Oil on Braced Baltic Birch 27” x 18” x 2”
India is home to 30,000 of the 50,000 Asian Elephants remaining in the world. Watching the documentary Gods in Shackles (produced by Sangita Iyer) I was moved by the plight of temple elephants in India prodded with spiked poles, chained, and paraded down the streets of Kerala for the annual Thrissur Pooram Festival, ironically to honour the beloved Hindu deity, Lord Ganesh, an elephant-man hybrid. UNESCO declared it the biggest festival in the world, the epicenter of the elephant entertainment industry, where an elephant can fetch 10 million rupees ($140,000 USD).
Elephants are a sign of prestige for Hindu temples. Standing for long hours, they carry out pilgrim rituals weighed down by ornaments, idols, and a priest. Temples benefit financially by renting out elephants for large sums of money. Elephant trainers hold a superstitious belief that fear needs to be injected back into the animal. Their annual tradition, Katti Adikkal, involves beating a bull elephant into submission for 48-72 hours during mating season. These strong creatures become blind from the beatings, emaciated from neglect, and suffer from chain wounds on their ankles and paralyzed trunks. They are driven to insanity, exhibiting psychotic behaviours like swaying back and forth to cope with distress.
Incensed by all of this, I completed a concept sketch entitled “Beast of Burden” and donated it to the annual Sketch for Survival fundraising auction in London, England, to benefit elephant conservation. While that drawing depicted an elephant chained up, for this painting I decided to have the elephant triumphantly breaking free of its shackles, as each year thousands of “rogues" attempt to do (unfortunately, most get trapped by spikes). Similar to Africa, poaching for ivory is an issue in India, so in my painting the charging elephant is missing one of his tusks, simultaneously a play on Ganesh, often depicted with only one tusk.
Like most of my Streams in the Wasteland paintings inspired by the biblical book of Isaiah, this painting drew influence from the prophet Isaiah describing the “beasts of burden” paraded with idols on their backs, in reference to the Babylonian Akitu Festival (Isa. 46:1). This painting is a cautionary tale to injustices done in the name of religion, and is intended as a beacon of hope for change. While Asian elephants are endangered, they are now thriving in parts of Southern India thanks to conservation efforts like the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.