Conservationist Valmik Thapar, WWF-I and the Indian Railways come together in a unique collaboration to celebrate the great cat
One of India’s finest naturalists, conservationists and writers, Valmik Thapar has inspired an idea hitherto unknown in the country. That of an ecological heritage railway station. Sawai Madhopur, the station that thousands of Indian and international tourists, keen to catch a glimpse of the tiger, embark at, is now a virtual art museum that celebrates local painting talent and its most famous icon, the tiger. In an email interview “from deep within the forest”, Thapar speaks of a labour of love that forces tourists to rush out of their compartments and gawk.
Valmik Thapar (centre) flanked by Gajanand Singh and Narayan Singh. Pic/Sanjana Kapoor
Edited excerpts of the interview.
Thapar acquainted the artists with the tiger’s anatomy and character. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Q. How did the idea of an ecological heritage station come to you?
A. Back in the 1990s, Suresh Prabhu was heading the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and he was a dynamic head. Last year, when he took over as Union Minister for Railways, I shared an idea with him — why not paint Sawai Madhopur railway station in Rajasthan to showcase our rich natural heritage? I met him and he agreed. I picked Sawai Madhopur for its focus on tigers, and Bharatpur for birds. The train that takes visitors to both stations, the Jan Shatabdi, is also going to be decked up in images of tigers and birds. Mr Prabhu okayed all three ideas.
Wildlife paintings at the Sawai Madhopur station by a team of local artists led by masters Narayan Singh and Gajanand Singh, original members of the Ranthambhore School of Art. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Q. How did the local communities and artists get involved?
A. In the late 1980s, I created the Ranthambhore Foundation, a non-profit that seeks the natural integration of man, nature and wildlife. One of the many activities we envisioned was income generation through art and craft. Back then, a colleague and I came across a bunch of street painters who practiced a hyper realistic style of painted tiger art. They would paint on
cloth and sell the works to tourists.
Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
We gathered a group and housed them; I educated them on the tiger and its contours. In the decades that followed, they gradually turned into masters of the art form. Today, more than 100 painters sell their art to tourists. Two of the masters, Gajanand Singh and Narayan Singh, were ready to take on the challenge of painting 7,000sq ft of Sawai Madhopur’s railway station’s walls.
As the painters worked, they amazed audiences of train passengers, who rushed out of their compartments to see these painted sights, says Thapar. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Next, I had to find a sponsor. I spoke to Ravi Singh, Secretary General of WWF-I (World Wildlife Fund-India), and he was on. Seventy-five days later, two masters with eight students completed the fantastic job. It is breathtaking.
Q. Why pick Sawai Madhopur?
A. Ranthambhore is synonymous with Sawai Madhopur, the land of the tiger. So, the focus is on natural heritage. It is about the human spirit connecting with nature. People from all walks of life, in their thousands each day, are being made aware of the richness and necessity of the process. The railway station is a living art museum. A public space has been converted into an open-air interpretation centre.
The branches of trees are dotted with squirrels, peacocks, woodpeckers, kingfishers and bulbuls that look lifelike. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
The art works included darters, tree-pies, hyenas, bears, leopards, and, of course, tigers. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Q. How will this help the area with respect to heritage and ecology?
A. As the painters worked, they amazed audiences of train passengers, who rushed out of their compartments to see these painted sights. Villagers rubbed shoulders with Indian and foreign tourists stunned by the nature scapes. Local talent had created inclusive appreciation since thousands of tourists pass this station each day. It’s an effective way to build awareness and respect for wildlife.
Sections of a painted wall on one of the platforms at Sawai Madhopur railway station. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Visitors and curious passers-by take a closer look of the mammoth tiger painting on one of the walls of the railway platform. Pic/Aditya 'Dicky' Singh
Q. Will any other station join in?
A. Sawai Madhopur will be the first heritage railway station of the Indian Railways, and yes, others will follow. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje learnt of Sawai Madhopur’s transformation and decided to sponsor six to eight more stations in Rajasthan, based on cultural heritage, including Bikaner where local painters will work on floral Mughal prints. Jaipur will feature Jogi art; Kota will display the Mughal school if art; Udaipur will have Nathdwara art; Jodhpur will see the Kotputli puppets, and Ajmer will have calligraphy. We hope these art scapes develop across all stations of India.