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Tales of the jungle: An attempt to integrate art and science

Tamralipta Patra & Tara Kiran Kurre

The National Education Policy 2020 emphasises the need for a multidisciplinary approach in higher education to enable holistic learning. In this article, Tamralipta Patra and Tara Kiran Kurre, faculties of Teacher Education in the School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University write about a course in which undergraduate students explore the topics of biodiversity and human-nature conflicts in India through the folk art forms of the country and other creative works.

Tamralipta Title image resized
A glimpse of paintings from the course "Tales of Jungle", by (left) Ayushman Rout and Nandana S; (centre) Premdas Angoth and Malavika Sundareswaran; and (right) Harshini Kothike.

Science has always sparked the interest of people from both an educational and employment standpoint. The world needs leaders who can actively participate in community and professional forums for addressing ethical issues related to the impact of science and technology, more so than just being technologically literate. 

Integrating art in science could help individuals see current problems from a unique perspective. It would foster students’ disciplinary knowledge and skills as well as their capacity as critical consumers, imaginative and ethical citizens, innovative designers, competent communicators, and cooperative decision-makers. National Education Policy — 2020 has also highlighted the amalgamation of arts and sciences to eliminate the unfair hierarchies between the two domains.

Creative Expressions (CRX), a part of the common curriculum offered to UG students at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru provides a unique opportunity in bringing the language of art and science together. The course Tales of Jungle’ provided a platform for students to explore several cultural, social, political, and ethical issues surrounding the forests and their inhabitants. The students were exposed to various creative forms such as folk paintings like Madhubani, Kalamkari, Pattachitra, Warli, Gond, Bhil, etc., and theatre to narrate the journey of the forest’s glorious past, the scientific advances it has witnessed, and the atrocities committed by humanity, through a series of workshops, guest lectures, and field visits. 

Students then used these various art forms to depict the story of different forests in India, narrating the life and livelihoods of community members, flora, and fauna specific to these forests, and the nuances of the conflicts involved. This forest mapping activity helped students appreciate the interdependence of humans and nature. A few samples of students’ work can be found below. 

Kalamkari art form

Figure. 1. Depiction of the fauna, drought, and deforestation in the semi-arid region of North-West India using Kalamkari. Paintings by Harshini Kothike. 

The semi-arid region encompasses parts of the Thar Desert, extending north into Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan. The annual rainfall in this region is 400 to 1000 mm. Flora such as Cheronjee (Buchania lanzan), Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), Kaim (Mitragyna parvifolia), Amaltas (Cassia fistula), Mokha (Schrebera swietenioides) and Bigasal (Ptercarpus marsupium) are found here along with several endangered fauna like Somlata (Ephedra foliata), Khejri (Prosopis cinereria), & Gugal (Commiphora wighti). Gir lions are one of the endangered species in this area. The most commonly found animals in this area are reptiles, coyotes, camels, pronghorn antelope, and gazelles.. The key conflict here is drought and rampant deforestation. The above Kalamkari art works try to capture these. This art form originated in the Kalahasti and Masulipatnam districts of Andhra Pradesh.

Patua art form

Figure. 2: (Left) Depiction of the flora and fauna of the arid regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab & Haryana using Patua folk art style. (Right) Depictions of the commandments of the Bishnoi community and their struggles to save the Khejri tree. Paintings by Michelle Shajan.

Patua is a folk art native to the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. The depicted flora includes Khor (Gum Acacia – found in the dry rocky hills of Punjab and the drier parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan), Khejri (Prosopis cinereria – found in the dry regions of Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh) and various forms of cacti and shrubbery (deserts of Rajsthan). Depicted fauna includes Camel, Saw-scaled Viper, Asiatic wild cat, Chinkara, the Great Indian Bustard and the Indian Gray Wolf.

The artwork to the right documents the Khejarli massacre and Amrita Devi’s principal role in the struggle to save the Khejri tree. In 1731, Amrita Devi, a mother of three girls, and 363 other members of the Bishnoi community sacrificed their lives for this cause. The massacre later came to be known as a predecessor to the Chipko movement of the 20th century. The paintings tried to incorporate some of the twenty-nine commandments that the Bishnoi community must follow. For example, in the first panel on the right are signposts banning alcohol, meat and smoking. Engaging in these activities is banned within the community. There is also a depiction of a shelter provided for stray animals in accordance with the 22nd commandment- अमर रखावै थाट” (To provide a common shelter (Thhat) for animals to avoid them being slaughtered.)

Warli art form

Figure 3. The human-forest conflicts in the Western Ghats depicted in Warli folk painting style. Painting by Thrisha Reddy. 

Western Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO world heritage site, with many endangered species of flora and fauna. The painting in the Warli art form depicts threatened fauna like Tigers, Lion-tailed Macaques, Nilgiri Tahr, Asian Elephants, Gaurs, etc. It also depicts a critically endangered tree locally known as Dhuma” and Echinops sahyadricus. The Warli art is native to the tribal people from the North Sahyadri Range in Maharashtra. This folk art uses simple geometrical shapes like triangles, circles, squares, and rectangles, which, it’s believed, is drawn from the nature, like the circle depicting the Sun and the Moon, and triangle derived from the mountains, and rectangle indicating a piece of land.

Cheriyal art form

Figure 4. Depiction of the lives and the conflicts in the Deccan Plateau using Cheriyal folk painting style. Painting by Premdas Angoth and Malavika Sundareswaran. 

Cheriyal scroll paintings, also known as cheriyal painting, originated in Telangana, specifically in the village of Cheriyal, from whence it derives its name. Cheriyal paintings are famous for their depictions of Hindu mythological figures and folktales. Cheriyal scroll painting is unique due to its use of bold lines, vibrant colors, and meticulous attention to detail.

The above Cheriyal painting is about the Deccan plateau – home to several tribes and groups, the most well-known of which are the Bhils, Gonds, Santhals, Kols, and Mundas. Most of these people rely entirely on the forest for their subsistence. They revere the forest as their mother and derive their gods from the natural world itself. In the painting, the artists chose to represent the Porja tribe by painting their well-known dance form called Dhimsa,” which is a line of women from the tribe dancing to the song sung by themselves and drums beaten by the men. It swirls like a snake with women at both ends holding a piece of cloth and waving it wildly. The conflict in this region includes fuelwood gathering, overgrazing by vast herds of cattle, and conversion of forests into cash crop plantations. Poaching is still a fundamental problem.


Students expressed their learnings via reflective journals and a final submission in the form of a creative performance — assimilating their contemplation, experiences, and research. The theme chosen by the students was about the wrath of Bonbibi — the celebrated goddess of the Sundarbans, where locals believe her to be the protector of the forests from the present impact of urbanisation. This was the core idea behind CRX course as embodied learning — learning by doing — that helps students discover more about who they are and how they fit into the environment.