Shaw and Tell: A Chat with the Creator of the Odisha Wildlife Map

Shaw and Tell: A Chat with the Creator of the Odisha Wildlife Map
Sudarshan Shaw's pattachitra-style wildlife map of Odisha Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sudarshan Shaw

Done in the pattachitra style of painting, Sudarshan Shaw's map, rendered in intricate and evocative detail, has triggered widespread interest for arts and crafts and wildlife

Prannay Pathak
September 27 , 2021
11 Min Read

“I must tell you that his beak is not just another yellow, it is the solemn sunset of an old forest; the black is a shadow of one among the hundred ficus trees that a hornbill meticulously farms, and the noisy green is everything in between.”

It’s tough to recover from the sublime—which Edmund Burke called our strongest passion—after you’ve seen Sudarshan Shaw’s surreal depictions of the wild and the beings that populate it. It’s tough to rebelieve that even ordinary things exist. If you do, Shaw’s Owl, wearing ashes of the soot and the crescent of the moon, could materialise in your dreams.


Sudarshan Shaw, 26, hails from Bhubaneswar
A little while back, the 26-year-old came out with a pattachitra-style wildlife map of Odisha, featuring the various forms of fauna found in the state, with their different biodiversity zones in the background and the indigenous communities that live in close communion with them.

Read: Top 5 Wildlife Destinations of Odisha

The tableau-style map is populated by the mammals of the state including the Indian pangolin, the leopard, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, the spotted deer, the wild boars, avian species such as the osprey, the Malabar pied hornbill, the lesser adjutant stork, the barn owl, and reptiles like the king cobra, the saltwater crocodile, and the water monitor lizard. Shaw also includes species such as Irrawaddy dolphins and Olive Ridley Turtles (the Odisha coast comprises the largest nesting beach of the latter).

Sudarshan Shaw's wildlife map of Odisha that took social media by storm
“I am from Odisha, so I had travelled to a lot of places, and also had my research ready beforehand. I have also travelled to West Bengal, Delhi and Rajasthan, and also the south,” the artist says, after I ask him if about the kind of travel that he had to undertake to understand the forest and faunal landscapes so closely. "There is a lot of similarity between West Bengal and Odisha when it comes to arts and crafts, the tribal influences in the traditions of both. They use natural substances for their primary colours, and the tradition of mud painting is there as it is."

Read: The Comb-Collectors of Odisha

Shaw recently announced he will be doing an Andhra Pradesh map in a similar style—this time inspired by the kalamkari of Srikalahasti in Chittoor. “The Andhra Pradesh map would be a much more extensive one, going beyond the scope of the Odisha map that I made, which had wildlife and tribes. I will include the biodiversity, food and other elements of culture,” Shaw explains in his soft-spoken manner.

View this post on Instagram

Coming soon. Biodiversity Map of Andhra Pradesh inspired by the folk art of Srikalahasti Kalamkaari. Commisioned by the Forest Department of Andhra Pradesh. Thank you for the opportunity @shankar.anant Sir. #biodiversitymapofandhrapradesh #andhrapradesh #india #wildlife #flora #fauna #art #illustration #wildernessculture #wilderbone #kalamkari #maps #biodiversity #planet #andhrapradeshtourism #andhrapradeshforestdepartment #indiantribes #artwork #traditionalart #culture #wip #colors #tribes #texture #wildlifeplanet #natgeo #sanctuaryasia #instagood #instadaily #earth

A post shared by Sudarshan Shaw (@sudarshan_shaw) on Nov 5, 2020 at 8:20am PST

The teaser of the Andhra map shows the river Godavari flowing into the Bay of Bengal, the little hills speckled all around, and ornate, traditional-style interpretations of the wildlife of the region—blackbuck, elephants, the Bengal tiger, and even Olive Ridley Turtles. “The part of the border area where Odisha and Andhra Pradesh meet has tribes with similar customs in both states. That similarity will also be shown in this map. I'll make it in a way that we can see both the similarity and the diversity,” he adds.

Read: Papi Hills cruise: Sailing down the Godavari

The map went viral and had wildlife lovers and art enthusiasts swooning over the Bhubaneswar artist’s previous work as well. Shaw’s body of work on Instagram alone is an impressive collection of surreal everyday scenes from the forest, created in a folk-art style.

Shaw's Kalighat-style mud painting depicting a fishing cat (handmade paper)
Take, for instance, his whimsical portrait of the elusive fishing cat, baghrol—the state animal of West Bengal—done in the Kalighat style of painting. Another artwork depicts a tiger pouncing upon a deer, both animals wound around each other, yin-and-yang style, painted in acrylic on a slightly flat-faced pebble. Pen drawings of owls, rhinoceroses and caracals, and miniature sculptures of elephants and tigers dominate the rest of this collection.

Shaw has an interesting series where he posts artworks depicting forest creatures as impressive, awe-inspiring superterrestrial beings imparting a divine, ineffable force to the wild. It is reminiscent of the artist’s belief that wildlife comprises the tribal communities of a place, too. In these series of artworks, Shaw interprets the lives of these beings as grand narratives and extraordinary happenings. Consider this depiction of the mating of a tiger and a tigress.

View this post on Instagram

My picture of divinity lies in the heart of a forest, where dense leaves are murmuring to the soil and waving to the winds, and the clouds are huddling up to hide, how fire of the sun moulds into water droplets. With a treepie bird on the right and a slithering snake on the left, and sambar deer, the prasadam lying in the front, the tiger is surrendering to the tigress as she embraces the earth. And in the moments of one of the most impassioned courtships, there are no secrets; the whole forest must witness the godliness of a new forest in making. #illustration #tigermating #art #divine #forest #projectjackdaw #love #artwork #illustrator #nature #wildlife #sex #mating #divine_drops #woods #forest #projectjackdaw #jungle #earth #instagram #instagood #artist #wildernessculture #wild #color #handmade #arttuesday #currentconservation #instagram #instagood #instadaily #indiadesignproject #artistsoninstagram #wilderbone @savethetigerindia @tigerwatchranthambhore @moefccgoi

A post shared by Sudarshan Shaw (@sudarshan_shaw) on Oct 6, 2020 at 10:06am PDT

“When we worship Lakshmi, we have the barn owl beside her, and when we worship Shiva, there’s Nandi at his side. It was very important for me to depict animals as equals, in equal light. That’s what the whole divinity series is all about,” a passionate Shaw says.

View this post on Instagram

My picture of divinity lies in a fearless sight of the night. The perpetual gaze of an Owl at a brimming darkness. His binocular vision soaring through the mess of forms into the massive clarity of the universe. He can hear vibrations like we can see colours, a third eye indeed. Noiseless flights of the owl is his fiery dance on the drums of silence to bring upon death for some lives and destruction for death itself. The owl who wears ashes of the soot, to whom the moon is just an ornament! #art #mahashivratri #indianmythology #india #artwork #illustration #illustrator #sketch #mypictireofdivinity #photoshop #wilderbone #owl #bird #artistsoninstagram #instagood #instagram #instadaily #earth #wildlife #relationship #planet #projectjackdaw #handmade #earth #shiva #traditionalart #folkart #indiefolio #nif #sanctuaryasia #texture @creative_gaga

A post shared by Sudarshan Shaw (@sudarshan_shaw) on May 2, 2020 at 11:05am PDT

"My style borrows from the traditional ways in which we have been looking at wildlife. We worship gods and goddesses and they can be seen in their royal attire. But we never see that [finery] on the animals accompanying them—I wanted to portray them in the same style, as gods and goddesses,” he adds.

Read: Responsible wildlife tourism as a conservation tool

The burgeoning community of artists and bloggers on the web today who are making the most of the little, cult-like conservation revolution, is coming up steadily. Their artwork is usually centered on both endangered and lesser-known forms of wildlife and their own stylistic interpretation of it. While this is definitely creating mass interest in favour of conservation and the role of fragile ecological zones and their beings, one wonders wherever the need to preserve the much-needed privacy of the forest went?

A spot-bellied eagle owl by Sudarshan Shaw
“Imagine seeing a jungle in India about 200-300 years back, before we this scale of invasion had happened in these spaces…The concept of national parks is a very Western idea. When you go to a tribal land in India, or in Odisha, you see the mood is very different over there. Conservation is in terms of numbers, not in terms of life. This can be achieved only when we try to study traditional ways of engaging with the animals,” he explains, adding that the stories and elaborate narratives of the lives of wild animals that he often shares on his page, are actually the words of the members of the forest community that he has had the experience of interacting with.

And while we're at it, what better than the following inspiration to encapsulate the idea—straight from the proverbial horse's mouth?

“The Hornbill, farmer of the forest, rightly dresses up as an emperor but with no sign of arrogance! This powerful realisation sent a clear sense of heaviness and silence inside me, I might have been feeling just like a hornbill would always feel.”

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