Wild Buzz | Of light in the forest, and painting mating leopards | punjab$regional-takes | Hindustan Times
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Wild Buzz | Of light in the forest, and painting mating leopards

Could there be a finer articulation of a Green Diwali than observing moths flocking to a light lure on the night of the new moon? Away from the hurtful glare of city lights and the infernal din of crackers, Dr Shubhalaxmi Vaylure has planned Diwali night in a remote forest rest house at Bheemashankar in Maharashtra to lure these ‘flying diyas’.

punjab Updated: Nov 01, 2016 00:28 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Moths flock to a light lure at a Sikkim forest rest house.
Moths flock to a light lure at a Sikkim forest rest house. (Photo: Dr Shubhalaxmi Vaylure)

DIYE JALTE HAIN

Could there be a finer articulation of a Green Diwali than observing moths flocking to a light lure on the night of the new moon? Away from the hurtful glare of city lights and the infernal din of crackers, Dr Shubhalaxmi Vaylure has planned Diwali night in a remote forest rest house at Bheemashankar in Maharashtra to lure these ‘flying diyas’. An expert on moths and an environment educator, Dr Vaylure waits patiently as darkness engulfs the forest and moths flock to the light lure in the verandah, some decked in the daintiest of colours and patterns, others drab as only moths can be. Fireflies in the courtyard add to the Diwali ambience, as do the stars that twinkle fiercely, freed of the moon’s dominance. Emerging from a netherworld that daylight hides, these are moths most humans will not have seen in a lifetime. When the sheet is bedecked with para-dropping moths, it evokes the imagination of a printed saree gracefully shrouding the night. Just last week, she was in Sikkim luring moths.

So mystical is her tryst with moths that Dr Vaylure has penned verses in anticipation of Diwali night: ‘’Kali amavas Ki raat ho, Ek mercury bulb mere pass ho, Uspar Atlas moth ka saath ho, Uff phir kya baat ho, Din dugni raat choguni ho, Moths ki barsaat ho, Es Diwali alaam-e-khaas ho!’’

When moths are collected for research using a light lure, the chosen specimens are picked off the sheet and killed in a poison jar. The residual moths are left to bats, lizards, monkeys, cats and birds to mop up as researchers do not turn off the lights through the night. But Vaylure switches off the light lure at midnight so that moths can fly back into the refuge of darkness. She would not want to turn this spectacle of Diwali lights into a ‘’free breakfast’’ for lazy, holidaying predators in the dawn after Diwali.

TO WONDER TILL I DIE

As a kid growing up in Chandigarh, Anjali Aggarwal was a loner. Her toys were flowers, her friends the insects that crawled over them. She would minutely examine the underside of leaves and lurking veins and wonder what the insects thought of her when their eyes met. She blossomed into an accomplished artist, armed with academic credentials and awards, and is currently an Assistant Professor at the Government College of Art, Chandigarh.

Anjali Aggarwal's painting, 'Glistening Wilderness'.

Her childhood fascination for animals wanders through her art work like a restless spirit. On a recent visit to Chhatbir zoo, she heard a leopard growl and sensed the unusual tone. She glanced at the source and saw leopards mating, a “joyous moment created by two beauties’’, as she puts it. She did not have the time to grab a camera but the image got entrenched in her artistic imagination and she subsequently produced an enigmatic acrylic on canvas, ‘Glistening Wilderness’ (69 x 66 inches).

In her painting, mating leopards are watched by a group of uneasy rabbits. ‘’We have turned away from the nature inherent in us. The act of mating was such a beautiful moment but I observed that people watching were looking quite ashamed or were tittering. One small rabbit in the painting, next to the tails of the leopard, symbolises a child at the zoo, who did not know whether to observe the mating or not. My painting captures this dilemma,’’ Aggarwal told this writer.

Mainstream media’s narrative of conflict with leopards is such that the mere thought of these big cats tends to terrorise urbanites; rather than evoke appreciation of their grace and reclusive lives that shirk human contact. Would this artist be afraid of these beauties in the wilderness? Her reply, though delivered in a jocular vein, reflects aesthetic sensibilities at her core. ‘’Haha, no! I fancy, I am not afraid of leopards. Even if a leopard did confront me in the jungle, I would be just wondering about this graceful creature till such time as it pounced and gobbled me up!’’

GENTLE MATES

The arts need not reconcile to the flesh and blood of animal reality because these are powerful expressions of the individual self and the imagination, and are primarily aesthetic in intent. Anjali Aggarwal’s ‘Glistening Wilderness’ depicts mating leopards with long, unsheathed claws. But leopards do not unsheathe their claws during mating. This is because the cat family wields retractable claws or nails, which go into a sheath of skin and fur when not in use.

Leopards mating at Masai Mara, Kenya. (Photo: Rayees Rahman)

Evolutionary biologist Dr Vidya Athreya, who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on leopards through rigorous field research, notes that ‘’leopards never hurt each other during mating in the wilderness though they possess lethal claws and fangs.’’ Even if they do unsheathe the claws during mating, they would use the claws very gently like, say, a household cat in a soft, non-violent mode. ‘’However, sometimes in captivity, when they come under stress, mating can take a violent turn and claws/canines/teeth can be used to fatally damage the weaker of the leopard/tiger/lion pair,’’ adds Dr Athreya.

In the accompanying picture, readers will note the female grimacing in pain. This is because the male has barbs on his penis that dig into the female when mating and when he retracts, it is painful causing the female to strike out. Male leopards take a gentle but firm grip of the female’s ear/back of the head/neck so as to incapacitate her during mating and prevent her from seeking a premature disentanglement due to attendant pain.

vjswild1@gmail.com