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Art for conservation: A collaboration with Violet Astor

Art for Conservation

The original SUJÁN tented camp, SUJÁN Sher Bagh, Ranthambhore, recently reopened for it's 21st season of operations in October 2021. Beautifully redefined after a thoughtful transformation, to help celebrate this new chapter, Jaisal & Anjali Singh commissioned their dear friend and well known conservation wildlife artist, Violet Astor, to create some unique and inspirational artworks to adorn the new tented suites.

Self-taught artist Violet discovered the meditative medium of drawing as a form of art therapy to aid her in her ongoing battle with Lymes Disease. Inspired by the tragic decline of the natural world and our ever-changing ecosystem, Violet has travelled to some of the most beautiful wildernesses in the world, to create beautiful drawings of endangered species that she encounters and treasures. Her work acts as a powerful ode to the resilience of nature and a reminder of what is at stake.

We caught up with Violet to learn more about her artistic journey and to find out about her love and connection to the Ranthambhore jungle and it's majestic big cats!

When did you discover your natural talent for drawing and painting?

I discovered drawing as profession quite as a surprise after a long career in social work. I had to suddenly stop work due to becoming chronically ill with Lyme Disease, which rendered me housebound and it was during this time that I found peace and respite in teaching myself to draw. It was a wonderful distraction and means to staying connected to the things I love. In turn it became a therapeutic means for healing.

Have you always been passionate about wildlife and nature?

I have always loved animals and nature. As a young child, I surrounded myself with as many pets as I could! And when my father took me on safari in Africa when I was 12, I became completely entranced by wild spaces. But my passion for nature and its protection really developed when I worked in Kanha Tiger Reserve and was able to get into the jungle on a daily basis and became inescapably aware of the decline of wild species and their natural environment.

You have a long association with India, when did you first visit and fall in love with this country?

I first visited India when I was 16 and was immediately overwhelmed by the intensity and chaos, which was so different to anything I had experienced before. However, it didn’t take long before I found myself feeling completely alive and invigorated by the country.

When was your first visit to Sher Bagh, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My first visit to Sher Bagh was in 2004. I had been working in Kanha Tiger Reserve for a year and so was well acquainted with India’s wild spaces. However, there is a magic to Ranthambore that I didn’t believe possible. Not only did the sightings feel so intimate but being able to observe tigers interacting with ruins of palaces was like a fairy tale come to life. I remember the heartache when I left the camp, knowing that my every need and whim would no longer be pre-empted and attended to. I had, and have since, never been looked after so incredibly well. My time at Sher Bagh took me away from everything I have ever known and journeyed me back to a time in imagined history. Complete magic!

A couple of years ago you returned to stay with us at SUJÁN Sher Bagh, having not been back for a number of years. Did your time spent in the jungle here inspire a lot of your recent work on tigers and other wildlife? How did that trip impact you as a person and with your art?

100% of my tiger artworks have been inspired by my time at Sher Bagh! My visit in 2017 was my first air travel after 4 years of illness so it was a major event for me. It was especially potent as it was my first real exposure to wildlife since learning how to draw, which meant that it was the first time that I could capture my own reference photos to work from. This has made a huge difference to the way that I work; enabling the memories to flood back while drawing which help to bring the subject to life. Being on the ground also inspired me to use natural materials found in my subjects environment to colour my artworks. It was seeing the rust red colour of paan (betel nut) that made me think of a tigers fur and motivated me to mix the ingredients to make my own paint. It has been a huge privilege to have intimate experiences with my subjects and therefore I feel a great responsibility to share the stories and messages from the ground about their conservation.

What is it that mesmerises you about tigers?

I will never forget my first tiger sighting in the wild! To see a big cat in all its size, colour, smell and glory bought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t stop pointing it out to the guide (who was very well aware of its presence!) and saying “a tiger, a tiger” in compete disbelief and awe. The collective joy was infectious and we were all in tears for the rest of the drive. Since then, every time I see a tiger in the wild feels like the first. I am not sure they will ever fail to take my breath away. It is hard to imagine that mother nature created something not only so vibrant and beautiful but also a creature that fits so surprisingly perfectly into its habitat.

Do you have a most memorable sighting?

Ahhh, there are too many! But the first one that pops into my mind is the memory of being charged by a tiger! We had been sitting watching the top of a tigers ear as it twitched amidst thick jungle cover for what felt like a painfully long time! There had been a hope that it would stand up and walk across the road in front of us but as the light was fading we knew that our chances were slim. So as we were getting ready to turn around and head home when we noticed another tiger crouched and deliberately stalking us from behind. And, like in a game of cat and mouse, the minute the vehicle accelerated away the tiger erupted into a chase. Amidst the flurry of activity, the guide’s cap was knocked off and flew behind the vehicle onto the road in front of the tiger. Thankfully this provided a great distraction for the tiger who abruptly put on the brakes and sauntered over to the cap, picked it up in his mouth and carried it off deep into the jungle never to be seen again. It felt like a close escape at the time but on learning subsequently that it was a playful adolescent tiger who had an enthusiasm for chasing vehicles it felt like we could then join in on the fun.

Raising awareness of endangered animals through your art and drawing attention to people who work hard to save them has always been at the forefront of every piece you do, was this always the intention when you began?What is the most difficult part of a tiger to draw?

The paws are definitely the most difficult part to draw! It drives me mad trying to get them right but the struggle with this pales in comparison to the joy I get from drawing a tigers eye. This is a part of the anatomy that I find so compelling and a means to communicate so much through.

Raising awareness of endangered animals through your art and drawing attention to people who work hard to save them has always been at the forefront of every piece you do, was this always the intention when you began?

I was so incensed and stirred after watching Virunga the movie that I took charcoal to paper and created my first ever wildlife drawing. It was a detailed larger-than-life size portrait of a mountain gorilla looking intense and sad. And while I never intended to do anything with any of the work I created during the years I taught myself to draw, they were all of species on the cusp of extinction. So when my health started improving and I was moving back into the world again, exhibiting and selling my artwork to raise awareness and funds for conservation felt like an organic next step. In hindsight, my experience working in Kanha and seeing tigers on the edge of extinction first hand must have informed my passion and direction.

For your coloured artworks you uses lots of natural, organic materials collected from the environment of your subjects, from betel nut to soil to tea leaves meaning you create environmentally friendly pieces of artwork. Can you tell us more about these and the ones you have used for the Sher Bagh collection?

As I have mentioned, it was my time in Sher Bagh that initiated a desire to work with materials that I found in the landscape around my subjects. The urge seemed to flow quite naturally and made a lot of sense at the time despite never having worked with paints or even colour before. It was a completely new learning experience and utterly mad as it was so much harder than using premade paints! Having been inspired by the colour in the spit created from chewing paan, I had to learn to mix the ingredients in a way that wouldn’t crumble the paper or grow mould! The most recent pieces I have done for Sher Bagh were made using masala chai tea and katha, which is an extract from the acacia tree. Katha is commonly used as a food additive and dye in India. It is extracted predominantly from Acacia catechu, by boiling the wood in water and evaporating the resulting brew. And, in my opinion, makes for a great colour representative of tiger fur!

Do you have a favourite Ranthambhore tiger you painted for us?
I so loved drawing them all but one stands out especially. I really, really enjoyed drawing ‘Reflection’.

It is a detailed portrait of a tiger cub that I spend the most magical few hours with. We started the sighting frantically following a mother and her three cubs as they were herding sambar deer through the jungle. The bursts of alarm calls and crashing noises coming from behind the canopy was enough to start the heart racing. Never knowing which direction any one of the tigers would come from – either in a slow stalk or hot pursuit – kept us on our toes for about an hour. Once the hunt was over (and unfortunately unsuccessful) the family lay down to rest and that is when this particular fellow plopped himself down a few meters from our vehicle where he watched me and I watched him for another hour or so. The thrill of exchanging a stare with a tiger makes you feel completely vulnerable and totally alive all at the same time. To be able to revisit that feeling while drawing back at my desk in England is what makes me love my job so much!

And lastly, describe India in just three words..
Vivid, intense and lurid

To make your reservation at SUJÁN Sher Bagh please click here and to see more of Violet's beautiful work please visit www.violetastor.com


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