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The last bearer of a lost art

Published : Apr 11, 2016, 10:44 pm IST
Updated : Apr 11, 2016, 10:44 pm IST

In popular media, taxidermy, the art of preserving dead animals by stuffing and tanning, has often been shown in a sinister shadow. Remember Norman Bates’ living room in Hitchcock’s Psycho

SANJAY2.jpg
 SANJAY2.jpg

In popular media, taxidermy, the art of preserving dead animals by stuffing and tanning, has often been shown in a sinister shadow. Remember Norman Bates’ living room in Hitchcock’s Psycho Dr Santosh Gaikwad, who runs the centre at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is the only wildlife taxidermist in the country. Since he has taken on the role of a taxidermist, Dr Gaikwad has preserved the bodies of more than 500 birds, elephant’s heads, 12 big cats, which include a snow leopard and a royal Bengal tiger. “I have also preserved the country’s last Siberian tiger,” he exclaims.

“Ask anyone what taxidermy is, chances are most of them wouldn’t have a clue,” says Dr Gaikwad. For the uninitiated, Dr Gaikwad feels, taxidermy is “not just about stuffing dead animals”. “But it is a lot more than that.” The self-taught taxidermist explains, “Taxidermy is an interdisciplinary art, which is imbibed from cobbling, sculpture, painting, carpentry and anatomy.”

In 2003, when Dr Gaikwad had visited Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, he saw the life-size statue of animals. “The animals looked impeccably real, their positions exactly how it should be,” says Dr Gaikwad, also a professor of anatomy at the Bombay Veterinary College, Parel. It was the museum authorities who introduced him to the term ‘taxidermy’. He was so intrigued, that he eventually decided to practice it on his own. “When they told me what taxidermy is all about, I was quite surprised because never had I come across such a word, and I didn’t know that such a practice even existed,” he says.

But soon after he decided to learn, Dr Gaikwad found no one to teach him the craft. “My background in anatomy came of help, but there were other aspects that I had to learn. I went and learnt the other aspects separately from various institutes in the city,” he adds.

Today, the 42-year-old professor is the only wildlife taxidermist in the country and he cannot decipher why the art hasn’t turned popular. “As the count of wild animals keeps diminishing, we need to preserve these animals, instead of cremating them once they are dead. These taxidermy trophies can survive for about a hundred years, provided they are kept in proper conditions,” he says.

Today, along with his regular job as a professor, he is also working at the taxidermy centre in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It wasn’t an easy ride. He says, “Initially the paperwork would take me two to three days. This made it impossible to work on the animals. In 2009, the centre was set up, which made the conservation work much smoother.”

“Sometimes, I wonder why even I am so passionate about this,” he says in jest, about what kept him pursuing this interest. “All my initial attempts were failures, so I kept practising until I was successful. Now it has grown into a habit.”