Thursday, December 17, 2015

Interview with the multi-talented Aabid Surti : Creator of ‘Bahadur’ and ‘Dabbuji’

To say that Aabid Surti – the creator of ‘Bahadur’ and ‘Dabbuji’– is a multi-faceted man would be an understatement. He dons myriad hats; each of them as colourful as the other. Apart from creating some of the most renowned comics of the yore, Aabid Surti is also the author of close to 80 books, is a professional painter, and is additionally running an NGO which alerts people to save water. Incidentally, Surti has also won a National Award for his short story collection ‘Teesri Aankh’ (Third Eye) in 1993.

The 80-year-old, though, is more renowned for his cartoon strips which have enamored people of all age groups from the past several decades. The cartoonist cum painter cum author cum social activist has created several memorable characters like Dr Chinchoo ke Karnaame, Inspector Azaad, Shuja and Inspector Vikram, apart from Dabbuji, the witty simpleton, and Bahadur, the son of a dacoit who pledges to free villages which are infested with bandits. 

These days, Aabid is actively involved in his “one-man” NGO ‘Drop Dead Foundation’; which has vowed to save every drop of water. However, there is more to Aabid Surti than just his work. He has led a very interesting life, full of struggles, which can inspire several people.

In this interview to me, Aabid Surti sheds some light on his early cartooning career, tells us that how after a break-up he became an author, informs about his NGO and much more. Read on.

Excerpts from the interview 

Q. So what do you relate the most with- painting, cartooning or writing?

Aabid Surti: Oh, painting absolutely. I was a born painter and it will always be my first love. In fact, I began writing and cartooning because I needed money to get items for painting. I can be a tad laidback while I am writing or making cartoons, but while painting, I never do so. It’s my passion.

Q. I had read that in your early life, your family had lost seven ships of theirs and had to struggle a lot. Can you share that experience?

Aabid Surti: Well, we used to initially stay in a very large mansion in Surat, Gujarat, and had a nice joint family. My family had a shipping business which was doing quite well. However, after the First World War, we lost all our seven ships one after the other. All of them were lost to bizarre and unfortunate circumstances. With everything lost, we couldn’t stay at our place in Surat anymore and then migrated to Mumbai. There, our entire family used to stay in an extremely tiny kholi in the Dongri chawl. Those days were quite tough, but it taught me some real lessons of life. I have shared those experiences in my latest book ‘Sufi’ which is inspired from my own life.

Q. What was your parent’s role in your career?

Aabid Surti: It was nothing to be honest. But they were so busy making two ends meet that it was impossible for them to cater to my needs. My father expired when I was in the 10th standard and to earn some money I began working as the ‘Spot Boy’ in Shakti Films. Nevertheless, the biggest contribution that my mother made was making me attend school. That, I believe, played a massive role in my life. If I hadn’t gone to school, I would have been a nobody.

(Aabid Surti also worked as an assistant writer in several Hindi films; his first being ‘Singapore’ and the last one was ‘Ek Phool Do Maali’.)

Q. How did your interest in cartooning germinate?

Aabid Surti: When I was a child of about 8 years old, I remember there were British troops who would pass through our area in Bombay port during the Second World War (1943). These troops were transported by a mini-train and the soldiers there would often throw out varied items like chocolates, books and magazines. I, along with many other children; all underprivileged, would run to get those stuff. One day, when one such troop was passing by, someone threw out a comic book from it. I rushed ahead and caught the book along with the other kids; curious to see what it was. All I managed to get hold of was a page and it turned out to be a ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic strip. I looked at it and fell in love with it instantly. It was then that my interest in cartooning took birth.

Q. When did you realize that you could be a good cartoonist?

Aabid Surti: I always had this theory in my life that ‘If you can, so can I’. When I saw that ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic strip, I somehow got that feeling that I too could make similar drawings. I thus began making my own versions of the comics and felt confident as days progressed. With time, I realized that I could use this to earn my bread and hence began approaching different magazines and newspapers for freelance work. This really helped me become a little financially stable.

This is what I want to say to people. If you believe you have any talent, then you must pursue it passionately and earnestly. Parents too have to support their children by building their confidence which unfortunately doesn’t really happen in our country.

Q. Tell us about your progress in your cartooning career.

Aabid Surti: For a long time I used to keep copying and making different versions of Mickey Mouse. Later on, I got the knack and began making my own creations.

The first turning point of my career came in the year 1951-52, when I was in my 9th standard and did not have money for my school fees. During this time, we used to have a special annual programme in our school called the ‘Khari Kamaai’ day where we students could sell our own varied products at school and earn for it. I then thought that why don’t I try and sell my own comic strips there. Hence, I dressed up in my Boy Scout attire, took my comic strips and presented it on that programme. 

Thankfully, it got noticed and my name spread. There was a Guajarati magazine called Ramakadu (toy) which then brought my comics. It was 4 -page comic strip called “Rang Lakhudi” and consisted of the adventures of a boy, a girl and a monkey.

This emboldened my confidence and I then went to meet the Times of India editor with my cartoon. It was a ‘silent comic’ and the editor loved the idea. He then published my work and it made me believe that I belong to this world. After that, the ‘silent comic’ idea was taken by many other cartoonists and they created their own versions of it.

Q. Dabbuji was your most famous comic. However, if I am not mistaken, it was panned by readers when it was initially published in Gujarati as ‘Batuk Bhai’.

Aabid Surti: Yes, you are right. You won’t believe the amount of criticism I got for ‘Batuk Bhai’- the initial Guajarati version of Dabbuji. It is quite bizarre that the comic that gave me all that name was criticized vehemently by the Gujarati readers. I did try and think of the reason that might have caused this reaction but never got my answers. Perhaps, it depends on the mindset of distinct regions who accept different things differently.

Q. Dabbuji seems to be an antithesis of R.K. Laxman’s common man isn’t it?

Aabid Surti: (Laughs) Well, I never thought of that really, but maybe people look at it that way. When I created it though, it had nothing to do with Laxman’s cartoon. I will tell you how I got the chance to make it first. In those days, newspapers were filled with Western cartoons like Tarzan, Phantom, Mandrake and the likes. The editor at Dharamyug (a Hindi periodical owned by the Benett Coleman and Co. Ltd.), Mr. Dharamvir Bharti, wanted me to create something Indian and indigenous and that is how Dabbuji took birth. Before me, though, Dharamvir ji had tried several other cartoonists for the magazine including the great Mario Miranda. I was the last one to be approached apparently. At that time, as a young teenager, I had already done some freelance work and worked for a children’s magazine called Parag; where I used to make another well-known comic strip of mine ‘Dr. Chinchoo ke Chamatkaar’. The guys at Dharamyug didn’t have much hope from me, but luckily I clicked. Within one month, Dabbuji became a nationwide super hit. I remember people telling me that they used to buy Dharamyug those days just to flip to the last pages and read Dabbuji!

In its Hindi avatar, Dabbuji was wholeheartedly accepted and people just loved his goofiness and it went on to create innumerable fans. Among the most noted ones were our ex- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and singer Asha Bhonsle, who publically praised Dabbuji. Then there was Osho (spiritual guru), who was a self-confessed fan of Dabbuji and would often speak about the character’s adventures at his gatherings when people would get bored of his speeches (chuckles).

Q. The other comic character of yours which is very famous is ‘Bahadur’. The story was quite intricately detailed. What research did you do for it?

Aabid Surti: Yes, this story required quite some research from my part. When Bhadur was supposed to me made, Bennett, Coleman & Co. had again asked me to create something novel. I hence began thinking of the issues and problems facing our country at that time, from which I could create a character. A lot of research was thus put into it: What would the problems be? How would they be solved? I thus began researching; the same way a director does his research before making a film. I had to visit many places which were affected by the dacoits like the Chambal valley and similar places. I spoke to people there and tried to understand how the bandits had made an impact in their lives. I learnt that dacoits came to many villages just for leisure; like a picnic. They would then simply ask the people to give them the booty or face their wrath. These bandits were very smart and chose locations which did not have any police stations nearby.

I kept all this information with me and used these anecdotes from my visits to these villages in making the story. Thus Bahadur was then created (in 1976). I had also read a book on the bandits of Chambal named Abhishapta Chambal, written by Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, the father of Jaya Bachchan. It was a brilliant book and helped me immensely in framing my story.

Q. If Bahadur were to be remade today, how would you present him?

Aabid Surti: See, I would make him tackle the problems plaguing society today, like terrorism, cyber crimes etc. In those days, these bandits were the moot cause that was gnawing at our society. Now, however, our problems have increased manifold. Bahadur really would have a tough task dealing with the plethora of issues today.

Q. You were planning to relaunch Bahadur weren’t you? What happened to it?

Aabid Surti: The problem is that the Times of India now claims that they are the original copyright holders of Bahadur. They have gone and registered the character in their name and now I am struggling because of it. In those days, I had never cared to go for an agreement whilst making the comics as those editors were more like my friends. These people now have taken use of this lapse of mine and are claiming Bahadur as their own product. I was the original creator of Bahadur and everyone in India knows it. However, I do not have the money to fight them. Perhaps I can find a good copyright lawyer someday who can help me.

Q. Moving on, what are your views on India’s current comic scenario?

Aabid Surti: Today, the technology has advanced a lot and some great work is being done. Virgin comics had completely revolutionized the Indian comic scenario with their brilliant concepts. Now, there are several more like them. And I think there are some wonderful comic artists coming up in the country today. I keep visiting comic cons and meet several talented young artists. All this is very heartening to see. Indian comics has a good future.

The only problem, though, is that this industry is still not very commercially viable in India for the comic artists. Hence, the talented ones move away to animation as it pays more. I hope something can be done about that.

Q. Any cartoonists from today who have impressed you?

Aabid Surti: Oh yes, there are quite a few I like. However, three of them- Sudhir Tailang, Manjul and Pawan- are the ones who I think are simply awesome. I really admire their work and follow it closely.

Q. What about your all time favourite cartoonist?

Aabid Surti: Well, that would be Mario (Miranda). He was just exceptional. In my view, he was even better than Laxman, as his creativity had a much larger canvas. His ideas and style were of international standards. He was a very close friend of mine as well.

Q. Coming to your life as a writer; you became an author by chance didn’t you?

Aabid Surti: Yes, that was quite an incident really. It all happened because of my break up. I was a young man and it was my first love. The break up was quite violent and left me shattered. In those days, I did not have any friend whom I could confide my feelings in and thus felt very helpless. It was then that I decided to pen those bottled emotions. I took a notebook and began writing; relentlessly pouring all my feelings down. Before I knew it, I had written close to 500 pages. When I finished the book, I felt very relived and relaxed.

Incidentally, there used to be a scrap collector who would often visit our chawl at that time. I gave my notebook to him, as he was quite fond of reading. He took it to his shop to read and found it quite engrossing. Now that scrap paper dealer was in good terms with this guy from Swati Prakashan, which published several books of new writers. The scrap dealer gave my story to the man and he loved it. And that is how my first book, Tute Hue Farishtey (Broken Angels), was published (1965).

Q. What is the status of your case that you had filed against the makers of ‘Athithi Tum Kab Jaaoge?’ the story of which you had claimed was taken from your book ‘72 Saal ka Baccha’?

Aabid Surti: The case has been stuck from the last four years and is not moving up. Last year, I had learnt that they (the makers of the film) had bought my lawyer as well. Now, I have sacked him and am looking for a new one. I will not give up though, for I know that I am right. These people stole my story lock, stock and barrel with minor changes. After I filed a case against them in the Writer’s Association, they said that they are willing to apologize but will not pay me. But I will not accept that. It is my story and they have to pay me for blatantly using it in their film and milking crores out of it. I have already spent close to two lakhs in this case and will perhaps spend some more. In the end I may not win, but at least I am happy that I am fighting for what is right. Whatever you do in life, you should never bow down to injustice.

Q. You have also been heading the NGO, ‘Drop Dead Foundation’ which is trying to aware people to save water. What has been the general response so far?

Aabid Surti: Oh it has been absolutely tremendous. You know, I got this idea when I realized that a lot of water was being wasted unnecessarily from faulty taps. People do not get it repaired for varied reasons and hence it amounts to a massive amount of water wastage. I decided to do something about it and hence ‘Drop Dead’ came into being. I have a plumber with me and every Sunday we visit one locality and give them free plumbing service from my side; also informing them about saving water in the process. People have reacted very positively to this and Drop Dead’s name is now spreading far and wide; in India and across the world. I just hope that more people realize the importance of our cause and pay heed to it.

Q. What are your future plans now?

Aabid Surti: I have a lot of unfinished books that I am currently working on and hopefully shall complete them soon. And then I want to write several books on children based on the environment. I have noticed that there are hardly any books in the market on this subject for children. It is important that our children get educated about our environment and yet have fun knowing about it. I shall attempt to do it.

Q. Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

Aabid Surti: Well, in my school days I never had any friend from my own age group. All my friends were senior to me and I respected them a lot. There were three of them – a photographer, a painter and a script-writer – who played a major role in my life. All of the three were good professionals in their fields and guided me very nicely in my teens. I will always be indebted to them for their guidance. They were undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life.

Q. You must have had many fans in your life. Is there any particular fan experience that you would like to share with us?

Aabid Surti: I had gone to Patna last year to attend a workshop. When I was returning, I got a call on my cell phone while I was in the airport. It was someone who said he desperately wanted to meet me. I hesitated, but gave in and asked him to see me outside the airport. As I went out, I saw a simple looking man, clad in a plain dhoti and a jhola around his shoulders. When the man saw me, he seemed spell-bound. He first touched me and then fell to my feet. I felt embarrassed and picked him up. The man then took out a thick notebook from his bag and showed it to me. When I opened it, I was quite surprised. It was Dabbuji’s comic strips right as they had appeared in Dharamyug. This man had tirelessly cut the comic strips of Dabbuji as and when they were published in the magazine and had made its collection into various albums; this was one of them. I was quite stunned to see this and asked him why he did this. He said, “Aabid Ji, I am a patient of depression. This Dabbuji is like my medication and helps me in times of need.” This truly was the best praise I have received from anyone in my life.

Q. The last one. How do you stay so fit even at 80?

Aabid Surti: See, I am not 80. I am 20 years old, with 60 years of experience (laughs). Well, to be honest, I guess when you work for the betterment of others, which I have been doing through ‘Drop Dead’, it rejuvenates you. Moreover, there are several of my fans who always pray for my well-being. It keeps me going.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Chapters From My Nostalgia: “I Cried For You Today, Maa…”

(It’s strange how certain moments of our lives stay with us even if they might not have beeen of the greatest consequence. The incident I narrate here happened more than 20 years back, but for some reason, it has stayed with me. Over the years, I have looked back at this episode on countless occasions; often just to smile at the innocence of it all. However, I have realized that the reason I cling to it is because deep down inside I still have this tendency; of this emotion which I have elucidated here. Whatever I have described happened almost exactly the same way it has been recounted.)

Calcutta, June 1995

I was oblivious to the mad cacophony around me. The school bus motored along while all the inhabitants of the vehicle animatedly discussed their adventures of the summer gone by. Sitting by the window seat at the end of the bus, I gazed unenthusiastically at the street outside; men and women of all kind were busy with their everyday chores.  

The bus came to a halt as the signal turned red at the M.G. Road crossing. Just to the right of the bus, construction was in progress for the Metro railway; the project – to be inaugurated in a few years time – was to completely revolutionize the transport system of the city. There were a few labourers there, who were sipping tea and chatting among themselves. Perhaps they were recharging themselves before their morning work began. I wondered if they too would have had any summer holidays or if they too felt even remotely close to what I was feeling currently.

“What are you staring at? Tell us how your summer vacation was?” came a voice from behind me. It was Abhimanyu Daga, my class-mate, a rather loud and smug fellow, who was presently sitting on the opposite window seat from me and eyed me with his beady eyes. Apparently, he had had an exciting time where he received a lot of gifts from his uncles in Bombay this summer. The others near me too had narrated the tales of their thrilling holiday and were now looking at me in anticipation.

“Um, it was nice,” I said, “But…I am really missing my mother.”

Abhimanyu sniggered at that comment and said, “What are you, a Kindergarten student? You are in the fourth standard now. Stop behaving like a child.”

His remark stung me and I chose to remain silent. While Abhimanyu and the others chuckled at my expense, I turned my head around and continued looking outside. Sighing to myself, I closed my eyes and placed my head on the window bar.

My heart felt increasingly heavy as I wondered how the summer vacation went by so quickly. All of those days began coming back to me now. Gulping down the ‘Rasna’ excitedly that she had made for me; sitting in the kitchen with her and listening to her talk about her childhood days in Udaipur; watching ‘Tom and Jerry’ together where she would clap like a child and laugh uncontrollably at times; eating food from her hands where she would desperately try to get me to eat more; all of those moments were now invading my mind and gnawing at my insides. All I wished was to go back home and snuggle into her lap. But the school bus took me further and further away from her to a place where now a long battle lay ahead of me.


The din in the classroom instantly ceased as Banarasi Lal Sir entered. Without giving a second glancing to anyone, he nonchalantly strode over to his desk and sat. A rotund man in his fifties, Banarasi Lal Sir- our Hindi teacher - invoked a lot of fear in everyone. Currently, there was a hushed murmur around the room as we waited for Sir to begin the class.

“Open your books to page number 88,” he said lazily.

Everyone followed his orders immediately, while I, still lost in my thoughts, took my own time in doing so.

“Bhavesh…you read the poem today,” said Banarasi Sir all of a sudden. I was startled to hear my name being called out and saw that everyone’s eyes were now on me, including Sir’s who peered at me from behind his thick spectacles with his expressionless eyes.

Without saying a word, I picked up the book and stood up hurriedly. This is not what I wanted today, I thought morosely as I turned the pages of the book to number 88. All I yearned for was some peace and quiet, where I could sit silently in a corner and recollect my summer days with her. But now, as everyone in the class waited for me to begin, I felt miserable.

The moment I turned my attention to the page of the book, my heart froze. The title of the poem was: "Maa". Perhaps fate was playing a cruel game with me or perhaps it was just a strange coincidence, but presently I just stared at the title; momentarily numbed.

I suddenly realized that Sir was now looking at me; waiting for me to begin. I took a deep breath and decided to start.

However, with every word I read, my discomfort increased. The poem was about a child expressing his love for his mother. Every word, though, was like a dagger to my heart. The boy said how his mother feeds him every day with her hands, how she takes care of him whenever he gets sick, how she tutors him every day and how she kisses him on his forehead every night.

My breathing became heavy and it became increasingly difficult to complete the stanzas of the poem. It felt like I was reading out aloud the flashes of my past few days before the entire class.

My eyes then fell on the illustration accompanying the poem. I had missed it earlier but noticed it clearly now. The image was of a young boy lying on his mother’s lap, his eyes closed peacefully, while the mother affectionately ran her hands over his hair.

I began choking up. My lips trembled and my eyes welled up with tears as I struggled to read the remaining lines of the poem. I wanted to burst open the dam that was now crushing against my chest. But in the back of my mind I knew that I was standing in front of my entire class. I knew if I shed even a single drop of tear here, then I would not be able to live with myself.

I hence fought with my emotions. I concentrated hard on the words in front of me and put all my effort in stopping the teardrops, which desperately wanted to escape my eyes, from coming out.

“Bhukh lage to tere paas aata…
Dar lage to teri god me chip jaata…”

I managed to read these lines and then stopped. I could not continue anymore. Everyone in the class turned towards me. My face felt hot and I knew that I was on the verge of bursting out.

Banarasi Lal Sir looked away from the book on his desk and peered at me again. I had lowered my eyes and did not want him to gauge the wave of emotions going on inside me.

“Do you want to go to the bathroom?” he asked me politely.

I was taken aback at this question and looked at him. I saw that his expressions had softened a little. Perhaps, he understood. Perhaps, he realized…

“Yes…” I said.

He nodded and then turned to another boy, “Aditya, you continue the poem.”

Without wasting a second, I quietly put my book on the table and walked out of the classroom briskly. I was relieved and grateful to Banarasi Sir for releasing me from this ordeal.

My head swam as I walked towards the bathroom. I could hear faint noises around me from different classrooms. But I did not register them and neither did they matter. I just wanted to get away from it all. All I wanted was to find some solitude and drown myself in it. For now, the bathroom seemed liked the ideal place for it.


Home had never been so welcoming before. Exhausted by the day’s events, I felt relieved as I entered my home in the late afternoon. Now all I needed was to see her.

When I reached my room, I found it empty. For a moment, I was confused. Then I heard a voice. A female voice, singing a chant from somewhere nearby. I instantly knew where she was!

Flinging my school bag in the room, I moved towards the source of the mellifluous voice – a small ‘temple room’ in the house.

Yamuna keri paro bole shree krishna sharanam mamah
Vraj choraasi kosh bole shree krishna sharanam mamah

Kund kund ni seediyon bole shree krishna sharanam mamah
Kamal kamal par madhukar bole shree krishna sharanam mamah

The words had an almost cathartic effect on me. I now crossed our hall and came to the verandah where the ‘temple room’ was located. The door was open and I looked inside.

There she was! Sitting on the floor, her eyes closed as if in a trance and singing the chant with all her heart. She was facing the temple and had her back to me. I could look at her from the mirror inside the temple. The late afternoon sun cast an orangish hue on her face from the open window above her while she kept singing dedicatedly. She looked divine.

I knocked on the door of the temple room to get her attention. She opened her eyes and looked at me from the mirror.

“Have you washed your hands?” she asked, pursing her lips.

“Yes,” I lied shamelessly and entered the room.

She narrowed her eyes, understanding instantly that I was lying. “You do realize that you are looking like a bhangi don’t you?” she said.

I smiled, for the first time that day, and sat down on the floor behind her. Everything seemed so normal now. The misery of a few hours back felt like a distant memory; albeit a bad one at that.

“How was your day?” she asked me casually.

I couldn’t answer. I wanted to tell her everything. About the poem, about my longing to see her. I wanted to tell her, “I cried for you today, Maa…” But I didn’t. I wasn’t comfortable in baring out my deep sentiments to her. I never did that.

“It was fine,” I said, “I am just very tired.”

“Hmm…Let me finish the puja and then I will make something for you okay?” she said kindly and patted my cheek.

“Okay,” I said and then kept my head on the back of her shoulders. I did that often. It gave me some strange kind of a solace.

“You finish your song,” I added and took a long breath. The knot that was tying my chest through the day was now being slowly unlaced.

She continued her prayer.

Daal daal par pakshi bole shree krishna sharanam mamah
Vrindavan naa vrikshon bole shree krishna sharanam mamah

Gokulya ni gayon bole shree krishna sharanam mamah
Kunj kunj van upwan bole shree krishna sharanam mamah

Each word had a soothing effect on my soul. As if like a balm for the burnt pieces of my insides. She clapped rhythmically with each word and her body swayed along with it. My head too moved back and forth with her and I enjoyed that. It was like being cradled like a child.

I turned my eyes to the open window above. The sun was now about to bid adieu to the day. Birds chittered clamorously on the trees and I could hear the commotion of traffic below. But none of that mattered. My head firmly resting on her back, I could now sense her voice reverberating from inside her as she continued her chants.

Kesar keri kyaari bole shree krishna sharanam mamah
Akaashe patale bole shree krishna sharanam mamah

The torment of the day had now ebbed out and peace had completely enveloped me. The clamor of the outside world began to slowly fade away. My eyes fluttered and then closed.


Find the other chapters of this series below: 

Chapters from my Nostalgia: Sealed with that ‘Timeless’ six

Chapters from my Nostalgia: The First Crush

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Interview with Dr. Santosh Gaikwad : One of the few practicing taxidermists in India

Taxidermy is a word that most of us are not acquainted with. It is the art of ‘stuffing and mounting’ the skins of dead animals and birds primarily for display in museums and institutions. You might remember your visits to the local museum as a kid where you would have been fascinated with a ‘stuffed’ lion on display. Little would you have known about the amount of work that goes into preparing that model.  Only after slogging for hours and following certain basic and intricate steps involved in the art and science of taxidermy is a dead animal is re-erected again.

The people behind this work - the taxidermists - are hardly ever acknowledged; more so in our country. In fact, in India, taxidermy is a dying art; despite there being an authentic Wildlife Taxidermy Center here. Nevertheless, there is one man who intends to spread the art of taxidermy across the country. Dr. Santosh Gaikwad is one of the few practicing taxidermists in India. The 42-year-old is a Professor of Anatomy at Bombay Veterinary College and in between his work there, he finds time to oversee the affairs at the Wildlife Taxidermy Center located at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. In this interview with me, Dr. Gaikwad explains more about this fascinating art and its state in India, among other things.  

Excerpts from the interview

Q. Can you please tell us what exactly ‘Taxidermy’ means and why is it useful?

Santosh Gaikwad: See, the term Taxidermy comes from two different words. ‘Taxi’ means a vehicle which constitutes movement while ‘Dermy’, on the other hand, is skin. So Taxidermy basically means the movement of the skin. The thing is, not many people know about this term. We generally understand ‘stuffing’ easily. This is an ancient art which is also a combination of science. This art has been going on from the times of the British and today it has developed a lot from its initial days.
Taxidermy is very useful as it allows an animal or bird to be preserved for several decades after its death. The body of the animal can be judiciously used for educational purposes and little children of the country can learn a lot just by observing the animal which has been stuffed. If a child gets to touch the mane of a lion, which has been stuffed, it would make him feel elated and at the same time give him some good knowledge about the animal.

Q. Tell us how you began your career in taxidermy.

Santosh Gaikwad: I began my career in 2003; when Taxidermy was at a very withering stage. At that time I was the Assistant Professor of Anatomy at Bombay Veterinary College and I once visited the Prince of Wales Museum. I noticed the varied kinds of bird and animals they had preserved there and was quite intrigued. I then came to know about Taxidermy and educated myself on it.

As my interest in this art began I thought that why should caged and such endangered animals and birds be burnt or buried after death? Why can’t we preserve them? I then came to know that there is a clause in the Wildlife Protection Act on India that if you want to preserve any animal after its death for education purposes then you can. This then motivated me to become a taxidermist and preserve animals even after their death.

That is how I considered coming into this field.

Q. You say you educated yourself in this field. Can you please elaborate?

Santosh Gaikwad: Well, when I was intrigued by this subject I also realized that there were no proper institutions in the country to teach me about it. I thus had to educate myself. I began by reading some research material that I got from the library and questioning some of my senior professors about it. Apart from that, I also visited museums and studied the anatomy of various stuffed animals and birds, kept there, very intricately. To further help myself learn Taxidermy, I also observed idol makers carpenters and painters to get a basic idea of molding, carpentry and painting; elements of which is used in taxidermy. 

After having done so for some time, I decided to experiment. I began that by bringing home dead chickens and practicing on them. It was an arduous task as I would have to work only after I reached home from work, but over time, I finally perfected myself. There was one problem though. I had to keep the dead chickens in the deep fridge at home to preserve their bodies. This greatly annoyed my wife and I was chided quite a few times (smiles).

Q. What was the first real work you did as a Taxidermist?

Santosh Gaikwad: Well, as I became better I began to stuff small domestic birds at first. The Agriculture Information Technology Centers of different universities of the city then came to know about me and asked me to make small stuffed birds for them. That is how I began my first work as a taxidermist. My work was then noted by the directors of some museums who appreciated me a lot.

Q. So how did you then move from small birds to different animals?

Santosh Gaikwad: After making those birds, I had now got confidence and wanted to experiment with animals. But to play it safe, I first chose fishes. Yet again, I read some research work on them from the library and began practicing at home. Shortly after that, I got offers from some fisheries colleges to make taxidermied fishes for them.

After this, through my college, we approached the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the Maharashtra Forest Dept. for more work. He took some time to convince, but he finally became impressed with my work. He then asked me to join work in national parks to do the stuffing of bigger animals like leopards and tigers. In around 2006, I had thus made my entry as an official wildlife taxidermist. My work got noticed even more and I got offers from different places. The best moment came when I got to make a Royal Bengal Tiger and the country’s last Siberian Tiger.

Meanwhile, at the same time I also worked at my home on stuffing cats and dogs as they helped me hone my skills as a taxidermist. It was tough as I did everything without any teacher to guide me.

Q. Can you explain in brief the steps involved in stuffing an animal?

Santosh Gaikwad: There are actually a few basic steps that go into the stuffing of an animal through taxidermy. The first step is that of skinning which you can very well understand as that involves the careful skinning of a dead animal through incision. The second one is tanning. This involves the removal of fat muscles from the animal’s body after its skinning. They are then kept in different solutions to keep the hair follicles. This helps in preserving the stuffed animal for more than 70-80 years. Then comes biometry, i.e. the careful measurement of different parts of the animal’s body. After that, there is fleshing where you have to remove the flesh from the animal’s body by a knife. A tiger’s flesh for example, can be easily removed by 6-8 people by knives in about eight hours. After this, there comes the skeleton erection where we can make the skeleton in whatever position we want or have been asked for: standing, sitting, jumping etc. After the skeleton has been erected, we have to put clay on it; also known as clay modeling.

From the clay we make out molds and from the molds we go on to make casts. From the casts, we then prepare duplicate models of fiber of the particular animal. On this model, or artificial body, the skin is then placed and stitched. The last stage is the most crucial one known as finishing. Here we put glass eyes on the animal which, you can say, brings the animal alive. So now you see Taxidermy is the culmination of several art forms and science. Not an easy job isn’t it? (smiles).

Q. So if today, I want to get an animal stuffed, how should I go about it?

Santosh Gaikwad: Well, you will not be allowed to. In our initial meetings itself we had decided that we will not prepare stuffed animals to private individuals. The reason being that this might lead them to kill precious birds and animals like peacocks or deer. That cannot be allowed. Hence, taxidermy is only allowed for institutions and government organizations where it is used for educational purposes. An individual can however acquire it by getting a license from the government under very rare circumstances.

Q. How did the establishment of the Wildlife Taxidermy Centre come into being?

Santosh Gaikwad:  It was in 2009 that the B. Majumdar, Chief Wildlife Warden of Maharashtra, took my suggestions to approve an ideal location for the first authorized wildlife taxidermy centre. After some deliberations, the country’s first wildlife Taxidermy Centre was established on 1st October 2009 in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Mumbai). It was a historic and proud moment for me. I was then asked by Mr. Majumdar to oversee the work there. Soon after being established, we started getting a lot of offers from several state forest departments across the country for getting animals stuffed through taxidermy. And even now, it is still the case. It makes me feel good.

At that time I was the Associate Professor of Anatomy of my college and now I am the Professor. It is quite challenging to juggle between my job and my work at the Taxidermy Center, but I manage it and enjoy it thoroughly.

Q. What is the current situation of taxidermy in India?

Santosh Gaikwad: It is not very healthy really. Despite there being an official taxidermy centre and courses for teaching this art, no one really is coming forward to learn in. I am the only practicing taxidermist in the country currently. However, there has been some interest in this art over the past many years. Several forest ministries are now interested in training their officers in this art. I myself am giving taxidermy training to people in different forest departments. Hopefully, many more will now come out and become practicing taxidermists.

Q.  What are your future plans now?

Santosh Gaikwad: I do not want this art to die with me. I want to pass on my knowledge to others in the country and hence am always willing to teach it to interested people. Unfortunately, not many people come out to learn this. Perhaps they know that taxidermy is difficult to learn. It needs to have a lot of hard work, patience and desire to perfect it. Nevertheless, I will hope that I would be able to inculcate my skills to several others, and that hopefully, people will get awareness regarding this form. In the long run, I hope that several taxidermy schools can be opened in the country. That is my ultimate dream.