Dawn with a Tusker, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Medium: Oil on Canvas
Selflessness and altruism are virtues rare to come by in a society that is riddled with notions of success and fame. Acts of kindness towards fellow beings and nature may be the intention of many, but few act on it. While evolutionary scientists and ecologists continue to debate if altruism is an evolutionarily sustainable behaviour, a few individuals remind us that it is possible for humans to be altruistic. Our artist of the month for February, 2017 happens to be one such individual. Sunita Dhairyam has been living and working with people around the Bandipur Tiger Reserve for more than 20 years. She has been able to create an initiative that helps reconcile and resolve many human-wildlife conflicts. Her achievement is remarkable and needs to be celebrated not only for her commendable efforts but also for the hope that it inspires in the young, and the young-at-heart.
A Male Leopard, The Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Medium: Oil on canvas
Sunita started her professional career as a designer and an artist. Around that time, she took the step of renouncing city life and started living in a humble abode surrounded by nature. At a place that was both her home and office, she amalgamated her entrepreneurial and design skills for social work.
While working at Bandipur, she designs and paints forest and wildlife inspired products. The revenue from the sales, under the umbrella of Temple Tree Design, is used to fund Mariamma Charitable Trust. The Trust in turn reimburses farmers who are victims of wildlife vs. cattle conflict. The Trust also provides veterinary care and dog immunization and contributes to the local community by funding education and spreading conservation awareness.
Mother and Sub adult cubs, Kanha Tiger Reserve. Medium: Oil on Canvas
Artecology had a chance to interact with Sunita Dhairyam. Here are excerpts from the interview:
A.E.: How or when did you make the choice to be a designer?
S.D.: Actually I studied textile design by chance. I wanted to go to N.I.D. to study fine art, but missed the registration date, so just did textile design instead. I guess it was something related to art and my mother felt it would be good for me.
A.E. When did you realize your love and sensitivity towards nature? Were there any particular experiences in the formative years that influenced you in this regard?
S.D. I grew up loving animals. My maternal grandmother who was English loved animals so there were always dogs, cats and birds around us in our home. I spent 2 years in Zambia as a child. My parents took me on a trip to Victoria Falls as a birthday gift. The boat ride down the Zambezi river left a lasting impression and cemented my love for wildlife. My maternal aunt was a wildlife photographer and also lived in Kenya for 10 years. So I guess it was in my blood.
A.E. What led you to make the choice of working at Kabini River Lodge after studying design?
S.D.. When I heard that Tiger Tops (the high end wildlife resort in Nepal) was looking for someone to manage The Kabini River Lodge, I immediately went there and said that I was interested. Mr. Ramesh Mehra, the then Director, asked me if I was willing to leave the next day, and I just said yes. I lived in a tent down by the dam and I simply loved it. And of course there was the great John Wakefield who was my resident director. In those days there was so little interest in wildlife and therefore very few tourists, which was great.
A.E. What were the themes for mural design while you worked in the U.S.? Were they nature/wildlife inspired?
S.D. The first mural I did was for an Australian Bar called “Billabong” in Minneapolis. I painted the entrance foyer with all the strange and wonderful Australian animals. It was a huge success. I then took on jobs for home interiors and stage backdrops. Just before leaving the U.S. (I had decided to come back home and live my life in India- thank God!). I got a request from folks who were interested in getting me to paint the city center in Minneapolis. I knew that if I made that choice, I would never be coming home, so I refused the job, much to my family’s horror.
A.E. What factors influenced you to start living in Bandipur forest? How did you arrive at this choice?
S.D. Once again, it was my dream to be able to live side by side with animals. I guess fate intervened and circumstances occurred which allowed me to live here (even with Veerappan around). I started my life here by borrowing Rs.50,000/- from my aunt. I built a small room, with no water and electricity, phone was 25 km away in Gundlupet, and I loved it. The Karnataka Forest Department started commissioning me to paint murals and from there on, I got work which justified my living here.
A.E. What is a regular day for you at Bandipur?
S.D. My day starts with going down into my office/studio, checking my mails, painting, dealing with issues related to the Trust, writing compensation cheques, checking to see where the hell the funds come in from, which is mostly from Temple Tree Designs.
A.E. Working with villagers and the society around Bandipur- what has been your biggest realization? Can humanity exist in peace with wildlife?
S.D. Well, basically I am a total idealist and I feel that, YES, we can exist in peace. My philosophy is that poverty and wildlife do not and cannot exist together. The local people need to be immediately reimbursed for damage or loss caused by wildlife. Only then can it work. The tolerance level is huge unlike any other country in the world, and for this, we need to be grateful and work with the local population.
A.E. In all the years that you have spent at Bandipur, have you seen the attitude of people change towards wildlife and conservation?
S.D. Yes, I feel that the local people in our area have really changed. They come to seek compensation and there have been no retaliation killings and no bad press even though we have the highest conflict rates in Bandipur and the surrounding villages.
A.E. Have the villagers seen your art and how do they react to it?
S.D. Everybody knows I am an artist, but I am not sure if they have seen my work.
With her leadership, Sunita Dhairyam has managed to bring harmony to the sensitive area, and has been able to bring about a change in the mindset of village folks. Her story tells us that with right mechanisms in place, it IS possible for humanity to coexist with wildlife and nature. Change can be brought about, if one only makes an abiding effort. It is imperative now that we make our vital contributions, dear readers.