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Art Meens conservation

 

We are on the Kumily – Munnar route, one of the most scenic drives in Kerala. I am being introduced to a large canvas – from where smaller ones originate. There are two via options – Kattappana and Udumbanchola – the latter, along which we are now, is simply breath-taking. Our eyes are alternately soaking up the lush rain-washed valley and peeled for the rare and endangered of the region – laughing thrush, wood pigeon, pipit and grassbird. We followed one to the overhanging ledge of a lay-by and another to a woody neck with a jutting waterfall. A trying pursuit as each time an airhorn mangles the stillness followed by a bus, leaning with overload, tears around the corner in a haze of mist and tyre-hiss. We have to wait for several minutes before all is quiet and wonderland stirs into life again. 

‘Memories of Malabar’ Meenakshi’s newest

A brisk wind keeps pushing the drippy clouds around at whim and the weather skips between heavy grey downpours and crystallised sunlight. This is the gist of monsoon in Kerala. The valley basks a golden green speckled with silver millponds. Sometimes when we slow down we are accosted by little birds and butterflies with whole landscapes on their wings. Juxtaposing the flora and the avian life against the backdrop of the verdant mise en scene, it is evident that I am staring at one of Meena’s own works. Returning the gaze is the lush lyricism of the region that prompted her to move here over a decade ago. She had by then developed an idiom, a recurrent motif for her palette, attuned with the pressing need of the hour – conservation.

“Through my works I intend to amplify the fading conversation. The one revolving around wildlife and conservation art.” She said the previous evening as we sat and stared at the canvas she was giving final touches to.

Colour and light

Peer closely and you can see the eyes blink, hear the leaves rustle. Lean a little forward and you can even hear the waterfalls somewhere. I tell her stubbing out the smoke. She keeps the fantasia in check – or alive – through very realistic renditions of the plants, birds and butterflies.

Her private jungle – Villa Prakriti

“I am always on the lookout for new discoveries of flora and avifauna from the Western Ghats and the Himalayas,” she says with a wave of her hand at the well-stacked library adjoining her studio. “I am obsessed with a need to understand different lives, their evolution. And once I find something interesting or intriguing, I have to compose a work around it.” This interplay between passion and obsession is what defines Meena’s art which pivots around the primacy of landscape – and the life that goes with it. Or should. Meens, as she is known in conservation art circles, had never been a hostage of what is trending nor fallen prey to cupidity. This integrity doesn’t stem from commissions galore but as she gratefully acknowledges, to a growing set of patrons who love nature and wildlife and are moved by her own hymns to conservation.

“I trek for days documenting the rarer species for my work. Even though I have used in abundance, mushrooms, ferns, wood fungi and orchids in my paintings, seeing them in their natural habitats never fail to spur a creative surge in me. More than the star species like big cats and elephants which people are obsessed with, I am driven to portray the lesser known flora and fauna – mind you, which are key in the system.” And Kumily, where she lives, with its proximity to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and her beloved Western Ghats, doesn’t let her down. Allowing a seamless contiguity into canvas that spark from her wild forays is her house ‘Villa Prakriti’ festooned with untrimmed vines and leafy creepers, an overgrown garden, cats by day and bats by night. (“You know they don’t bang into you, right?”)

Strokes of conservation

Besides the endangered creatures and plants, another trademark Meens is an effulgence approaching divine. A festive impressionism in light along with the colour – a technique she perfected over the four decades she is been at it.

“The light is key in creating depth as well as highlighting my fragile subject,” she says, tracing for my benefit with her brush handle a path of luminescence in her latest canvas. This, instead of breaking through the leafy canopy, lent the surroundings a shimmery surrealism. Each leaf in the path didn’t merely reflect the light but glowed in its warmth.

Life strokes

The drive is spectacular – we stopped the car at least half a dozen times just to look out the window and sigh. Along some stretches we got rain in buckets, like when one drove through a waterfall. The stretch itself is around 100 km and Udumbanchola about midway. But way before, the thick jungles begin thinning out gradually giving way to tea and cardamom estates. Plantation workers can be spotted as conical mounds of blue plastic, unmoving from a distance. Winding our way along snaking roads that clung to the sides of trimmed hillsides, a civet sprang across the road once. A rare sighting which had Meena grinning the rest of the journey. 

A tricky ecosystem

“Animals and plants were always a big part of my growing up years,” Meena told me about her early influences as we breakfasted that morning at the Villa Prakriti. “Every weekend my mom used to take me to wildlife and bird sanctuaries and would read out the names of trees and animals. I don’t think many families do this anymore.” Both her folks held regular jobs but made time to bring her close to the natural habitat. This probably kindled a sense of responsibility towards the life around very early on.

“Knowing our ecology is really important today as we are losing many of the chief components of the ecosystem. Dismissing them as ‘endangered’ has become a convenient way of overlooking our own inadequacies in protecting them. We should realise that only by reasserting their importance in our lives can life itself be sustained on the planet.”

The issues she addressed while profoundly reflected in her canvases, not very long ago also re-entered in a more dramatic avatar – into her life as well. Understandably she doesn’t want much to be written on her environmental work (“There are clatterfarts even in the woodwork!”) except that she is a member of the monitoring committee constituted by the Supreme Court to handle mercury dumping in Kodaikanal – her previous domicile. Here was one artist whose strokes were not just painterly but evocative of a life purpose.

Meens – a legacy

“Like any artist, my art too is my legacy,” she says. “Our subcontinent is brimming with biodiversity – a treasure which may not be around for long. I want my art to faithfully document and promote this.”

Homestay and other signs announced we were approaching Munnar. Built structures peppered the serried-hedge landscape of tea gardens. Meena, having long lost interest in the scenery outside, was on the phone.  A regular patron wanted another canvas, this time a bigger one.

“I love large canvases,” she said turning to me. “I can include as many species as I want.” 

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