A four-day long festival was held mid-August at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi, to coincide with World Elephant Day, to celebrate the grandeur of an animal closely identified with India and showcasing their salient role in ecology and their integral role in Indian mythology, religion and literature.
The first of its kind Gaj (elephant) Mahotsav festival was organised to change people’s perception about elephant conservation. The festival, which aimed at raising awareness around the conservation of the Asian elephant, was organised by the Wildlife Trust of India in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and United Nations Environment (UNEP).
There were a total of 101 elephant installations, created and painted by artists from across the country, to represent the 101 elephant corridors of India. Noted artist Anjolie Ela Menon and India's Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma inaugurated the Gaja Yatra which detailed the country’s elephant corridors across the country.
The exhibition featured works exalting the elephant by an array of artists, along with four from the Gond genre.
Gond artists have only their cultural stories to fall back on, renowned Gond painter Venkat Raman Singh Shyam said, pointing to his artworks on nature and elephants. Shyam, a second-generation artist from the Pardhan Gond tradition, has been painting under the tutelage of his uncle, Gond master artist Jangarh Singh Shyam.
Linking his art to the stories he heard since childhood, the Bhopal-based artist said elephants are an important mythological element for the Gonds.His installation “Gaj-Dhan Lakshmi” - a mixed work made of metal, wood and acrylic - narrates the duality of a divine being, “Maha Lakshmi”, and how it symbolises prosperity.
There is also a painting of a legend involving “Bada Deo” - a form of Shiva, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism, worshipped in the middle Indian tribal belt - and an elephant that could fly.
“There’s a legend where I come from. When an untamable flying elephant was creating chaos in villages, the villagers prayed to Bada Deo. When the elephant was sleeping, the god came and took away its wings, and sent it to the jungle. This is how we believe elephants came to be earth wanderers,” Shyam said. The 47-year-old artist also said Gond art is just a visual way of capturing oral history.
“When my uncle Jangarh Shyam was told to do a Hanuman painting again, he did it differently because he doesn’t know the anatomy of a painting. A different version of a story runs through his head each time,” Shyam explained.
The artist, through his paintings, brings out the deep connect nature has with mythology, and how it all stems from the stories they inherit.
“They don’t have a structured system to teach arts. Gond art stems from the stories we have. They come from the oral traditions told on their musical instruments called ‘Bana’,” he said.
Shyam’s 2015 autobiography “Finding My Way, prescribes how to reconnect to elephants through mythology. He said the Gond lifestyle is a cycle of giving back to nature what is taken from it, and extending this idea would help conserve the fauna.
The Gaj Mahotsav festival, celebrating the Indian pachyderm, was an amalgamation of dance and music performances, films, exhibition of elephant themed paintings and photographs, puppet shows and clay modelling sessions.