Of India’s many names, Jambudweepa- the island of the Jamun tree, is one which does not identify with a ruler or political boundary. Rather, the image of an ancient tree, staining the earth with abundant fruit comes to mind. And under it, a network of creatures- minuscule and mighty, swift and slow, winged and subterranean, that this tree shelters. A dense, biodiverse landscape that is inseparable from our visual identity for as far back as we can possibly trace.
Over history, Indian wildlife forms have been captured in seals, pottery, paintings, murals, textiles, costumes, objects - and go back to a time when our relationship with nature was much stronger. The oldest of these highlight the zoolatry that is a common theme of the many religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Owing to the surreal nature of mythology, artists and storytellers have taken the liberty to create hybrid demi-gods, mythical creatures and a deep kinship even between prey and predators, which is unique to the aesthetic of the Indian subcontinent and a subject of intrigue across the world. Some of these fantastical creatures are the Yaali, Navagunjara, the Snow Lion, and the Iruthalai pakshi.
Wildlife in Indian artforms is detailed and opulent where it was given patronage and no material limitation- with every curve, tooth, and claw carved in stone temples and traced hair by hair in miniature paintings. More innovatively, it is abstracted to minimalist forms in the skillful hands of everyday people, where they transform them with a playful imagination to fit into constraints offered by materials, media, and function.
Could the depiction of nature in India’s visual culture play a more functional role? Interestingly, if we stitch together all the art forms from the subcontinent that depict wildlife over time, we can successfully document a wildlife map of India.
And not a mere list of names, but also their interesting relationships with humans. The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 (BDA) has a provision called the Public Biodiversity Register (PBR). This is a participatory document that invites the public of India to record the natural diversity in their local ecosystems to aid in conservation. Artforms such as these give us a chance to make the PBR a more dynamic, nuanced and visual document. Artworks of bustards, tigers, blackbucks, hornbills, and other endangered and at-risk species serve as an important archive of natural history.
In almost every period, India’s art and craft reflects our relationship with nature and different dynasties have left their impression on this ever-evolving and growing aesthetic. There is coexistence and reverence of wildlife in Vedic times, hunting from the colonial times, and a national pride and reclamation in the post-Independence era. With everything that India exports to the world outside, an imprint of wildlife has always accompanied it.
In what we create today, even our departure from natural materials and the absence of subjects from the forest say something. There remains an outsider’s gaze of craft revival, nature conservation, and a British Raj nostalgia in our wildlife aesthetic today. The politics and religious sentiment also play a role in how deeply we want to associate with wildness in our identity. As an example, if we observe the evolution of Lord Hanuman in art, it moves from a wilder aesthetic of sharp fangs, fur, and simian features to a smoother, anthropomorphic, biped and masculine depiction, prompting the question - what causes us to see modern divinity and wilderness in a duality, unlike our predecessors? Does this divisibility exist in our society- among people whose identity is accepting of wilderness and whose aesthetic is more ‘civilized’ and what visual cues make this obvious?
Just like India’s biodiversity, its visual culture flourishes best in its multiplicity, with many paradigms coexisting. What's common is working at a micro level - the pigments derived from minerals, plants, and insects that are endemic to the subcontinent, and also how they mature over the centuries in the climate of India becoming the distinct hues that we relate to in our temple murals, the moss and patina on reliefs and soft edges of soapstone carvings worn by the monsoonal winds - even the inanimate forces of nature play a silent role in forming one aesthetic. The red of the laterite and terracotta, the creaminess of plant oil substrates lending their texture and the sunlight filtering under the canopy of tall raintrees and banyans add their soft depth to a frame, contributing to the sum of all parts that is uniquely and fleetingly Indian.
About the author, Malvika Tewari:
Malvika is a designer & illustrator who uses visual narrative to tell stories of the environment. Her design process happens in collaboration with scientists, lawyers, government bodies, and local communities working in nature conservation.
Her projects are based on the landscapes of Agumbe, North-East India, and Lakshadweep. She has also explored theatre and shadow puppetry as a way of storytelling.