Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant—the only harmless great thing.
Hanging on the wall in our spare bedroom is one of the few pieces of art I own. It was bought during a bad time in my life. My boyfriend is ambiguous as to its artistic quality. The painting survived two big moves, the first when it sat in a railway carriage traveling across the Great Deccan Plateau, the ploughed earth looking like a massive piece of contemporary art; the second time when its frame snapped in two places during the long-haul flight into the City of Angels. I’m happy I have it. Basically, Luster Fearless tolerates it, knowing it has some special meaning for me. Luster Fearless has traveled thE world. In the intervening years he’s seen bull elephants on murals in Lincoln Court. He’s been to Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary, Pamplona and West Africa multiple times. It’s hard to predict him. He’s seen a buffalo gore, a mamba strike, an elephant charge like Indra’s powerful multi-trunk, multi-tusk behemoth of mythology.
Elephant Sutra was bought on Kemp’s Corner in Colaba from the Maharani Art Gallery (still I cannot believe this has disappeared, decanting with others across Greater Bombay). The store front was wedged between Noronhas selling Goan sausages, prawn balchao, other tempting condiments; and an old-fashioned Kodak photoshop. The canvas presented a stark image of a charging elephant in a bamboo forest landscape. To this day the image reminds me of my old school days and annual trips to the elephant festivals in my hometown. Such grandeur. I think my picture a cut above the legendary herds I grew used to in my City of Elephants. To use a folklore appropriate euphemism, I felt a maha ‘grand’ exhilaration. There was a smart professional glow as if the artist was trying to explain his very own brand of art. Most local painters lose almost everything in the transfer to canvas. Inked in the bottom right hand corner which captures the concept cloud of antipodal dust is the signature of the artist Ven Raghu, followed by some numbers. The shelves of ceramics and Lalique crystals that crammed this boutique gallery should have distracted me, they looked pretty, but perhaps I’m blind to such realities.
“What are you seeking, Ramina?” Luster asked with his usual standoff.
I ignored his brow raised at Bengal tigers in the Sunderbans, swallows on the Cornish coast, Salvatore Dali’s alligator stick imitations. I zeroed in on my dark gray mightily charging tusker, with the intensity of an ancient female cow elephant guarding earth’s four cardinal points. My senses are lost in my painting on the wall. I’m returning to Hastinapur. I don’t know when. My thoughts have ochred, like old parchment. I’m trying to remember my old hometown. Luster has the painting up for sale. I do think this is not likely. But, Luster says things change, saffron to ochre. If he has his way Elephant Sutra will be gone again, same as the ceremonial heroes of eons past. I carry old scars.
One time Luster praised the long gone artist, the elephant’s ivory tusks spearing the empty sky, and the imagination. This happens warily when our talks on the painting implode in a mess of mindset clashes. Who knew hunting activities were pursued remorselessly once. Who knew that ivory and skin trade along the coastal borders isn’t going to change anytime soon. Who knew that booming business in elephant parts has no buffer. It wasn’t so when elephant headed Gods offered protection, or seriously removed obstacles, to use another euphemistic phrase. Elephant’s memories reach way back to the soul of their species. They carry stories so deep, from centuries ago. Luster says nothing that the artist saw of man or animal was irrelevant. Not then, not now. He says poaching doesn’t dwindle. But not before these creatures carried the lifespan of their memories into the carved engravings of their ivory, to fulfill their sutra. For, an elephant never forgets.
So, what is sutra?
Abandoned love choked in the crevices of shorn ivory—the instant story.
Hopeless mounts of kings forced into slave labor and abuse–the paradox intensifying the future. I know the painting will scrub the slate clean. People talk of mystic harmonies, of cosmic balance. Stand beside an elephant. Feel its steadfastness, its gentle strength.
My hometown is a ghost story. Oral passed-down folklore tell of pachyderms communicating their cries on the wind, where the cyclones are fierce. I hear their grief, blown to the four corners of the earth on gale force winds, elephants sharing their pain. Sutra verbally records in many forms. My relatives are storytellers. We share a common trait. One particular year skeletons of elephants minus tusks were unearthed under an historic Fort. The location was mapped. The mapping revealed the grisly rite of passage a young bull elephant underwent as sacrificial offerings–elephant murder beneath the buttresses and stone ramparts they helped build. It is a great story. Every time I look at my Elephant Sutra canvas I seek to find equilibrium, but the painting has grown still, and I blink away tears.
Supernatural hauntings lend an added excitement to the desolate place in the painting. Those were exceedingly dark times. People really believed that de-tusking adult elephants helped ornament themselves, enrich the womenfolk and protect them from evil spirits. People in those early times really believed ghosts of dead elephants roamed, tusk-less. As a child on my field trips to the old fort with my papa, I always imagined those pale tusks cloaked in mythical grayness. My big moments were in the pithy sutras. They lent courage. To this day no evidence has presented to back up this compelling story. Neither on why the ghosts of murdered elephants that have littered the countryside across the centuries remain in this painting. No one explains.
“Was it a popular story, Ramina?” Luster asks me, although he knows the answer.
“Very,” I respond, noncommittally, although I’m speaking to the sutra aphorism when it is fully extended.
Luster goes on to deliver spooky ghost stories, adding up the thrills. Most of his fractured stories revolve around a traveling menagerie of exotic animals, including elephants. He alludes to one Elephant Hotel, a real hotel he says, on the outskirts of a Tyrolean village, where he stayed just one night, out of fear. Prompt on the midnight hour two tusked elephants advanced from the grounds of Hotel Elephant although no one knows why or who they belong to, says Luster. Here, New York? I ask, overcome. Luster’s tales of burials and betrayals are unsettling. They revolve around conflicting versions of his life. He clearly wishes to plumb new depths with every affable impulse. We give up settling on the right location. We give up painting history with our brush.
I wonder if international art will ever have a home to go to. It is tempting to make a joke about Indian folklore. Elephant Sutra must be sold. I know that the painting itself speaks the truth. Ritual burials aside that elephant in the painting is real. The dramatic discovery of the skeletons at the site are real. Multiple similar sites revealed several hundred carcasses. Those are real. The numbers are real. Elephant diminishment is real. Ivory poaching is as routinely real as felling trees. Luster persists in his theory that there is no proof, no blood bridge connection, although stockpiles of ivory are smuggled annually, endangering the African elephant, the Asian elephant, the once supreme mounts of gods and kings. Not possible, says Luster. At Hollywood Boulevard he has a pair of wild hippy happy elephant tattoos in trumpeting poses inked on his biceps to lend culture cheer. I can’t help imagining those muscles flexing. I feel a queasiness rising. I think the tattoos ooze massive suffering. Imagine actually living on human forearms. I feel a confusing pull to touch, to trace the outlines. I’m still too much in love with Luster despite the numerous thralls he exerts over me.
Summer of 2015, another trip to my hometown, with Luster. I am half out of my mind. Luster doesn’t care. He wears a pair of brand name shoes I don’t doubt is elephant leather, although he says the elephant in it brings luck. The colors on the shoes are striking—the elephant’s intrinsic worth lost in a shoe. For four straight days I sense a paradigm shift in his definition of artistic practices. He throws sentimental love sutras at me, quoting bits of imaginative material he picks from here and there.
We take a walk below the crumbling stone fort walls. My papa who had been here a million times never showed signs of tiring of it, recalling stories to me of the grandiosity of elephants, the famous eight who welcomed the goddess of wealth when she rose from the ocean of milk, the special invincible elephants who rode fearlessly into battle, and the legend which is my favorite, of the divine breed of elephants which stand at the eight corners to support the universe. It is reassuring to see the bulbuls, those little passerine birds smaller than their town cousins, feeding on the wing as they swallow flying dragonflies. The fort walls are riddled with their nests.
“Do you remember that trip we took across the Great Deccan Plateau when you were still at Colaba?” asks my boy-friend.
At first I don’t; I catch my breath, then something slowly fades back into view.
“I think so, Luster, yeah.”
“Who was that dhoti-swaddled painter in the art gallery with the really bronzed chest?”
“I think his name was Ven.”
My images from that trip, around four decades I’d guess, match today, though I recall it being hotter, drier, dustier, smell of sandalwood in the air. Taste of Ven on my mouth. Burnt sienna as a color is a test of accomplishment. Nothing unusual about that. I’m lost in aesthetics today. The sensation I am feeling is of memories trumpeting down the curled trunk of Ven’s elephant. I remember rooting around in elephant foot-print pools, caked and cracked. A further mix of caramelized coating. Something has changed since my last visit though. Were things gloomier and weathered at the fort? Maybe. Light rain blinds my eyes. In readiness for clearing skies my own vague images jump darkly behind me. Destiny is flickering shadows projected onto the cave wall aka fort walls. I feel like we’ve stepped off the painting into Plato’s cave.
We walk away from the historic fort along the hilly top, now looking somehow more managed and more wild at the same time. A straight path of green grassland is flanked on either side by a dancing and arresting masses of managed meadow. The view is genuine. As we stroll, I see festive elephants undertaking their famous head displays, ears flapping, trunks raised and dipped, tusks gleaming ivory white, trumpeting their victory calls. The collective mood one can associate with the elephant is exhilaration, something that cannot be described, unless one has actually seen an elephant’s mood thus.
“These elephants, this swaying plant life, they weren’t there the last time?” I ask Luster. The elephants have each multiplied by seven.
“For what it is worth, it is a haunted corridor,” he says, “a functioning haunted corridor.” I didn’t think that was the right choice of words. Darkness is a phenomenon that will constantly haunt. We cannot vary the cadence. I am being told effort has been made to obliterate the past, to undo the natural spookiness of the area, something so unexpected, it fills me with genuine horror. The shadow of death is on every bone unearthed. I expect everything to be much worse than I remember, always, so it is prophetic to be proved right. After all. elephants dispose of their dead in secret burial grounds, which can never ever be discovered, as the legend says.
In the distance stand the shapeless outlines of three merged figures, light and foliage filling the gaps where their bodies should be. I am both dead and alive. I should know these. I approach the three figures blowing in the wind. An elephant with tusks. An artist with his paints. A hunter with a knife. I imagine that the hunter was taken down by the elephant. I imagine the artist capturing the moment. I take a mental photograph of the image. I am spent. I sit briefly on the wet grass. Luster stands near the hilltop and looks out toward the valley. The horizon is tinged milky white. He is chanting spiritual verses, sutra aphorisms. Or, I hope he is. He does not look at me.
Things could change, but we are still trapped by the past.
Elephant Sutra retains a little residue of fame that’s now becoming as much a part of our ingrained mythology as Jewel of India, or City of Elephants, or Rani of Jhansi slaying the demongogu in the Gobi Desert. The Mayans had their burial theories and so did the ancient Greeks, says Luster, with his usual nonchalance. I will be expending a different amount of effort to go in the direction of lost civilizations and the classics. Ancient knowledge is spiritual. Mortality overtakes most first-hand accounts. True tales have a way of disappearing. But not stories, not half-truths, sutras or legends. These have a life of their own. They will continue. I wonder if elephants gone will ever come back to my life. To me, they will, like ancestors, never really gone.
When I was fifteen, five elephant remains were found a few miles away. This time dead ivory tusks turned into heirlooms; one ivory elephant sits in an Island Bay Museum and Gallery, another in Regis Castle, and one at the War Museum on a North Sea isle. About half a mile from my papa’s house stands a statue of Ven Raghu. Sculpted in bronze by a Swedish, Hilmar Svensson, no elephants commemorate a brilliant career that began as an inspiration to the elephant-headed deity of good beginnings, although Ven’s work can be found throughout the country, and all around the world. Looking at the statue unearths an explosive tale of murdered elephants watched by the ghosts of elephant sacrifice. All set in bronze, guano encrusted idol approved by legend, by sutras.
They call these moving things elephant carvings. The disembodied three figures in outline standing atop the sandy hills, among the swaying grassy meadows, I’ve never come across such a thing before—elephant, artist, hunter. Luster calls it an illusion. Luster says no elephants died here. Luster says no animals, bones, or parts were ever found buried in these hills, except nocturnal bats, which accounts for the guano. It does not sound right. There’s no explanation for what I see. I have never returned.
So, what is Elephant Sutra?
Elephant Sutra is a simple painting of a life-size elephant against a background of grainy dust made to local life, color and culture. The colors have aged to a fine rust surface film, and become a natural part of the landscape. The browns blend with the grays, aesthetically. I’m uneasy with the animal’s three-dimensional look, although Luster says the effect is man-made, by which he means homo sapien achieved, aka artist Ven Raghu, so, unnatural. I would like to know what other people see. I wonder if this painting sets off the same chain reactions of memory and musing. I wonder if people really notice mountain like elephants of measureless power such as those used by supreme deities, or do they see depopulated elephants, or elephant ghosts.
Luster has my painting up For Sale. I suppose he thought it was necessary. Some schemes feel more like vanity imperatives. The randomness of his impudence never ceases to amaze me. I know, for example, the Antwerp Art Gallery failed to make a sale, so did the Hungary Art auction. He has it now sequestered on Long island. It has been three years, shipped via the New London ferry to Orient Point. Like clockwork, I visit Elephant Sutra at least once every day, comforted by the life sounds of countless other old elephant souls surrounding me. I wonder if it will ever sell.
Rekha Valliappan’s short fiction and poems appear in Litro Magazine, Prime Number Magazine / Press 53, The Cabinet of Heed, The Blue Nib, Red Fez, Aaduna Literary Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and other venues. A post-graduate in English Literature from Madras University with an Honors Degree in Law from the University of London, she has won awards for her writing and earned nominations to the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.