamlessly integrated into the Madras way of life. He taught Swati to appreciate the living world around her and made her aware at quite a young age that man is “just another piece in this wonderful jigsaw that makes our planet,” not the centre of the universe.

As a child, Swati believed that birds and animals could and did reach out to her pleading for help, often leading to her bringing home birds and tending to their injuries. It was hardly surprising then that in 2012, already a young veteran of her wildlife series Born Wild, she directed The Animal Communicator, a documentary film featuring conservationist Anna Breytenbach, whose unusual work is based on the conviction that animals can communicate across species, even with humans.

She was an avid bird watcher learning to identify birds amidst the rich diversity of fauna in the Theosophical Society. Regular visits to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and the Guindy National Park provided the initial impetus for her growth into the wildlife expert she has eventually become.

In an interview with a journalist, Swati once recalled her moment of epiphany when she realised her deep connection with nature and what was to become her mission in life, that of becoming an eco-warrior, on a wind-swept, wave-drenched evening on the beach with ‘Uncle Siddharth’ and her father Kannan – as Tyagarajan is known at home – who excitedly proclaimed how strongly he had been influenced by J Krishnamurti’s philosophy of living in harmony with nature.

After Sishya and Rishi Valley, Swati went to Jamia Islamia from where she graduated. Joining NDTV in 1997, she three years later pitched the idea of a series on wildlife, which led to Born Wild, made by an all-woman team. Swati was the script writer, director, and presenter of the show, which ran for 15 years.

Now based in Cape Town, South Africa (and New Delhi), Swati is a core team member of the Sea Change Project co-founded by Foster, besides continuing to contribute to NDTV. She was the production manager for My Octopus Teacher, which featured Craig and his diving experiences in the kelp forest of False Bay, off the western shore of South Africa, where he visited one particular octopus every day for months. Besides the Oscar, the film also won at BAFTA, the Wildscreen Award presented by the World Wide Fund for Nature and at the Jackson Wild Festival for 2020.

Swati with Co-director Pippa Ehrlich and Craig Foster. Courtesy: The Hindu.

Swati with Co-director Pippa Ehrlich and Craig Foster. Courtesy: The Hindu.

To trace the beginnings of My Octopus, Craig had been feeling totally burnt out following a succession of documentary projects. He thought he did not want to hold a camera again, and tried to find release in diving and communion with nature. He went diving every day with no plan to wield his camera. That is when he found his “octopus teacher,” and decided to visit his new friend every day. Breaking his earlier resolve, he shot every day, and discussed the day’s footage regularly with Swati. Once he realised a full blown documentary was underway, he decided to engage a co-photographer in Roger Horrocks as he was himself going to be the human protagonist of the film. For the same reason, while he directed all his earlier documentaries, he decided this time to bring in director Pippa Ehrlich, and co-director James Reed. The rest is history.

If scripting and directing documentaries plus her involvement in Octopus have given Swati remarkable creative satisfaction, interviewing Sir David Attenborough for NDTV just before he turned 90 was among the great moments of her career. Excerpts are carried by Swati’s book Born Wild (2017) published by Bloomsbury. Sir David’s never-say-die spirit despite all the obstacles industrialised society keeps placing in the path of conservation gave Swati fresh hope and encouragement to pursue her work with undiminished zeal.

The response to My Octopus Teacher has been phenomenal, with men, women and children of all ages from around the world expressing their joy at its success, the deep emotional connection they experienced with the subject of the movie making it truly memorable. Little did Craig Foster and his team anticipate such universal acclaim when they started work on the project. And Swati has indeed made Chennai proud.

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  1. Balachandran Gopalaratnam says:

    Nice round up of Swati and her work. Wonder how I missed meeting her though being in the same city. Octopus was a fantastic documentary. My aversion to the creature has taken a turn for the better now.

  2. S.Tyagarajan says:

    Brilliantly written article on Swat Thiyagarajan,wife of Craig foster maker of My Octopus Teacher. This article is well researched,
    and factual.

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