- India has more than half of the world’s Asian elephant population. The elephant is protected under Schedule-I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and has also been declared as “National Heritage of India” by the government of India.
- The Wildlife Trust of India recently organised a festival celebrating the elephant. The Gaj Yatra was a visual representation of 101 journeys across elephant corridors, meant to mobilise public and policy support for the elephant.
- Vivek Menon, the founder and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India writes about using art to promote wildlife and nature conservation.
Elephants are not grey anymore. They are red, blue, sometimes red and blue, spotted and striped and polka-dotted. They gleam in brass, in burnished wood and pop out of walls in three-dimensional glee. Why are coloured elephants taking to the streets of London, Mumbai and Delhi? Why are erstwhile bare walls in Assam pulsating with images of elephants, tigers and rhinos? Why are colourful tiger rangolis decorating central Indian villages all of a sudden? Why are the names of legendary Indian artists Anjolie Ela Menon, Bulbul Sharma, Paresh Maity, Jatin Das and a dozen others all being taken while talking wildlife conservation?
The answers lie in an interesting concept being tried out by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and its partners in using art to popularise nature conservation. This is not a new concept though. “Art takes nature as its model,” said Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and naturalist while his Roman Stoic counterpart Seneca mimed him a few centuries later by writing “All art is but an imitation of nature”. And if art is indeed inspired by and emanates from nature, then who better than its creators, to bring home the message of conservation to the viewing public.
For WTI, it started in Manas National Park in Assam with school children painting their town red, or green in this case. Armed with paintbrushes and paint boxes donated by WTI, school children from around the periphery of Manas started painting the boundary walls of their schools, then nearby buildings and soon entire towns of Barpetta Road and Kokrajhar and the like. Teachers and nature educators gave them themes and taught them some basic art; the rest, the children created with vivid imagination and the passion of youth. Elephants and rhinos ambled across the vistas of their neighbourhood, tigers sprang from the backdrop of rural school buildings on unsuspecting deer that dotted the landscape. Birds and butterflies soared with the spirits of the young artists and messages to save nature started a competing poetic trend. “Don’t use paper, save trees” read one message, “paint on walls!”
Using art to not only bring out key conservation messages of local youth but also to socially ring-fence key wildlife protected areas then became a theme that started to recur in WTI projects across India. In central India, traditional rangolis started celebrating Waghoba or the tiger god of the forests. The bright yellow and black paintings of Maharashtra changed hue to the deep, dark blue of the whale shark around Veraval and Dwarka where kids started welcoming the largest denizen of the sea to its shores every winter.
Then, another twist made this art, mobile. There was a need to promote the message of protecting the 101 elephant corridors that link key habitat across India, through art. From that, was born the idea of the Gaj Yatra and the Gaj Mahotsavs. Elephant art pieces would traverse the length and breadth of the country, made by regional and folk artistes and even by nationally acclaimed art maestros and be used in parades and processions that took to the streets in each range state of the elephant. Eventually, all of them would use all the corridors which elephants use to make a powerful statement to conserve elephants across India by protecting their habitats. Elephants are the biggest land animal in the world and for them, the key to their survival is space. This message took on the form of the Right of Passage project. Art here was used as a key to make policy changes.
The outdoor painted elephant pieces was not a brainchild of WTI, It was in fact started by Elephant Family and their partner Elephant Parade in London. Some years ago, Mark Shand, the charismatic founder of Elephant Family displayed life size elephant calves made of fibreglass but painted colourfully by London’s best resident artists. They took the city by storm. Since then these elephants have popped up in various parts of Europe and America and a few months ago were a rage in Mumbai. A part of the proceeds were meant for elephant conservation. WTI was one of the beneficiaries of that project and then in parallel put up a nationwide Gaj Yatra.
Alka Pande the renowned art curator of the 101 elephant Gaj Yatra puts it succinctly: “A sustainable environment is the key to the future of our lived habitat. With development of economies, one of the biggest price that we pay is the depletion of our natural resources or the flora and fauna. And a big loss is that of our jungles where some of our key animals are facing the loss of their lives. One such significant animal is the elephant. The elephant or the Gaja is architect of the jungle. The time has come for the preservation of the elephant. The Gaja Yatra is one such initiative of the WTI which is working assiduously towards sensitisation of common man to the plight of the elephant. And what better way to do that than through the language and interpretation of art. Art is the most powerful transformative tool to bring change to the mind set of people. Through the Gaja Yatra the elephant would be understood in a holistic manner.”
The very first elephant painted was “Aana” a creation by Bulbul Sharma, author and artist who created the piece in Kaziranga National Park, Assam. When Prince William and Kate visited the park and the WTI rescue centre in 2016 they put the finishing touches on Aana by painting on its trunk.
While Alka made her 101 elephants with a number of leading artists, India’s top painters were brought together by another remarkable art curator Ina Puri to mount an exhibition of elephant paintings and sculptures. Showcased in Delhi, the art is to be auctioned off and the proceeds used to help secure elephant corridors.
But beyond everything it shows that art as a form of spontaneous expression can also form a medium to communicate powerful social messages: In this case, conserve the earth. For if nature does not exist, neither do we.
[Vivek Menon is a conservationist, author and photographer with a passion for elephants. He has formed five environmental NGOs, written over 10 books, including the bestselling “Indian Mammals” and is the CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India.]
Banner image: Asian Elephant. Photo by Mongabay.