Sartaj Ghuman is a mutli-faceted artist – a painter and a poet who prefers poetry to academics. Hailing from Batala, Punjab, he is a trained wildlife biologist who has worked on animal cognition and communication with Dr. Anindya Sinha and Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan at NIAS, Bengaluru. Learn about the versatile Sartaj Ghuman’s life, art, and conservation initiatives in his own words.
I grew up in the urban spaces of Batala, Punjab. My childhood experiences were always associated with nature and environment. Encouraged by my parents I grew up with dogs, gardens, and with a wonder for the living world. I remember spending long afternoons in our garden watching the garden lizards, the squirrels, or looking for spiders amongst the plants. Weekends would often be spent at a nearby canal or at some non-urban, non-cultivated place. This very interest in nature later led me to get trained in wildlife studies
I remember once when in Class IX, studying at a Delhi school, I got stuck while narrating a Punjabi folktale about ‘gtar’ (myna in Punjabi) and peacock, for want of the English name. During that class vacation, I found one of my Dad’s books about birds and their common names in English. And before I knew it, I was busy bird-watching. The tree-watching with the help of Pradip Krishen’s Trees of Delhi was just a logical next step.
As I went back to nature and nature-watching, time and again, it was more of a pick through elimination rather than a real choice to become a wildlife biologist. Growing up I knew I wanted to be outdoors, so I began to look for possibilities beyond office jobs. Though medicine and engineering were the only two viable career options that my parents came up with at the time, I had already been leaning towards “environmental” engineering, though not really knowing what it involved; I was keen as long as it had ‘environment’ in the name. Eventually when I heard of WII, the Wildlife Institute of India, and their course in Wildlife Science, my heart was set.
I immensely enjoyed spending time in the field. I worked on the nature of communication, an area that continues to intrigue me. However, during my stint at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), I realized that academics was not where I wanted to be. So five years ago, I left academics and stopped getting actively involved in any research.
Leaving the academics allowed me the time to spend on painting and sketching that I had always loved, though it is only more recently that I have begun to consider myself as an artist. I never had any formal training in art apart from the weekly art class at school. At home, I always dabbled in a large drawing book that my mother would get specially bound for me. Just like bird-watching and bouldering, or almost anything else for that matter, the more time one spends on something, one gets better at it. Same thing happened with my painting. More the time I spent painting, the better I got at it. The better I got at it, the more I got hooked, and ended up spending more time doing it; and so it goes.
I paint things I like, mostly mountain landscapes, people who inspire me, and birds! I paint things as I see them, not photo-realistic though. To me painting is as much about the subject and the end product, as the process itself. Through painting I am learning how to recreate colours, textures, and the proportions that I see in nature. I use acrylic on canvas or plywood. I had my first solo exhibition last year.
I have made illustrations for articles about ecology and conservation (an especially memorable contribution was for an article by Rohit Naniwadekar in the magazine saveus, about his PhD research; he invited me to make paintings to accompany his article rather than send in photographs!), painted at interpretation centres and have done illustrations for books. Recently, M. O. Anand, a great friend and a brilliant ecologist, asked if I could help translate his research into an easily accessible poster, something that could be understood directly and easily by the stakeholders. His work was about the benefits of the proximity of sacred groves to and their importance for coffee plantations. My work on that poster can be seen here.
I have painted some school walls, so that children become familiar with the birds they see around them. Aldo Leopold once said, when it came to the crunch, we’d save what we love, and we love what we know and understand. So through art I try to educate the school kids about the birds and the trees around them.
The only time I have really engaged directly with any community through my art was last year 2016 in north Sikkim, where I stayed and painted for about three months. Apart from the beautiful landscapes and the birds, I painted the dying lifestyles – people working in fields, tending to their cows, the field-houses. And to my distress I found them shy, almost embarrassed by the fact that they grow their own food and lead an independent, self-sufficient life – the very aspect of their lifestyle that ought to have made them proud of themselves.
Over the years, my views on conservation have evolved from an initial, rather simplistic one. Now, it means more than wildlife conservation to me, that conservation is more a lifestyle that allows us to live in harmony with nature. In a increasing bid to emulate what is seen as a ‘developed’ or ‘advanced’ way of life, people everywhere are neglecting functionality and are going in for a hollow makeover that leaves them stranded. I see it in the concrete and glass facades of the buildings in urban Punjab that neglect the drainage or waste management. I see it in the neglect of the moral code of the hunter-gatherer of the past, in a bid to make quick money in some not-so-remote parts of the north-east; and in the slow surrender of self-sufficient independence through a shift to purchasing things that are now easily available but were once pain-painstakingly made at home in the remote mountains of the western Himalayas.
“Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone” said Jesus when asked what should be done with the adulteress, and the mob melted away. I find myself in a similar predicament when arguing for conservation of wildlife, or for protection of forests with those who live in or around places that still have nature intact. Conservation, like philosophy, has to be demonstrated through one’s deeds, through one’s own lifestyle before one can stand up for it amongst the people.
My current life lesson, the one I am still coming to terms with at this moment, is that all that is romantic, or beautiful, is tough; and all that is easy, is corrupting. It reminds me of what Dr. Anindya ‘Rana’ Sinha, my mentor, specialist in primate behaviour, would often tell us – about the harmful effects of feeding roadside monkeys. Easily available, abundant, hand-fed food was a root cause of many ills – increased mortality or road-kills, increased aggressive interactions instead of cooperation amongst the monkeys, hierarchy which would have prevented feuds from transforming into violence, was now disrupted leading to group fission. Thus, easy food by the roadside literally turns the monkeys’ world upside down. As I write about conservation and life I have learnt one important, humbling lesson that everything is dispensable; the stronger you are, the more you can dispense with. Living minimally simply enhances and enriches our living.
After quitting academics Sartaj has assisted researchers in the field on projects about bird ecology, plant ecology, rodent biogeography, and the socio-economics of rural communities that live alongside endangered fauna. He loves the mountains, and finds reasons to spend more and more time in the Himalayas, and now, for the last two years, has been assisting on a glaciology project in his capacity as a mountaineer. He recently finished a mountaineering course. Sartaj loves cycling too, whenever he can find time for it.
Team Artecology met Miti Desai at her studio in Bangalore. Situated in the heart of city hustle bustle, when you enter her home, a sense of quiet and solitude envelopes you. Miti moved from Mumbai to Bangalore three years ago. It was an instinctive decision to leave the familiar art scene and comforts of her home town Mumbai to start afresh in a new city.
This is not the only radical decision that Miti has taken. She decided to quit her job within two weeks of employment in a prestigious design company in Mumbai unable to cope with its commercial centric work. She then decided to do her Masters programme in Design at the Portfolio Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. During her two-year course she realized that the western idea of design was disengaged with her own self and nature. She recognized her body’s disconnect with what she was learning and decided to return to India and to start movement training in the classical dance form of Mohiniyattam.
Miti started training in Mohiniyattam under Smt Mandakini Trivedi at the Shaktiyogashrama, Lonavla. The ashrama, with no electricity or connectivity, completely altered her life. Having been born and brought up in an affluent part of the city of Mumbai with the best education and luxurious comforts, the experiences at the ashram with basic necessities was a significant shift. She reiterates how her elite past had completely disconnected her from nature and how the eco-friendly ashram (the ashram is an educational-cultural centre) helped her reconnect with her roots and culture, completely changing her perspective on art, design and life.
She is currently the executive trustee of Shaktiyogashrama, an organization dedicated to the study and practice of classical Indian arts and sciences, suffused with spiritual and environmental consciousness. Alternating between Mumbai and Lonavla, Miti is currently working towards raising funds for the development of the ashrama and to help the rural communities in learning art forms with a sense of self-awareness and connection to nature.
Miti uses imagery from nature to describe the beauty of the movements of Mohiniyattam. The swinging, swaying and circular movements inspired by the movement of palm trees, backwaters, waves and seas of Kerala. She explains how the fauna of the region where the dance form evolved has influenced the elephantine and serpentine quality of its movements. It is common for the native Mohiniyattam practitioners to be skeptical of dancers who do not hail from Kerala; but Miti empathizes with the root of this concern and says that the connection of an art form to its natural surroundings is quintessential for a practitioner. She strongly feels that learning and professing an art form in an urban space often isolates the content from its context. She feels that a conscious attempt should be made to reconnect with nature and to rediscover ways in which the body responds instinctively.
Apart from being a practitioner and performer of Mohiniyattam, Miti is the founder and creative head of a design company called Miti Design Lab. She adapts her environmental awareness in her work as a designer and always insists on her clients using eco-friendly material. She works in the field of education too, and most recently she conducted a workshop for children in Mumbai called ‘Ask The Earth’, a storytelling and design thinking session with an emphasis on environmental awareness.
Miti does not claim to be an environmental activist and is completely aware of her dependence on the city to earn a living. She is also very clear that she wants to work within the existing rich content that Mohiniyattam has to offer. She has no intentions of changing the dance form but she hopes to create relevant contexts in which the form can be expressed.
One of her more recent performance titled ‘Ritu Ranga’ is a full-length production focused on celebrating seasons. The performance is an ode to nature and portrays the beauty of changing seasons.
Miti evocatively describes how tribal or indigenous dances emerged from the heart of the forests, while folk dances evolved as community harmoniously came together with nature. Both the folk and tribal forms celebrated Mother Earth and mirrored the inevitable changes in the living world. The classical forms, in her opinion, are a further evolution where an individual is in connection with the natural world and society, and strives to achieve a spiritual awakening. Miti emphasizes on connecting the study of the philosophy and content form with the dance forms, as well as on the importance of artists connecting to nature and ensure that their art is a meaningful, spiritual experience.
What is the nature of art? Is it the product that you see at the end of your process or is it the journey and the process itself. Does the artistic process always have to end in a physical product? These are some of the questions that Roshan Sahi raises and ponders about.
During his conversation with Art-Ecology, Roshan shares some insights on his artistic journeys, experiences and his ideas on art. Owing to his artist father and educator mother, his childhood was full of rich experiences close to nature that a sensitive young Roshan assimilated. He believes in the idea borrowed from his mother that art is integral to how knowledge is created and perceived. Working on art began from his early schooling days at Sita school run by his mother Jane Sahi at Silvepura, located on the outskirts of Bangalore. After completing the later part of his schooling at Valley School, Kanakapura, Roshan went on to study fine arts at Shatiniketan, West Bengal. The structured educational system present at the art school was not very appealing to him and he preferred spending time at the Santal village than at the College. He returned home to experiment with art based education at Sita school. Eventually he moved to London to do a course in horticultural design and also worked as an horticulture therapist.
Roshan recollects some of the stories of his childhood – him playing with the mud and water on the lake bed at Hessarghatta and exploring the structures, objects and textures in the soil during school holidays; his parents taking him on a walk along the river bed one day as an eight year old, and so on. He used to also observe his father painting the landscapes at Sangama near Mekedaatu. The idea of landscape as an experience that he later built his art on, stems from this experience. He felt the sense of belongingness to the space.
Roshan has extensively interacted with students and teachers in various parts of Karnataka, conducted story building workshops and introduced them to different art full experiences.He also dabbles in what he calls, ‘stupid products’ like paintings, pottery and gardening. He insists that art could mean different things to different organisms, it could mean creation, procreation; finding food for one animal and running away from a predator for her prey. The aesthetic quality, positivity and beauty of the experience are not the only ones that depict art.
While talking about one of his artistic projects, he shared the one he started in the year 2012 on the river Arkavathy. While he still continues to think about landscapes, he mentioned that at one point most of his attention was focused towards the idea of water as a resource.His art in the project sought experiential, ethereal musings. The idea that culture, individuals, societies and clans have awareness of the landscape around them, and perhaps are mindful about it. The thought that such cultural practices could come from relationships of individuals to their surroundings resonated with him.
He developed his narrative around such stories, and weaved relationships to make a mosaic of the landscape. Building on his ideas of art as an ephemeral experience, he conducted walks as an art activity. This enabled the experience of understanding the textures of the land, the surrounding objects, the navigation through the landscape, engagement of senses beyond the visual, to find the landscape, and find oneself in the landscape.
This experiment was done with students from different schools across Bangalore city, including Drishya, Shrishti school of design and Sita school. In this collective art building process they went to the river body, Arkavati, through the forest as well as urban landscape. The activities were done across space and also across time, lending more weight on the concept of experience than the physical outcome of the process.
As the students walked through and along the river, from the realisation that it takes different forms at different spaces as a line in forest, in the skies as clouds, running underground at some places, becoming a sewer in urban scape they experienced a myriad of emotions ranging from that of happiness, power, destruction, and anger. These experiences were channelised into building narratives that spoke of the river’s mind. These experiences were a reminder of transience of nature, destruction in nature and very own self’s vulnerability in this landscape.
Roshan also muses that art does not always have to be beautiful or a positive experience.The wildness of the river might drown you, or you might erect a resort on river bed.
The interaction of human with the river, not only as a resource for water, but beyond that, may be positive or negative. Hence the art and experiences that reflect these emotions would have disgust, disappointment, anger and darkness in them. And this grief and lack of beauty as an art is something that has to be accepted and given due recognition.
He recollected an instance where the students’ collective walked through the eucalyptus trees on the river bed as a protest. While he explored the imaginative worlds amongst the landscape, they also looked at some things with purely scientific objective, including how to understand the depth of water.
During the conversation, Roshan also mentions that right now potable water actually comes from below the rocks, the water, the resource that has been trapped there for thousands of years; the water, that is so old, is being mined, and even mindlessly consumed. He says that the realisations or experiences of drinking something that old, older than a single life span can be an artful experience in itself. He likens drinking that water to consuming fossil fuels.
While talking about the experiences, he mentions how attitudes matter. Attitude changes the way landscape interacts with you and how you interact with the landscape. He believes that one may or may not change their ways or attitudes in the way they react with the environment, but being mindful about it is useful. In the modern life, the risk assessment for presence, survival and a possible future seems to be misplaced, he observes. It has led to magnanimous changes in the way the resources are being handled and landscapes altered.
There is the loss of the habitat and of the landscape that he so intimately feels a sort of kinship to, and he felt that the landscape seemed to be dying around him.. the landscape from his memories.. from his experience.. and the sense of loss hard to bear, is extremely personal. The death of landscape reiterates the transience of nature and also that the nature of experience with surrounding may not always be a positive one.
Another exploration for Roshan artistic journey has been with earth as a medium for art itself. He likes the idea of slow process. Slowness, he believes, allows one the real space to experience. He spent some time in London to learn ‘slow’ gardening. The gardening experiments have been his therapy since then. He also creates ‘product’ based earth art, namely ceramics. Playing with earth has a story and experience in itself, he claims.
He also mediates about the Sun and circles. A lot of his paintings are about the changes in the Sun with times and seasons and reflections, thereof.
We will leave you with Roshan’s idea that art is awareness and mindfulness about complexity of things. It provides stimulation for the imaginations that is the crucible to mulch and mince various senses and various experiences. Stay imaginative!
Dr. V. Gokula is a wildlife biologist by profession and a wildlife artist by passion. Artecology had an email based conversation with him about his work in the areas of science and art.
Dr. Gokula started painting and sketching early on. His interest in wildlife and natural sciences sparked off much later. He recollects that he grew more sensitive to nature during early adulthood, mostly for its aesthetic value. His art since then has been an expression of his interest in wildlife and nature.
Later, in the year 1989, he decided to become a wildlife biologist. He pursued post graduation in wildlife biology followed by a Ph.D. in ornithology at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
After a stint in Gujarat studying the Great Indian Bustard, he joined the Department of Zoology at National College, Trichy. He now serves as the Head of the same Department.
During his post graduate years at A.V.C.College, Mayiladuthurai, he began appreciating wildlife, not only for its aesthetic but also its ecological value.
A self taught artist, Dr Gokula drew inspiration from the works of Martin Ridley, Daniel Smith and Carl D’Silva. Thanks to their influence, wildlife and conservation remain the subjects of most of his work.
Dr. Gokula finds he can have an easy balance between his teaching job and his passion for art. He maintains a routine where he sets aside an hour or so everyday to sketch, paint, draw, and to even make cartoons and caricatures. He uses several mediums for his art practice ranging from pencil, ink, water colours to pastels and oil colours. He also dabbles in photography as a medium to experiment with.
All the wildlife he encounters in a day, become his muse for that day. Birds, insects, and mammals are all represented in his art work. Both his paintings and photographs are often a play of light and shadow.
Dr. Gokula firmly believes that wildlife art creates a great conversation on conservation! The visual dimension lends itself to other ecological issues as well, as opposed to a volume of text. He makes use of visual inputs (including his own art work) even during his academic presentations. He has observed that the visual medium invokes a quicker and better response to the ideas of conservation ecology. His artwork has enthused his students, colleagues, and the public.
Talking to Dr. Gokula convinces you that science and art are seamless extensions of one another. Be it spiders, sloth bears, lady’s slipper orchids or spot billed pelicans — these subjects feature both in his art and in his academic work. His story is a reminder that art and science make similar inquiries. Art and science complement each other in marvellous ways, deriving knowledge from the mundane to sublime realms
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.