Spotlight Art

Art for the Anthropocene

‘Barking deer’ by Sartaj Ghuman  

Like an airborne samurai, talons drawn, green eyes squinting fiendishly, a thing of beauty swoops down on its panicked victim. There’s a brief pursuit. Feathers fly. You can almost hear a clamour of cymbals, and then it’s all over. It was no match. The crested hawk-eagle, with its crown feathers fanned, sits victoriously on its vanquished prey — a jungle fowl.

This could have been an animation short, only it’s an illustrated sequence from Bird Business, the latest offering from Hyderabad-based cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty. But the 32-year-old’s stint at an animation studio — developing characters, storyboarding, directing films — have rubbed off onto his comic style, he says. And you can see, in the economy of the panels, in the way he ‘directs’ the action sequences, the influence of his biggest idols from the animation world, particularly Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack the adventure-action series set in a dystopian future.

Chakravarty is part of a growing legion of Indian artists — cartoonists and painters, filmmakers and sculptors — who tell vital, sometimes cautionary, tales of the wild before all is lost in this age of the Anthropocene, the earth’s new epoch brought on by our own human recklessness. And they do so with great idiosyncrasy: some unabashedly anthropomorphise their subjects, others paint them with a scientific eye, some with the yoke of nostalgia others with the sting of satire. Some turn their focus on the dystopian urban environment, others draw our attention to the politics of human displacement.

Chakravarty is better known for Green Humour, a cartoon strip where wild animals get speech bubbles, and in which they call out humans on their environmental follies: “Ah! so you’re the big foot!” exclaims a leopard visibly dumbfounded by the large sloppy footprints left behind by a man walking by his side; “Nah, that’s just my carbon footprint,” declares the biped.

In some strips Chakravarty offers trivia from the natural world for the consumption of both adults and children — you learn that sea otter moms use kelp ribbons to harness their young; that a new genus of frog discovered in the Western Ghats has false eyes on its rear, for evolutionary reasons not entirely known; and that the planet has many, many strange and stunning bioluminescent creatures.

His cartooning career started somewhat anti-climatically. Chakravarty was studying dentistry when one day “I found myself peering into a caried mouth — and I knew this was not for me.” Thus began his journey to train himself, through online tutorials and books, in animation and illustration, subjects he never thought he could make a ‘career’ of. “When I started out, I just wanted to draw something on wildlife and have fun as a cartoonist. I wasn’t very serious about messaging. But then as I started getting responses from scientists and the public, I realised I have a responsibility to live up to,” he says.

Touch it, study it

Sangeetha Kadur carries a scrapbook with her wherever she goes. In it are sketches of moths and seeds, birds and leaves, rendered with such startling empiricism that you can feel the powdery pigment on the wings of the brown-and-orange Eudocima moth; the weight of the chandelier of fruits on a fishtail palm; the papery edges of the Pterocarpus seed.

Kadur found herself less keen on the abstract form that her fine arts college was pushing her towards — “My heart was in realism,” she says. “My work is as much about art as it is about science.” And nature journalling works as a reckoner she dips into for her projects — be they wall murals commissioned by environmental NGOs, coffee table books or paintings on canvas.

One such project was an acrylic portrait of a monitor lizard perched on a rock, its forked tongue surveying it’s semi-arid world. “I remember I spent an entire day at the Bannerghatta zoo observing its anatomy, the way it moved, sketching it.” Then she made sure she got an even closer look at a preserved specimen at the Bombay Natural History Society. “I wanted to touch it, study its scale pattern — I noticed the scales are arranged differently around its mouth than they are on its tail.”

Her unerring eye for detail began with a large coffee table book, Hummingbirds, she illustrated. “It lifted my art to another level. I had to follow a very specific protocol: each plate had to be to scale; each one had to depict both the male and female of the species. And each had to show one interesting behaviour trait of the hummingbird — I learnt about ‘nectar thieving’, when they cleverly pierce through the flower’s base to reach the nectar; but this short-cut means the bird does precious little for the plant’s pollination.”

‘Oleander hawk-moth’ by Sangeetha Kadur

‘Oleander hawk-moth’ by Sangeetha Kadur  

Kadur now takes nature journalling to children through her GreenScraps project where they can hold and study and sketch from nature. “It’s projects like these that I love most — where I can bring stories from the natural world closer to people. To me art is not just about having a show in a gallery.”

Hidden kingdom

At first glance, it’s just a lovely watercolour of the Tropical Sundew: those beautiful carnivorous plants that make death look attractive. There’s the flower on a long thin stem, and the leaves with long, sticky tentacles that ensnare passing insects. Here the devil is in the detail, literally — look closely and you see the mosquitoes and bugs getting swallowed up by the leaves. The illustrator of this image, Bengaluru-based Nirupa Rao, adds an interesting fact: “The long stem helps keep the flower well away from the leaves — so pollinating insects don’t get caught, and can carry pollen on to other flowers.” Speak of nature’s perfect design.

Rao’s most recent book, Hidden Kingdom — Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, where this image is from, can be called

Art for the Anthropocene

India’s answer to The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, the book that has kicked off an ongoing movement in the U.K. to bring children back to the disintegrating natural world around them. Like The Lost Words, Hidden Kingdom too has illustrations set to rhyme, explaining the characteristics of given plants. Rao has also illustrated Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats by naturalists Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman, as well as the stunning cover of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, where the king cobra shimmers and slithers amidst sprigs of flower.

Does Rao perceive herself as an artist or a botanist first? “I haven’t formally studied either botany or art. I definitely don’t see myself as a scientist, which is why I always choose to work in close collaborations. I see myself as a bridge between the general public and the world of science, attempting to translate what naturalists see through years of observation into an easily digestible format,” she says.

For inspiration, Rao looks to Albrecht Dürer’s nature studies, to miniature and Japanese scroll paintings, and modern artists like S.M. Khayyam from Pakistan, whose 2018 exhibition, ‘Art for Climate Change,’ had drawn international attention. If Renaissance artists like Dürer were documenting the hitherto undocumented natural world, what are modern-day ecological artists aiming to achieve? Rao thinks that the return to nature is a response to the loss of the wilderness but professionals and hobbyists alike are also using their art “as a means to slow down and rethink our lifestyles.”

Listen to the silence

Pillars of Life also features sketches by Sartaj Ghuman, who is introduced in the book “as a trained wildlife biologist who prefers poetry to academics.” He confirms that when we meet him, telling us that his breathtaking paintings are just art, and if he uses science, it’s for composition’s sake. A scientist, mountaineer, birder, painter, explorer and writer, Ghuman who describes himself as an “itinerant artist”, has worked extensively with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in its various projects all over India. As part of the NCF’s outreach programmes, he also paints birds and beasts on school walls to educate children. Showing us images of the walls he has decorated in Spiti schools, he says there’s value also in the bonhomie that this builds up with local communities.

Yet it’s not the hum of busy voices but solitude that pervades his paintings. In that silence, you can hear nature breathe: there’s the Himalayan griffon circling the skies over Chicham village in Spiti, the lonely shrike in the rain in Lachung, the barking deer with a foot frozen mid-air in Valparai. But the rest of nature in these paintings is not mere backdrop: it heaves as the forest floor shifts, leaves drop, shrubs, ferns, orchids push upwards towards the light — it is nature as a sensate being, with its own memory, its own intents — a visual counterpart to a novel like Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which makes us see and feel the life of trees. which might try codify but can never really fathom. A self-taught artist, Ghuman traces his artistic instincts to his mother and to the encouragement he received from his art teachers in school years.

Ghuman records the legend of the mountain, Chau Chau Khang Nilda (‘Blue Moon in the Sky’), in his painting of the ibex in Spiti. In their folk wisdom, do such lores contain more ecological awareness than what science has taught us? Ghuman says, “The scientific approach is overrated. In Spiti, they do not allow you to summit Chau Chau Khang Nilda because they believe that setting foot on the top will bring bad weather and their crops will be destroyed.”

That might be a myth but as climate change becomes a reality, and we witness what mountaineering has done to the Everest and its surroundings, we can’t just dismiss it as fairy yarn. Indeed, these days, when we are desperately trying to reconnect with the natural world, the way ahead might lie in rekindling the organic bond between us and nature that shapes such myths.

Politics of loss

Gigi Scaria’s installations and videos, sculptures and photos are preoccupied with the oxymoron that is the urban environment — especially Delhi, where he lives. It is a metropolis obsessed with cleanliness but is the very detritus that chokes River Yamuna; it is a hungry city that bursts at the seems but also segregates and excludes as it grows.

In his video ‘Panic City’, he constructs an animated panorama of the unequal city, shot in sections from the minaret of Jama Masjid. Big buildings muscle through modest neighbourhoods; they ominously rise and ebb, like slumbering beasts, to the disorientingly beautiful crescendos and diminuendos of Vivaldi. “The urban landscape has always interested me, especially the hierarchies. It is a microcosm of the larger environment around us — increasingly fragmented, but also fighting for a sense of cohesion,” says Scaria.

Filmmaker and artist Amar Kanwar takes up the politics of loss — of land, water, livelihood, life — in his work. He has made films on the ecological impact of extractive industries, highlighting local resistances to land acquisition and displacement. His multimedia project, ‘The Sovereign Forest’, ongoing from 2012, brings together films, texts, books, photographs, seeds (the multiple varieties of rice that once grew in Odisha), to highlight the conflicts between local communities and the government and corporations over the control of agricultural lands, forests, rivers and mineral resources in Odisha.

He says, “Odisha is unique in that local movements have successfully delayed acquisitions, thus influencing the departure of international corporations.” Leaders of primarily non-violent groups of peasants, fishermen and tribal people can be heard speaking in ‘The Sovereign Forest’ — the idea is to build up evidence against the crime committed and also to ask vital questions: can an artist intervene in this scenario? If yes, how and where? Can ‘poetry’ be presented as ‘evidence’ in a criminal or political trial?

Yet Kanwar wouldn’t like to categorise himself as artist/ activist/ artist-activist. “It is more important to respond — either to the question of violence or to difficult subject of our inner selves, our inner contradictions and perhaps even our comfort and desire for violence and revenge. That is more important perhaps. To question, reconfigure our understandings of ethical and moral positions, and introspect — that’s our responsibility,” he says.

The American biologist E.O. Wilson has warned that we are entering ‘The Eremocene’, the Age of Loneliness, as more and more species go extinct and swathes of landmasses disappear. By making us appreciate what remains, these artists are urging us to conserve, and so to delay, if not stave off, the Eromocene. And yet we must ask: can a work of art, however beautiful and powerful in its message, bring about change? Perhaps not. But there’s value in the fragments they have shored against the ruins — it’s art as evidence, art for keeps.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 9:21:05 PM |

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