By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, July 19 (IANS)
They are Nepal’s ‘biggest’ artists. Yet Khem Prasad and Sundar Kali are in a sore plight now, on the verge of losing both their jobs and muse.
While Khem Prasad is a five-year-old male elephant, Sundar Kali, 35, is a female.
Both of them are employed by two jungle lodges located inside the Chitwan National Park in south Nepal’s Machan and Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge.
Their work is to carry visitors during elephant safaris and provide an unforgettable experience.
However, since Thursday, the two, along with nearly six dozen more of their ilk, have been facing an uncertain future with all seven lodges in the park being closed down due to the expiry of their leases.
While the anxious owners wait for the government of new Nepali Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to decide if the lease should be extended, the two jumbos are also facing an end to a unique activity that sets them apart from the other elephants: painting.
They are ‘trained’ painters who have already completed over three dozen paintings and had exhibitions in Kathmandu.
Priced at $150 each or NRS 12,000 - a large sum in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest nations, the paintings at their debut exhibition raised about NRS 250,000. The money is to be used to construct watering holes for elephants and provide scholarship to children from families which lost a member in an encounter with wild elephants.
Dubbed ‘Picassos of the forest’, the two elephants attained their fame when a 17-year-old American schoolgirl decided to do something unusual for her high school project.
Ariane LeClerq, who has grown up in Nepal, says she was fascinated by elephants since she was a baby. Her parents used to take her to the Chitwan lodges where she would play with the elephants.
When she was three, she thought elephants were part of every household; her first question to her grandmother, whom she visited in Canada, was: “How many elephants have you ridden, Nana?”
Ariane’s half sister, who visited Thailand, bought an elephant painting there and when Ariane saw it, she thought, why can’t it be done in Nepal too where there is no dearth of elephants.
She emailed the trainer in Thailand who was teaching elephants to paint and he said he would be happy to come to Nepal and show her how to do it.
The next step was to buy paint, brushes and large canvases and train the elephants.
Khem Prasad, she says, was a natural who immediately grabbed the brush with his trunk and began making round strokes on the canvas.
“He has a lot of energy,” Ariane says. “He uses circular strokes and when he is painting, you can see he is totally absorbed.”
Sundar Kali was a surprise. Usually, elephants between two to five years are chosen as they are easy to train. But her mahout begged for her to be given a chance despite her age and she immediately cottoned on.
Sundar Kali, Ariane says, paints with placid unvarying strokes that go up and down.
The new skill the two jumbos acquired however may begin to wither as Ariane leaves Nepal at the end of the year to enrol in college in the US.
She says she doesn’t know what to do with her considerable collection of elephant paintings.
“This can be your business after you finish school, my parents have been telling me half-jokingly, half in earnest,” she says. “But even if I decide to promote and sell elephant paintings as my profession, it will have to wait for another four years till I finish college.”