Elephants by the sea

With their gigantic installation,conservationist Tarsh Thekaekara and artist Shubhra Nayar train the spotlight on the Asian elephant. The show takes place on Fort Kochi beach

“We want people to think about nature conservation differently,” say artist Shubra Nayar and conservationist Tarsh Thekkekara of their elephantine project Coexist: Matriarchs of the Earth that opens to the public on Fort Kochi beach today.

The project, in its entirety, showcases life-size Lantana prototypes, of 100 real elephants. The herd that will journey from Indian cities – Kochi, New Delhi to the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA), will be exhibited in public spaces; it aims to create, along with excitement, awareness on issues regarding the Asian elephant.

Thirty jumbos, from the herd, will be exhibited in a dramatic display near the ocean.

Tarsh’s doctoral research is about understanding the interaction between man and elephants. He hails from Gudalur, in the Nilgiris district, and lives along with his wife Shubhra in the forest. The two have frequent encounters with elephants. Recently their house was trespassed by a playful elephant leaving them with a few broken windows. Much as the duo will secure their property against such violations, Tarsh believes that confining elephants into protected zones or elephant corridors is not the solution to man-animal conflict, rather co-existence is.

Elephants by the sea

“The sparing versus sharing or the whole earth versus half the earth debate is currently raging in conservation. In the last three years in Gudalur I have seen elephants 600 times and heard of just 10 human–elephant run-ins. These are highly exaggerated reports. An elephant might have had an accidental run-in but it invariably gets negative press,” says Tarsh.

Modelled on elephants currently coexisting with humans, the overall message of the show is symbiotic living.

“Elephants are called umbrella species because when you protect them you protect their landscape and hence other species. Through this project we are drawing attention to the unnatural surroundings that we now live in. The elephant is a metaphor for how you coexist with other species in nature.”

Segregating them in sanctuaries is not a solution as elephants have strong personalities and egos and there is the danger of clash and violence among herds, this is evident in the changing composition of herds.

Elephants by the sea

Tarsh founded The Shola Trust (which year) that has, as one of its conservation practices, making furniture with Lantana, an invasive plant species. When the elephant project was flagged, four years ago, in collaboration with UK NGO Elephant Family, he came up with the idea of using Lantana to make the installations. He approached the tribes who until then were making furniture unimaginatively. The idea of making large scale elephant installations enthused them.

Tapping into their traditional knowledge of the pachyderm helped. “They were able to catch the nuances of a jumbo walk and of flapping ears,” says Shubhra who designed the humongous, 8-10ft frames.

The other members of the team are Subhash Gautam, in whose estate the 100 elephants are being made by over 70 artisans, and Tarsh’s brother, Tariq who is co-ordinating the jumbo exercise in the Nilgiris.

So there is a model of the much loved Bharathan, who comes out every night after the Thorapally check post is closed and walks through the town eating banana leaves kept outside homes especially for him and retires thereafter. “He has learnt not to attack people,” says Tarsh who knows the elephants by their names, behaviourand eccentricities.

Elephants by the sea

Shubhra recounts a day, during this four year long project, when the elephant barged into her garden in Gudalur. She watched its movements with fascination and realised that her drawing could be more nuanced. She says, the drawing improved after the close sighting.

As the exhibition opens, it has been a long, arduous and exciting journey for the team. For Tarsh the Lantana elephants, as they travel the world and spread the message of coexistence, is also about his love for the animal. He says, “The characteristics of the elephant will help us redefine development in India. They are going to come out and show us what is wrong with us. In the interim a lot of conflict will happen but the elephant will bring nature back to us.”

The show will run for a month.

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