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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Dr P N Avadhani
This Nature Society stalwart
is like an old huggable tree

Betty L Khoo profiles one of the Nature Society's best-loved figures.
Photos by Sunny Yeo.

"Nurturing" is perhaps the word that most comes to mind when the older society members speak of "Dani". Which is one reason why I have likened the affable professor of Botany to an old tree. An old tree generously and happily supports a myriad other living things, including humans.

If one lets imagination wander a little, then one can see the good professor as a sturdy tree and the nature society and its members as the plants, insects, birds and even small mammals that have rested and nested in its trunk and branches.

Dr Popuri Nageswara (affectionately known to older Nature Society members simply as Dani), reminds me of an old tree; a tree with sturdy large trunk, deep, strong roots and spreading leafy branches that support a myriad living things.

How would Avadhani, Vice-President of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) "off and on", over three decades, feel about being described as an old tree? I think he would be amused and possibly even flattered. For this botanist has a great love and regard for trees. He may well remember saying to me one sunny afternoon this past August, as we sat on a bench under the shade of a Eugenia tree in the Botanic Gardens of Singapore, "Do you know that one good size tree is equal to 10 air conditioners to cool the environment and we should value it as such)."

Wow! I know that trees produce life-giving oxygen but did not realise that they can cool the environment to this extent. I was learning from this genial botanist just as countless botany students and Nature Society members had learned from him in the past 30-odd years. I also learned that one of the students in Dr Avadhani's very first honours class in the then University of Malaya was none other than another Nature Society stalwart and past President, Dr Wee Yeow Chin!

So very many men and women—now in the forties and even fifties—remember the nature lessons Avadhani taught them during memorable field trips, especially in the '60s and '70s when he was most active. "He was always encouraging, always supportive and so patient and cheerful," remembers Amy Tsang, a veteran birder in her late 40s whom Avadhani still insists on referring to as "that little girl".

"Nurturing" is perhaps the word that most comes to mind when the older society members speak of "Dani". Which is one reason why I have likened the affable professor of Botany to an old tree.

But how did Avadhani become so attuned to Nature that he says he has no problem whatsoever seeing our Planet as "Goddess Earth" and believing that She is "alive", and giving us life. Most probably, being born a Hindu, in a small village in India and at a time in 1932 when our technology had not run ahead of our humanity.

Dani with his postgraduate students in the green
grounds of NUS

Dani discussing with
his students on their
experiments in photosynthesis

Dani pointing out to
his students fungal
growth on a leaf

Mrs Beavers (a visitor
from NUS), Avadhani,
Prof Rao and Prof C J Koh
at the foothills of Bukit
Timah Nature Reserve

Avadhani and Alan Ernst (First Chairman of the Photography Subgroup NSS) accompanied
the former Foreign Minister
Mr Rajaratnam on a tour
of a photo exhibition
on Nature held in 1988
at the Goethe Institute

Botany lessons village style

The small village that Avadhani was born in (Chirala in Andhrapradesh) and the surrounding villages where he grew up in were typical of villages in rural communities everywhere. "Living in a small village we were naturally in harmony with nature. Basically all of life revolved around the rain water tanks, the padi fields and the small mixed fruit orchards".

Brought up in a devout Hindu family, the young Avadhani learned first hand of "how much we have to be thankful to trees for." "Besides giving us its fruits, its leaves and flowers are used in prayers and in those days about 80 percent of medicine was derived from trees". But though Avadhani only got to go to school when he was about nine or 10, he was by no means deprived of an education in his younger years. "We had a tutor for the four to five of us children in the village," he recalls.

Then, when he finished school, he had the opportunity of going onto university in his home state. He was keen to study medicine; however, he had completed school two years ahead of his peers and was underage for medical school . Not wanting to wait, Avadhani decided to study botany. He is very happy he made this (fateful) choice because western medicine would have taken him far away from his Hindu roots whereas botany "gave me a much wider and deeper understanding of life," richly reinforcing what he had learned as a child. Avadhani explains it more fully: "Indians see 'medicine' as Ayurvedic, i.e. the Science of Life itself. Medicine is not focused on curing sickness (as western medicine is), but on keeping a person whole and healthy".

So, in studying botany (after getting his B.Sc. in his hometown, his doctoral degree in the UK and his post doctoral fellowship in Botany from McGill University in Quebec, Canada), Avadhani was able to see what he had learned firsthand as a boy in rural India, deepened and broadened. He puts it this way. "The diversity of structure, form and function is much wider in plants (than in animals). So, the whole concept of life is much wider seen from this (plant) perspective".

But long before he could truly appreciate how botany would shape his entire way of living consciously, the young and newly wed Avadhani, having earned his degrees and fellowship, had first, to make his 'living'—which is what brought him here to Singapore, from half a world away. To a 'spot' he now calls "home", to a country where he and his wife brought up... four daughters and a son. Back then, his parents considered Canada too far away from India so when their son saw an advertisement in the International Science journal 'Nature' for a Plant Physiologist for the then University of Malaya (precursor of the University of Singapore in Bukit Timah), he applied. All he know about Singapore was that it was "a dot on the map" that some people had said was "not a bad place".

Avadhani got the job, his parents and wife, Parvathi were happy and so he started as Assistant Lecturer in Botany and obtained tenure soon after. The year was 1960 the same year Avadhani joined the MNS but he was no means a pioneer as the Society had been formed prior to the second world war and restarted in 1948 with the Singapore branch established in 1954, and his first official contribution to the already active Singapore branch was as its treasurer, taking over from Dr Kwiton Jong.

But it was the field trips that "really excited me". What enthralled him was the immense variety of plants he found in Singapore and Malaysia compared to temperate England and Canada. There is still wonderment in Avadhani's soft voice as he talks of discovering abundance of pitcher plants here in this region. "In college in Guntur, we had one specimen for 20 students".

But over the decades as Singapore (and Malaysia) grew and industrialised, encroaching on forest reserves, Avadhani became increasingly concerned about the shrinking biodiversity of species and what that could hold for mankind.

By this time Avadhani had retired as Associate Professor from the National University of Singapore (NUS) (he retired in 1992, having taught full time for 32 years). He is still teaching part-time in the NUS and being a most youthful 65 year-old feels that he has much to contribute in the area of nature education and research, continuing with the consultancy work he has been doing for many years. Certainly he has boundless energy and wealth of experience to offer to everyone.

Dr P N Avadbani's holistic view of nature
What has not been addressed anywhere and is very important is this thing called 'Plant Sociology', asserts Dr Avadhani. Dr Avadhani believes that Singapore's urban forestry practices are "not too bad". While we had in the early days followed a "cruder pattern (of cutting down trees and clearing) but now generally there has been a conscious effort to plant and not to keep the ground naked, exposed to the elements". However, the time has come for us to be aware of this thing called 'Plant Sociology' when we start replanting, he says.

Explaining 'Plant Sociology', he says that there are certain chemicals that plant roots produce that are inhibitory to some species while being beneficial for others. In other words there are "interactions between trees and smaller plants" and we should be mindful of these interactions when we destroy and then re-plant.

Avadhani goes on to explain how, by planting introduced exotics instead of natives, we change the balance between the micro-organisms and the different species and the succession that comes is not necessary the same. Upsetting the fine balance of nature is what has brought man a whole host of (insect and weed) problems; problems which he has then tried to solve by introducing a battery of toxic chemicals which have now proven to be as toxic to him as to the pest and weed he has tried to eradicate.

Armed with such knowledge and sensitivity Avadhani has thrown himself, with his usual position, into a number of projects, both for industry and the society. One project involves trips to Malaysia's Endau Rompin National Park to help them set up a nature centre. He is also helping an international company evaluate the compost recycled from industrial waste. Here again he draws on past experience—in this case the experience reaches back to childhood days where, "in our village every household had a compost. Kitchen scraps, cow dung, all this was composted and brought to the fields as rich manure." However, this is a small project and the indefatigable Avadhani feels there are still "lots of projects where environmental impact studies have to be made" and furthermore he worries that in our continuous push for economic growth development projects are unduly hurried. "We do not know all of the factors involved." he stressed. This is where he feels that with his vast experience, he could make a contribution. "I would like to be involved in evaluating the methodology and also in backroom research," of developmental projects.

Avadhani also sees the nature and magnitude of environmental problems that Singapore faces as being somewhat different to those facing Malaysia: he is familiar with both having played such an active and key role in the MNS and also in the NSS.

He sees what little nature that is left in Singapore as being "doubly precious" and, because we are so small, "the environmental impact is always far greater." It is why he says that it is impossible to separate the 'brown issues' (of waste management) with the 'green issues' (of nature conservation).

We see the 'holistic' Hindu view of things coming through when Avadhani thoughtfully says, "anything that degrades the natural environment—the industrial and household waste we generate pollutes our water, land and air—all these are brown issues that directly impact on the green issues."

He gives a familiar example from a different perspective. Take the Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE). When it was cut through the Bukit Timah and MacRitchie forests, it created border areas on both sides.
This would have been just a green issue (wildlife and its habitats being affected) in a larger country but here it has also become a brown issue. Why? Because a road, not just a small winding road that snakes its way reasonably sensitively through the natural environment but a six lane expressway that cuts a broad path right through our central water catchment area.

Avadhani asks us to consider the volume of traffic that uses this expressway, each vehicle generating pollution that contributes to the overall increase of the pollution level in our environment.

The Link Man

Dr Avadhani has been an active member of the Malayan Nature Society now known as Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) for the last 35 years! And he has also been the Chairman of MNS (Singapore Branch) for 20 years, off and on. No exaggeration then to surmise that some old-growth forest trails in Malaysia are as familiar to this tree-loving botanist as the footpaths of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

It's also not surprising that probably no one was more saddened than Avadhani when the Singapore Branch voted to become independent in 1991 after much debate. "Dhani is a sentimental soul", a fellow member says of him, and there is clearly no one more suited than this sentimental and wise soul to be the link between the MNS and the Nature Society (Singapore).

Dhani reveals that he has been a link of various sorts for decades. In the late '60s and early '70s, he was the natural link between the largely expatriate membership of the MNS (Singapore branch) and the growing local membership. This role came naturally to him as he was himself an expat until he became a permanent resident of Singapore. Dhani refers to this period as a transition "which required nurturing".

Then, long before the Singapore branch became independent, there had been a constant need to foster a "sustainable and synergistic relationship" (Avadhani's words) between members in Peninsular Malaysia/East Malaysia and Singapore for nature's sake. This continues today and the haze that blankets both territories as this article is being written underlines the vital importance of nature lovers on both sides of the causeway working closely.

Avadhani was also very involved in planning the monthly programmes, both the indoor (talks/slide shows) and outdoor activities (field trips). It was very probably the enthusiastic and imaginative planning of programmes that attracted many Singaporeans to join the society and later, as their knowledge grew, to contribute. One of the stalwarts of the society, whom Avadhani helped nurture in those vital years is Ilsa Sharp.

Writes Ilsa, "The word I will always associate with Avadhani is 'Harmony'. His style in meetings and negotiations is to seek consensus through amicable discussions. He believes in balance achieved through careful considerations of all sides of the argument. To an outsider, this can sometimes make him seem a little long-winded, but in fact, he has an almost miraculous capacity to pour oil on troubled waters and reduce stormy waves to smooth-sailing! Avadhani is a consummate diplomat, hence his strength as a 'middleman' or mediator between various groups. The Society is most fortunate to have him".

But ask Dhani what he feels is the feather in his cap and he is likely to grin and say that getting the likeable Prof Tommy Koh to become patron of the Society was his most important contribution.
Solutions from the heart
What solutions does this botanist see? While he urges more environmental impact studies for development projects, at heart he believes that: "We have to put voluntary curbs to our consumer patterns... maybe I think this way because of my Hindu background, the elements of our caste system has got within it a mechanism for balancing the consumption with production (that is, consumption according to needs)".

Wise words we all would do well to take to heart, especially as it comes from a teacher whom other young teachers like Shawn Lum (co-author of View from the Summit: Bukit Timah) look on with both affection and high regard.

As Avadhani and I sit chatting on that bench in the Botanics, Shawn walks by and pauses to greet and say: "I always tell my students (of Botany in the NIE) that teachers like Dr Avadhani (and Dr Wee Yeow Chin?) have a philosophy of life that is well integrated into their disciplines".

Hearing that Avadhani turns to me to explain, "You see, we were not too concerned about the commercialisation of Science." But lest we conclude from this that our technology is to be blamed for the state of our natural environment. Avadhani gently nudges me: "What is causing the problem of our negative impact on, the environment is not technology but our attitude".

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