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Breathing life into dead animals

Mysuru

Princely Mysore had achieved progress in several fields because of the foresightedness of the Maharajas, assisted by their able Dewans. Along with material and moral progress, the kingdom also made strides in utilising its rich natural resources, which had great demand not only in other parts of the country but also abroad.

Whenever royal visitors, princes and other guests visited Mysore state, they were taken for shikar (hunting). Hunting and shooting camps were arranged from time to time by the rulers in the forests of Kakanakote, Karapura and Boodipadaga.

According to historical records, 69 tigers, 18 elephants, 26 bisons, 20 bears, 13 panthers, 14 spotted deers, 4 crocodiles and 1 antelope were hunted between 1940 and 1945. This indicates the intensity of the hunting sport in Princely Mysore.

When the elite people visited the palace, the game department attached to the palace arranged khedda operations (trenching plot for trapping animals). Elephants were caught through khedda operations by the forest department and were either sold to temples or private individuals. Through this, the forest department generated revenue.

The body of the dead animal was preserved through taxidermy, which is the art of curing, stuffing and mounting skins of animals in part or full to give a lifelike appearance.

Trailblazers of the art

“Selections from the Records of Mysore Palace Volume III, games and tiger preserves of the Maharaja of Mysore” published by the Karnataka State Archives is certainly a mine of information on the taxidermy activity. The records also contain information about taxidermists in Mysore. Van Ingen and Van Ingen, established by Eugene Van Ingen in the 1980s, was the first firm to conduct taxidermy-
related works.

Before independence, the Zoology departments in many universities across the country had taxidermists, and the University of Mysore was not an exception. 

Taxidermy is a multitask profession, a combination of design, tools, physiology and anatomy. A taxidermist with such an expertise will be able to produce a masterpiece.

Therefore, the ultimate goal of a taxidermist is to churn out lifelike objects for commercial purpose and showcase them as memorabilia. Some taxidermists are also involved in the renovation and conservation of objects for the generations to come.

Writer Gauri Satya, who has traced the origins of Van Ingen and Van Ingen, mentions that the firm thrived in Mysore and was a successful business until the late 1990s. The workstation was located at Nazarbad, an old locality in Mysore. They had customers from across the world who requisitioned for mounts and trophies by providing them skins of animals which they had shot during hunting.

The Van Ingen and Van Ingen had many skilled and unskilled locals working in the firm. With the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the profession lost its importance. Moreover, with the death of the last taxidermist, Edwin Joubert Van Ingen, the glorious chapter in taxidermy came to an end.

Being an accomplished shooter, he frequently went on shikar trips. According to sources, in the Ilwala shooting range, he killed many elephants. 
Ganeshiah, a taxidermist was employed by Van Ingen and Van Ingen, learned the art and continued the profession for a stint.

But it was Kendagannaswamy who worked for the firm for over four decades gained prominence in this profession. His father Biliaiah, also called Jabaliah, was a shikar assistant to the Maharaja. Kendagannaswamy, originally hailing from Heggadadevana Kote taluk, had a deep attachment with forest and shikar. Now his daughter, Manjula, is pursuing the profession.

She is said to be the only woman taxidermist in the region. The exposure which she got at an early age, inspiration from her father, has turned her into a successful taxidermist. 

She also repairs the mounts. The Raichur Forest Department has given her mounts and trophies for conservation and repair. When I went to her workshop, she was busy working on the trophy of a zebra along with her assistant Manohar. They have also received a giraffe, a lion, a leopard and an
the eight-foot-long king cobra, all mounted on wooden stands, for repair.

Reboot the practice

She has cured trophies at the Madras Engineer Group, Bengaluru and Maratha Light Infantry, Belagavi. Objects and trophies treated by her can be seen in Mysore Palace, Mysore Zoo, Mysuru Aranya Bhavan and some prestigious clubs like the Bangalore Club.

Work has taken her to far-off cities like New Delhi, Gwalior, Hyderabad and Ooty. At times, she is assisted by her mother and brother in this profession.

The Mysore Palace has an exclusive space called the Trophy Room, which has a display of the trophies cured and prepared by Van Ingen and Van Ingen, either mounted or hung on the walls.

The room also contains the tusks of elephants cured by palace shikars. Trophies of tigers, bisons, elephants and other wild animals shot by Sri Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last Maharaja of Mysore State, at Taraka, Kadabagandi, Herinkada and Chetnahalli range forests are displayed in the Mysore palace.

The exhibits at Deva Deva Vana in Bidar, Lalithmahal Palace in Mysuru, and Gymkhana Club and the Good Shepherd Convent in Ooty showcase her creativity. 

Manjula has given representations to successive governments seeking a bit of land to start a workshop since she has been doing it in a smaller space in her home in Mysore. However, she has apprehensions about the profession and feels that it is decaying gradually.

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