HE says he’s into 3-D shouting. What it means for Somender Singh is to fly his powered hang-glider straight into a Nimbus and shout at God—”There are no bloody echoes.” And see if he replies. These are the spiritual moments when 48-year-old Singh is in one of his what-the-hell moods. Other times he’s shooting a basic Minolta from 5,000 ft and above at, well, anything.
But, mostly over the city of Mysore. Working on a book on the city, a project encouraged by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, Singh has a most remarkable portfolio of aerial photographs over Karnataka, ranging from forest fires, galloping neelgais, Sri Satya Sai Baba’s 70th birthday celebration at Puttaparthi, milk offering to Bahubali at Sravan Belgola, the majestic Mysore Palace, the architectural ruins at Hampi and even the floods in the Cauvery basin in 1991.
And if we really want to go into the why of the thing, it all started four decades ago when Singh’s father was posted at the Jamnagar air base in Gujarat. There, Singh, then eight, made friends with a young pilot who instilled in him the love of flying by screeching low in his Nat over the base’s residential area. In the evening, the pilot would screech by on his Java, girlfriend riding pillion. In the way such stories run, the pilot died in an air crash, leaving grieving hearts and, with Singh, the memory of second-hand thrills.
The Java came first. In the country’s racing circuits a young Singh became king of the 250 cc Java. In a racing career spanning 10 years he won more than 400 races, most of them ignoring blood clots in his right eye. He raced under the banner of Speedwell Racing & Rally, and his style of wins were leads of a lap. Incidentally, he did all this for the fun of it. To ‘find his limits’. Money on the circuit was non-existent. He stopped racing in 1986 after his bike’s accelerator locked and the machine threw him on bags of sand. He broke about a dozen bones.
That’s when he took to the skies seriously. First introduced to the powered glider in 1976 when he witnessed an Italian giving a demonstration atop Chamundi Hills in Mysore, Singh was soon flying with the eagles. He took to barnstorming. Landing in villages and giving joyrides to the lucky few. Singh recounts what they were like: “I would fly in early in the morning. Crowds would soon gather and the village headman would turn up. Once a headman offered to make me his son-in-law. I would then take a couple of them up for a ride. Then have lunch with the villagers. By this time usually the police would arrive, acting on some garbled information about some plane crashing. That was take-off time.”
On one occasion Singh drove through a village he had barnstormed several years back. Initially, no one recog-nised him but as he was leaving a youngster’s eyes sparkled with recognition. He was the one Singh had shown the village from the air. The youngster took him to his house. On the wall was a drawing, an aerial view of the village in chalk.
PEOPLE soon started calling on Singh for odd jobs. “Could you please drop flowers over our celebrations?” “Could you please shoot our factory from above?” “Could you please sprinkle the ashes of my father over the Cauvery?” A request from the Karnataka government: “Could you please help us in tracking Veerappan?” Bizarre requests too. “Could you please release 100 homing pigeons in the air? We want to see whether they head back home.” Singh took them up. They returned home before Singh landed. And one request that left Singh disgruntled and vowing never to drop flowers anywhere. Says Singh: “During Ganpati puja at Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh a particular community hired me to drop flowers over their Ganpati.
At the last minute I was given instructions that none of the flowers should fall over the Ganpati adjacent to theirs as it belonged to another community. I haven’t taken flowers up since then.” This, in spite of offers nearly every month. What upsets Singh, however, is that it takes too much time to convince clients that aerial photography is worth it. All sponsors want him to do is fly with big banners over cricket events. He’s even failed to get sponsors for joyrides. Says Singh: “For some people, going up is a lifetime experience. I have approached the likes of Nestle, Coke, Pepsi, Telco but with little success. Once Telco was having a moving exhibition. I told them I could be the crowd-puller but they weren’t interested.”
About aerial photography, Singh is reluctant to talk too much. Nearly 80 per cent of his work so far has been in the nature of a hobby rather than commercial. It’s to do with the absurdity of the country’s laws. One has to use a certified aircraft; permission from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to take a four-seater; it’s mandatory to have a co-pilot; the film has to be processed in the presence of an official observer; and the shots have to be sent to the Home Ministry for clearance.
FOR Singh this red-tapism kills the soul of flying. He calls himself an aviator, not a pilot. “The air is different each time you go up. You go up with a GPS, a helmet, a radometer, and radio and your fun is reduced to half. What I like is the wind in my face and the silence around me when I shut my engine.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t had his share of accidents. Once, while doing a decoy run on a friend who was video-filming him, his Java engine packed up and he had a close brush with electric wires. There are other hazards too. One of his friends didn’t check his engine before taking off. The nut which regulated the fuel flow to the engine came loose and the engine shut up while he was landing. The result: a fall on the rocks from 50 feet. His friend was lucky to escape with just two broken legs. Yet other hazards are unforeseen. Cops rounded up Singh in 1993 after reports about a microlight aircraft posing a security threat to former chief minister Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu. Says Singh: “The cops interrogated me on what I was doing that night. What they failed to understand was that anybody with stones can hit a microlight.”
Singh’s dream is to start an aero-sport resort in Mysore to make amateur flying popular. He also has a one-point agenda to film the beauty of Mysore from the sky before it becomes a concrete jungle. He himself makes a living souping up cars in the garage he runs, fixing engines to designer specifications. He converts, in his words, “Maruti 800s into Zens and 1000s into Esteems”.
What galls the barnstormer is that while around the world hang-gliding had taken off in a big way it isn’t happening in India. He is 48 now and a bit of his drive is on the wane. Says Singh: “A few months back I wanted to take my dog up just to show that even dogs can fly. But the enthusiasm is no longer there.”
But calls still come from as far away as the Andamans, Assam, Kerala and Lakshadweep. All asking for Singh to come and demonstrate the sport. Sometimes Singh obliges. And on those occasions only gravity and God can stop him.