When a fire gutted rare specimens at the National Museum of Natural History in Delhi on April 26, Dr Santosh Gaikwad’s heart sank. The country’s lone practising taxidermist now, Gaikwad remembers drawing inspiration from a treasure trove of stuffed animals, mounted during British rule, showcased at the museum. “Perhaps the largest wildlife collection of taxidermy in India,” he rues.
The fire also brought back a familiar fear: that the art of taxidermy might die with him.
As part of taxidermy, a dead animal’s skeleton and skin are carefully extracted. The skeleton is then repositioned with an iron support, stuffed with clay or some other mould, and the original skin wrapped around it to create a life-size specimen. This generally stays intact for a hundred years.
Taxidermy was popular over a century ago when royals hunted animals and showcased them as trophies. With the introduction of the Wildlife Protection Act and the ban on hunting, taxidermy has been reduced to an art confined to a few museums.
Gaikwad was first drawn towards it in 2003 when, as a 29-year-old, he visited the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. He was an assistant professor of anatomy and a practising veterinarian at the time.
He initially tried to join a course on taxidermy, but when he found none, he began visiting the museum, lying on the floor to observe the cuts and stitches underneath the model. With those observations and the help of a few retired experts, he taught himself the art. To hone his skill, Gaikwad learnt carpentry, worked at Ganpati workshops to pick up moulding and casting techniques, and spent time with students of the J J School of Art to learn painting.
In 2005, he finally took the plunge and chucked his vet job. Now, a huge deep freezer in the Department of Anatomy at the Bombay Veterinary College, where he teaches anatomy to students, holds a dead calf, a dog, and two rare fish, all waiting to be taxidermied by Gaikwad. At his old home in Jogeshwari, where his family stayed till last year, three more dead pet birds lie in a tiny refrigerator. “My wife does not like dead animals in the house now, even those taxidermied,” he laughs. His family has moved to a one-bedroom flat in Andheri, a much crowded western suburb of Mumbai.
Among his other assignments is the stuffing of a leopard, Raja, which died over three months ago at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The park has the country’s only taxidermy centre, and in 2009, the Maharashtra forest department made him in-charge of it.
The Taraporewala Aquarium has sought him out to make a few fish specimens, as has his old haunt, the Prince of Wales Museum, which wants its old specimens replaced. Gaikwad charges between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000 for birds — the price depends on size and difficulty — and over Rs 50,000 for large animals like lions and tigers.
The taxidermist’s day begins with dropping his children to school at 6:45 am. He then goes on a half-hour run before reaching the Bombay Veterinary College in Goregaon, to teach anatomy to first and second-year students until noon.
The college has given him a separate room to stuff and preserve animals in his free time. A rack in his department is stacked with bones of various animals. A room, full of glass-encased displays, has preserved animal organs. But the centrepiece for him is the last glass case in a corridor — it contains a taxidermied hen and a duck. “Stroke the feathers, they are still soft. This is a decade old,” he smiles.
On Thursday, as a group of 15 huddle around him in class, he displays a calf’s head. “Samajh aa raha hai na (Can you all understand)?” he asks. During the lecture, he keeps telling the students to join him at the national park and learn about taxidermy. “You won’t find a teacher after me,” he tells them. The students do turn up at the park, but only to click pictures with the specimen of a dead lion, Ranga, before leaving. Nobody waits to see Gaikwad at work.
It is lunch hour and Gaikwad has to go to the veterinary college’s Parel campus, some 20 km away, to teach another batch of students. Again, he is more keen on talking about taxidermy to his class.
Gaikwad says he has so far created life-size specimens of 12 big cats, a black bear, its cub, an elephant’s head, a mule, a 6.3-foot- long turtle, over 100 fish and 500 birds.
He remembers 25 failed attempts with dead birds while he was learning. He would collect the birds from the college campus, shove them in a bag, and put them in the refrigerator at home. “Yes, my wife was cooperative then,” he says. She shared her fridge as he had no other freezer at the time.
Gaikwad credits his wife’s early acceptance of his profession with having made the difference. His father, who was a sub-inspector with the Mumbai Police, also objected initially, particularly to the hours he spent working on specimens. “When I start skinning, it can go on for hours and I forget attending family events,” Gaikwad admits.
Gaikwad’s day at college usually ends at 5.30 pm, after which he heads home. “Over the years, my dining table has been used more for animals than food,” he jokes.
His children, Samruddhi (13) and Sarthak (8), are used to watching their father “do something with frozen animals”. Samruddhi also plays with the bird specimens he makes.
For over three hours every evening, Gaikwad again works on his projects. He has dinner with family, and finally wraps up around midnight.
He talks about the time in 2009 when he had got a call from Nainital, soon after the death of the country’s last Siberian tiger. The authorities had wanted it preserved, so that it could be showcased at the High Altitude Zoo there.
Gaikwad says he had dropped everything, taken the first available flight to Delhi, and rushed to Nainital. “The skin of an animal must be removed within 36 hours of death,” he says. He had later fleshed out all the organs, and extracted the bones to carry with him. “I forgot I could be stopped at the Delhi airport,” he laughs.
The security check scan showed teeth and bones in his long black bag. With airport authorities clueless about taxidermy, Gaikwad had ended up missing his flight.
That tiger specimen, which had taken over five months to be prepared, is now on display in Nainital.
Every day, he says, is another opportunity to try and attain similar perfection. “Jab lage ki asli lion hai, tab model perfect hota hai (When it looks like a real lion, then the model is perfect).”
Recently, Gaikwad taught 15 forest officials to prepare a specimen of a bird. They never turned up with their models but he hasn’t given up on them.
His eyes sparkling, he says, “You know what would be really challenging?
A human taxidermy… If a VIP wants himself preserved.”
A science and an art
Taxidermy is a combination of art and science in which a dead animal can be preserved by using its skin on another mould. This field combines knowledge of anatomy, carpentry, painting and moulding. The skeleton of the dead animal is reused as main cast. In India, apart from Gaikwad, there are estimated to be four other taxidermists. They are not known to practise anymore.