Alpana Ahuja, 57: Artist and Elephant Whisperer

    Alpana Ahuja spent years painting Hindu god Ganesh before the elephant came into her life as muse and co-creator. She talks to AGEIST about art, wildlife conservation, and her special connection with these majestic creatures.

    by Damini Roy 

    Alpana just loves elephants. Her studio is filled with their portraits and their amazing pad prints. She smiles with joy recounting her experiences with large friends, in particular her favorite art co-creator Phoolkali.

    The natural world is shrinking and, as it does, we find ourselves being drawn to connect to it in so many ways — from house plants to forest walks to our much loved domestic animal friends. As we increasingly urbanize, there is a counter desire to connect to something greater than ourselves that is the wonder of the natural world. It’s from this impulse that we have found our way to the Singapore studio of Alpana Ahuja.

    Elephant Muse and Co-Creator

    Alpana is an artist who involves animals, mostly elephants, in co-creating paintings, then uses the works to raise funds and awareness for animal rescue and conservation efforts.

    Alpana’s life is a testimony to the adage: “A spark is all it takes to light change within and around.” After a chance encounter with the work that Wildlife SOS was doing at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura, India, Alpana felt urged to become more involved. 

    Intersection of Art and Wildlife Conservation

    Her work is at the intersection of art and wildlife conservation. Over the years, her work has been widely collected by the likes of Pharrell Williams among others, and has helped raise thousands of dollars for wildlife conservation in India and Singapore. 

    “In a way, my life truly started after I turned 50. So far, the last seven years have been really rocking! I love and am grateful for every chance I’ve had to create and help the animals.” 

    From Ganesh to Elephant Paintings

    AGEIST: There are a lot of images of elephants in your work. Is there something special about elephants?

    Alpana: I had painted Ganesh (Indian elephant-headed God) for many years and then the elephants came into my life. I painted one, my first, for a calendar I was creating for Wildlife SOS. Then I painted more and more, in different mediums and different colors. I seemed to have found my muse. There were elephant paintings coming out of me very fast, and in a medium I had not worked much in: acrylic. I began to learn about their gentle natures, human-like emotions, deep knowledge of the earth and forest around them (which is passed down from the matriarch). I bonded with them, over food, of course, and mud!

    At the sanctuary, elephants are picky about their friends and will make their own decisions on who they want to be with. They nurture the younger ones and are protective. As subjects, they are fascinating. They can be painted in abstract or realistically, in monotones or vibrant colors. I can zero in on a portion of the face or paint a whole herd. As a muse, the elephant is wonderful.

    “No two elephants are the same”

    I don’t find this versatility in any other animal. All other animals I paint are very realistic, but with the elephant, I seem to go beyond. I love how the sunlight creates shadows on them. There is so much character in the tilt of the head, so much emotion in the way they touch each other. The trunk has a finger-like tip, and they can pick a pea from my palm. 

    Just watching them play in the water, the dust, and the mud is divine. Their intelligence and human-like social relationships, and the abuse piled upon them makes me want to undo every evil that man has done to them.

    They have very real personalities; no two elephants are the same, just like people. Even their footprints tell a story. The ‘Padhchinh’ collection, which are pad prints, raises funds for rescued elephants, and is an ongoing project. Once or twice every year I work with them and observe how their footpads have changed. New rescues have almost smooth footpads – all worn out by walking on tarred roads.