Walking into The Bombay Veterinary College’s anatomy department museum is like stepping into a place suspended in time. There is no death here, or decay. Instead, a foot-long turtle, a slightly faded grey snake and a plate-sized stingray share space with other stuffed animals. India’s celebrated taxidermist Dr Santosh Gaikwad is proudest of his mounted Giriraj chicken and a Muscovy duck, whose heads he absent-mindedly strokes while talking.
“The point of taxidermy for me,” Gaikwad says, “is to be able to preserve the past for future generations. Our wildlife will soon vanish and younger generations will never know what an animal looked like.”
Gaikwad once stuffed the last Siberian tiger of India called Kunal. It was 22 years old when it died on November 17, 2011. The Govind Ballabh Pant High Altitude Zoo in Nainital sought out Gaikwad, perhaps the only taxidermist in India, who had the skill to work on wild animals. When the body arrived in Mumbai, Gaikwad removed the skin of the tiger and coated it with preservatives. Next, he made a clay mould of the body and replaced the bones with casts of fibreglass. He placed the skin back on the mould, stitching it up and arranging it to create an effect as life-like as possible. Small touches of paint and the insertion of glass eyes and dentures finished up the job. Now, the tiger poses in a frozen prowl at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, its jaws open in a powerful, never-ending roar. Gaikwad says, “Stuffed animals must not look like teddy bears.”
No photograph or even a video, says Gaikwad, can capture the three-dimensional reality of an animal the way taxidermy can. These mounted animals are very often part of a bigger display that includes other animals and native plants, which helps viewers appreciate where the animal comes from. They are also often positioned in a manner that emphasises their natural behaviour.
“Instead of throwing bodies away to be burned or scavenged, why not preserve the animal’s colour and beauty?” says Gaikwad. He adds that taxidermy requires infinite precision, patience and practice. Different materials are used to stuff different animals. Even within the same species, animals of different sizes require the use of specific materials and techniques. “It would be impossible to tell you a standard formula for stuffing an animal,” he says. “I keep the bones in birds, for instance, but never in mammals”.
Gaikwad first became interested in taxidermy after visiting the Prince of Wales Museum (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) exhibit on natural history in Mumbai, in 2003. It has showcases of ecosystems from different parts of India, complete with native birds and animals that have been stuffed and mounted. He had never known of taxidermy before. “As a man of anatomy, I felt that I should know how this was done. I eventually came to realise that it was also an art,” he says. He practised it with the help of books, videos and the advice of specialists after he came to know that all taxidermy colleges in India closed up, one by one, after the British left. “There was no one really to teach me,” Gaikwad says. “I was so fascinated by it that I decided to learn it myself.”
After hundreds, if not thousands, of experiments on birds (from his veterinary practice) and fish (bought from the market) on his dining table at home, Gaikwad finally became a skilled taxidermist.
Gaikwad has his own office and work-room at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. He is always in high demand; zoos, universities and research centres regularly call on him for help. “Given the demand, I don’t really know why there aren’t more people in India who are interested in practising taxidermy. Maybe it’s because the government does not want to encourage it in fear that it will encourage trophy hunting. It’s a pity though. This art is about to die out in this country, and it should not, it must not die,” he says.