On a Wing and a Prayer - watsupptoday.com
On a Wing and a Prayer
Posted 20 Feb 2017 01:03 PM

Curiosity is a double-edged sword,” says artist Garima Gupta, adding, “It pushes you to expand your horizons. But once it’s let loose, it can become a source of devastation. The latter is what happened in Papua New Guinea.” The Delhi-based artist is referring to the island’s colonial past and the exploitation of its natural wonders — more specifically, of the so-called birds of paradise — from 16th century onwards.
External demand, habitat loss and hunting has meant that some bird species, such as the long-tailed paradigalla, have become extremely vulnerable. The conservation of these birds of paradise, which includes 32 species, is the subject of Gupta’s ongoing multimedia exhibition in Mumbai, titled “Minutes of the Meeting”, which combines sketches, video clips and an animated film.

The 31-year-old artist — also an avid bird-watcher — is a graduate from National Institute of Design-Ahmedabad, and moved to Mumbai five years ago. She decided to delve more into the world of birds by visiting Papua New Guinea, which is famous for its biodiversity. Most of the birds of paradise, known for their vibrant plumage and elaborate feathers, are endemic to only Papua New Guinea and West Guinea.
“Starting from 1550s, Europeans were becoming avidly curious about the Far East. Naturalists collected specimens of birds and animals and brought them back to their countries,” Gupta says, gesturing towards a drawing she has made of a stuffed bird of paradise propped up on a branch inside a glass showcase. “I saw this at the reception of a guesthouse in Bali,” she says, adding, “It’s a symbol of wealth. Specimens can be sold for up to $1,200 in the back alleys of Bangkok.”

But the birds of paradise that were brought to Europe hundreds of years ago were far more curious-looking — they lacked wings and legs. Traders concocted a story to explain this unexpected handicap. These are the birds of paradise, they said; they rest on clouds and feed on dew, and that’s why they didn’t need extra appendages. The real reason, much less exotic, was that the carcass simply rots slower once its wings and legs are cut off. Thus the birds of paradise were named.

It’s not just external threats that endanger the region’s birds. People who live in Papua New Guinea hunt the birds for their meat. In a country with no predators, there’s a paucity of sources of protein. In a clever animation, Gupta illustrates how the hunt takes place. She has also drawn sketches of weapons used by the indigenous people, along with the materials they’re made out of. For instance, “Arrow head – bamboo” and “Bow – reed”.

The birds are also prized by the indigenous people for their feathers. They’re used in ceremonial dances, which often imitate the mating dances of the birds themselves. Gupta’s taken a video of one; adorned with feathers, the dancers sing praise of the Emperor Bird. “Their colours make a tree look alive,” they chant.
If the locals didn’t have to kill the birds, they wouldn’t, Gupta realised. Her guide, Zeth Wonggor, was a former hunter who started to work towards conservation once he realised how endangered the birds were. For the past 20 years, he has guided and taught people how to be guides. With the extra income, villagers are able to buy chicken for their protein rather than hunt the birds. As a consequence, Wonggor’s village has not hunted a bird of paradise for the last 15 years.

Gupta says that “Minutes of the Meeting” is just an interim exhibition. “I hope to go back to Papua New Guinea,” she says, “and try and understand what it means to be a conservationist from a hunter’s point of view. I also want to look at the way development is impacting the rainforests and the people who live in them.”

It’s hard to envision a future in which the birds of paradise will not be under threat. But Gupta’s exhibition makes it almost as difficult to imagine a world without them at all.

“Minutes of the Meeting” is on at Clark House Initiative, Colaba, Mumbai, till March 8

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