Santosh Gaikwad begins his day early in the morning by dropping his kids to school. He exercises for a little while and prepares to go to college. Then he rides his bike from his house in Andheri to the Bombay Veterinary College in Goregaon where he is the professor. Once done performing his duties at the college, he has another role to play during the day--that of the only taxidermist of India.
In 2003, a visit to the Prince Of Wales museum, or CSMVS triggered him so deeply that he set out on a much talked about and illustrious career. “The animals on display looked so real and lifelike. They were anatomically so accurate and perfect that something affected and changed me subconsciously. When something like that happens, your subconscious tries its best to bring it to the present. I began wondering why can’t I acquire this knowledge. Where can I learn? Who will teach me?” he said.
A mild-mannered Dr. Gaikwad was already a practicing vet, had a day job as the assistant professor and now bitten by this new bug, had a whole new passion to look after. He made inquiries all across the country to find someone or some college to teach him. “There are four vacant posts for taxidermists in the Natural History museums in India. When I tried finding a teacher, they were not practicing anymore. The one college that had this course in Kolkata had stopped teaching it,” he said. Curiosity, as they say, taxidermised the cat. Dr.Gaikwad took it upon himself to learn it himself with the help of keen observation and the internet. One would often find him lying on museum floors observing the stitches below the animals on display, much to the chagrin and disgust of his wife. “I began with birds and would often bring dead specimens home. I would learn the art by practicing on one bird at a time and would keep the other dead birds in the family refrigerator. She was worried we might catch some disease as we don’t know how the birds died. She supported me though. We used to seal them in air tight bags and keep them in the deep freezing compartment,” he said.
Dr.Gaikwad has come far, always wearing a smile that doesn’t leave his face even for a second. “When I began, I didn’t even know what I was doing was called taxidermy. I used to call it stuffing. It was the animals and trophies in museums that inspired me,” he chuckled. He says that many today don’t know what taxidermy actually means. “Taxi is movement and dermy is skin. Through this art you preserve the movement of the skin. To be a taxidermist you need to learn five arts. You need to be a cobbler, a sculptor, a carpenter, a painter and have knowledge about an animals anatomy,” he said. He began by slicing chickens which were available at the college he was teaching at. “I began with birds. I realized their skin is very thin and I need to be careful. Then I started learning about mounting. How do I make this bird stand in its place? And then I moved to bigger birds and animals. In Aarey Milk colony, people approached me to taxidermise poultry birds for visitors so that they don’t come in contact with actual birds. Visitors can carry infections that can harm birds. So I did a project for them and it was received well. I thought this should happen on a bigger scale and I received support from Sanjay Gandhi National Park,” he explains.
Since 2009, Dr. Gaikwad has his own Taxidermy Centre in SGNP which he claims is the only one in the country. “I was asked to pick a spot by Bimal Majumdar, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) in SGNP. There was a three room garage for buses where I set up my centre,” he said. Two industrial refrigerators keep whirring and stopping in middle of conversations when Dr. Gaikwads movement around the centre cuts the monotony. Another room has cupboards and drawers where he stores acrylic and fibre glass animal parts with countless photos of animals like monkeys, sheep, lions, bears and reptiles stuck to the wall. The last room has four large wild animals with a tiger, two lions and a perched leopard looking with rapt attention. A Langur peeks from one corner of the room while a flamingo is busy scratching its neck. Dr.Gaikwad opens another pandora’s box full of birds that have to be sent to other states. A military mule’s skeleton stands at the end of the room and Dr.Gaikwad doesn’t want it photographed, “It is not ready yet,” he says while removing the plastic covers from the wild animals.
“I have taxidermised over 400 birds, 100 fishes and reptiles, 12 large-sized mammals and pets,” he counts. Vimla, an elephant found dead in Gadchiroli district looks on. “I was only allowed to use her head, the rest of the body was burned,” says Gaikwad. “I couldn’t do it alone so I searched for two cobblers in the area. They did not know what work we had for them, when they saw the head they refused to do it. I requested them to take more money but I couldn’t handle such a tough skin alone. I asked to drink some alcohol if that allowed them to work. The officials took them and they got a bit drunk and we began working. It is not easy to work with a dead animal like that. You come in contact with flesh, blood, bones, work with sand, resin and other materials and you have to be careful. Even a slightest wrong tear will render the whole animal useless,” he winced. The only time his face changed expression was on the mention of an animal’s skin tearing apart which felt like a deep shock to him.
Dr. Gaikwad has even taxidermised a rare Siberian tiger found in Nainital along with a snow leopard. He has even preserved endangered birds and gets work from all over the country. He only taxidermises animals that have died of natural causes and accidents. India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 has made animal hunting and taxidermised trophies illegal. He even gets requests of pet lovers. “A family brought their pet pomerian from hyderbabad by road,” he reminisces. He knows that when it comes to wildlife and pet animals, the love people have for both is different. He himself doesn’t have a pet but is every bit of an animal lover. “With taxidermy, I am the closest to nature. I work with the blood and bones of the animal. Some people love animals by conserving them, I do that by preserving them. Every person should have a chance to witness such an animal. The museums abroad have good taxidermy practices. In African countries where hunting season is common, you can shop for taxidermised trophies and duplicate body parts,” he said.
He believes it will become a need-based activity in the future. “By burning the fauna, you permanently destroy their beauty. So many people can gain knowledge about the species. With taxidermy, you can feel the animal and generate love for them and their conservation. It is not stone anymore. Where else will you get to see the biodiversity? Precious endangered animals need to be preserved for the public good. Our nation needs to publicise this field and create courses in colleges. I often tell my students that after me, they won’t have anybody to teach them like I did. Everybody wants a white-collared job, so far nobody has shown interest in taxidermy,” he said.
Dr.Gaikwads work promises to last more than 100 years if kept in good conditions. “They need 40% humidity to stay intact. We are breaking this entire centre and creating a new one. Mumbai has 80% humidity which is not good for them. We will try to install de-humidifiers and air conditioners,” he said. For a Large animal, it can cost anything between Rs.85,000 and the range goes down till twenty thousand for small mammals. Prices differ for birds, fishes and reptiles and a sparrow could cost Rs.3,000 to make. SGNP gives him an honorarium for the work he does. It can take one month to 6 months to complete a single animal. Dr.Gaikwad will start work on the loggerhead turtle next which is resting in the freezer under a sheet of ice. He open the lid to show the turtle lying inside and it gives off the smell of salty fish. We ask him if it says it is safe to come in contact with an animal like this and he says no, because you don’t know it has died.
43-year-old Dr.Gaikwad does regret not spending more time with his family. His daughter Riddhi is in the 8th grade and his son Sarthak in 3rd grade. He tries to spend time with them by bringing them to SGNP every Sunday while he works on his specimens. “Now they are bored of coming to the same place again and again,” he said. “When I began this, it was a big burden on me. It was a huge responsibility with a lot of legal tangles. I missed out on a lot of opportunities to be with my family, but not anymore,” he said. Dr.Gaikwad likes to read Marathi literature on Culture, History and Spirituality as well. He is often amazed by people who don’t let animals get taxidermised because it will hurt their soul.
Dr.Gaikwad has never taxidermised a human body before. “Wax structures do the same justice,” he quips. “Also, human skin is too thin.” On that note, we scurried out before he had a chance to begin really thinking about it.
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All Photos By Tanya Prasad
Words: Preksha Malu