Sunita Dhairyam’s deep love for nature and wildlife was nurtured by her wildlife artist grandmother and wildlife photographer aunt. She grew up in Zambia, studied in India, and lived in the USA, before setting up her current home in Bandipur. When Sunita built her home in Bandipur, it was also home to Veerappan, the infamous sandalwood bandit; though her family thought she was crazy, she says she bought the land purely for her love of wildlife and the view of the Nilgiris.
During her early years at Bandipur, she was commissioned to do murals . Though this was something she loved, she also felt compelled to address the many issues amongst the local tribals, including man-animal conflict. She was instrumental in setting up the Mariamma Charitable trust, and returned to the drawing board to finance the trust, leading to Temple Tree designs being set up, producing clothing, home décor and other art-inspired creations.
Her solutions to foster harmony and conserve wildlife stem from her resilience, creativity, intelligence, and the desire to jump in and make a change.
Sunita at work in her studio.
1. When did you realise that there was an artist hidden within you?
Ever since I can remember, art has been an integral part of my life. My school in Shimla (1000 feet above Shimla actually, near the ski slopes of Kufri), Convent of Jesus and Mary or ‘Chelsea’ as it was fondly known, recognized my ability as an artist and I was more or less the school artist. They enrolled me into national competitions, which I always won.
2. Was there an incident or situation which helped bring out the artist in you?
My grandmother, who was English, was an artist who painted mostly wildlife. I come from an animal-loving family and we always had animals around us. My aunt (mother’s sister) was a wildlife photographer, way back in the 1970s, when she lived in Nairobi for 10 years. So I guess art is genetic and runs in my blood.
3. Without a formal training in art, how did you manage to establish yourself in this field?
Well, I am still unsure if I am established as a wildlife artist. I’ve been trying to sell my paintings and have not yet had an exhibition as a wildlife artist; I certainly have not been able to make a living out of my profession. I am slowly being recognised for my work as an artist, but mainly for my conservation work.
A painting by Sunita.
4. On returning to India after a long stint in the USA, you chose to settle down in Bandipur. Why Bandipur?
After 10 years in the USA, I decided to return home. Looking around Bangalore in 1995, I realised that I wanted to live alongside wildlife; Indian cities were not really where I envisioned my future. My aunt Premilla Singh’s (the wildlife photographer) friend was building a resort in Bandipur, and initially, it was she who wanted a small cottage here. While visiting to register the land, she developed cold feet and backed out, and I ended up buying the land. Veerappan was around during those days, so this area was quite isolated, and I think the whole prospect was frightening to her.
The Hunt at Bandipur Tiger Reserve : Wild Dogs hunting Chital
5. You are known for your murals. How and when did you begin painting murals?
I started painting murals quite by chance, in Minneapolis, where I lived. At the time, I was looking after the zoo store in an upmarket mall; I would write the zoo programs on a blackboard, and would always draw an animal in chalk. A gentleman who was opening a sports bar with some friends, requested me to paint a mural in their foyer. With great hesitation, I accepted the project and learnt about what paints to use on walls, from my local art shop. I painted the foyer with all the unusual animals of Australia, and it was a hit. Then onwards, I began to get commissioned to paint homes and theater backdrops. Shortly before I left, I was asked if I’d be interested to paint the city center in Minneapolis. That would have been a life-changing project, but, to return to India was my dream, so I refused.
A mural by Sunita, in one of the rooms at JLR, Bandipur.
6. How does having a formal qualification in textile designing fit into the scheme of things?
It was only because I was a qualified textile designer that I could start Temple Tree Designs, a small proprietorship company, solely to support The Mariamma Charitable Trust. I actually worked in Tirupur as a manager of a 250-machine knitwear factory, for three months, learning the tricks of the trade; without the design background, it would have been impossible for me to do that. Everything created and sold at the store has wildlife-oriented designs.
7. What is Temple Tree Designs?
As mentioned earlier, Temple Tree Designs is a company started to support the charity. I design wildlife t-shirts, jackets, coffee mugs, caps, coasters, fridge magnets, etc. A large fraction of the proceeds from the sale of these products goes to support the charity.
A mural in one of the rooms at JLR, Bandipur
8. Can you briefly tell us about the community work you do in Bandipur?
These are three things we focus on:
- We compensate villagers for cattle killed by large carnivores, to stop retaliation killings, in 15 villages in the Bandipur area and 9 villages in Mudumulai.
- We run a medical clinic, established by Dr. A.R. Pai in the year 2000, for the rural poor. The clinic is now supported completely by The Mariamma Charitable Trust. Dr. Sridharan, from BR Hills, comes once a month and we have a nurse who comes every day from Gundlupet. We have looked after people and their chronic illnesses for over 14 years now. This humanitarian work has earned us the goodwill of the locals and paved the way for us to work on conservation issues.
- We support education for underprivileged youth.
Other than these three core works, we do other conservation work too. We recently completed a vaccination project alongwith WWF, vaccinating 1266 dogs in 130 villages within a 2 km. radius of Bandipur, against canine distemper virus and rabies.
9. What are your thoughts on an artist’s role in conservation?
I think an artist’s perspective of wildlife conservation can be very different from that of a scientist. For example, for many years now, I have held the belief that we need to work with local communities for the preservation of our wildlife and forests, whereas, it is only recently that the importance of this kind of work has been realised.I belong to a group called ‘Artists for Conservation’, which is an international group of artists from all over the world. To be a part of that group, you have to be able to contribute to conservation in some way; my art touches people through the funds raised by my charity. I think wildlife artists worldwide are doing an excellent job in helping conserve our planet, through the heightened awareness that art helps generate.
Barasingha at Kanha Tiger Reserve