On the outskirts of the city of Delhi stands the sprawling 286-acre campus of Shiv Nadar University, one of India’s premier institutions. The university offers courses in many subjects, including natural sciences and engineering. Our campus is surrounded on three sides by farmland and a thriving lake, which may come as a surprise to some who think India’s capital is a concrete metropolis.
As a university professor, one of us (Dutt) was struck early on by the biodiversity on campus. University researchers have painstakingly documented a total of 354 plant species (234 wild and 120 cultivated). Wildlife diversity is also rich, with 10 species of mammals, 65 species of birds, nine species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, and 54 species of butterflies calling the university their home.
Yet when I spoke with students, I discovered that they were unaware of the incredible biodiversity that surrounds them and of the university’s efforts to protect it. For years, there was virtually no signage on campus other than those that said “Do not throw plastic in the lake” and “Beware of snakes.” Both posts seemed far removed from the celebration of flora and fauna on campus. As a science communicator, I wanted to do something about it.
We could have taken photos of the different species present and put up signs all over the campus. Universities like mine have many naturalists who teach and do research who could have helped us. But I had another idea.
Folk art can be a powerful visual and non-verbal tool for communicating complex scientific ideas. I thought, why not use this idea as a way to show the biodiversity of the university? I was hoping it would spark both curiosity and maybe pride. I contacted a popular artist, Sudarshan Shaw, with the aim of creating a biodiversity map of the university campus. He is well known for illustrating biodiversity maps of the state of Andhra Pradesh which features over 55 species of flora and fauna in a traditional style called kalamkari. Derived from the Hindi word Kalamwhich means pen, this folk art form involves an intricate type of fabric painting.
Sudarshan had also created his first biodiversity map, which depicted the state of Odisha in the patachitra style – an art form believed to be from the 12th century and used to depict Hindu mythology on a pattaor canvas.
I (Shaw) was thrilled to join the project. When Bahar came up with her vision to create a biodiversity map for an educational institution, a university campus, she was one of a kind, far-sighted and, above all, truly local. I knew right away that we were aligned to establish a meaningful collaboration.
I believe that true conservation benefits most from the use of local voices, language, history and practices, among others. The majority of humans living in “occupied landscapes” do not notice non-human species. Bringing young minds to realize that nature is not far away but is found every day, everywhere, all around us, and that we are an integral part of it – and spark their curiosity, wonder and awareness that wilt quickly – would be a long way to promote conservation.
Together we decided to create a biodiversity map of Shiv Nadar University in Mughal art style. This style of painting was generally confined to miniatures and was mainly developed where the Mughal kings ruled South Asia from the 1500s to the 1700s. I (Shaw) chose the Mughal style because the paintings I know demonstrate harmonious imagery for the contrast that is the wilderness ensconced in and around the architectural marvels. I made this connection myself when I visited the campus and saw the wild plots that have been allowed to flourish amidst the architecturally articulate buildings and its meticulously curated botanical garden. And Mughal miniature paintings seem to be one of the few folk art forms that stylizes the drawings closest to how the forms of flora and fauna actually appear, making them more scientifically accurate, while giving them a unique tranquil character and visual appeal. I took advantage of the calm during the height of COVID restrictions to paint about fifty species of birds, mammals and flora.
To create the map, we combined three disciplines – ecology (of the campus and its scientists), communications and art – to come up with a final product installed on campus from different points of view (such as the library, the hostel) so students can stop and learn about the natural world around them.
We believe this is the first example of creating a biodiversity map for a built environment. The card has now taken many forms. We sourced fabric from weavers in Benares, India, whose textile designs date back hundreds of years, and printed the map on it to make a stole. When guests visit campus, we offer them a stole as a mark of respect. It has become a treasured possession for every member of the Shiv Nadar community.
Since installing biodiversity maps at prominent locations on campus, students have become more aware of the biodiversity around them. Indeed, the cards have proven to be a great recruiting tool: one student told me (Dutt) in class that when she saw the cards on a tour before signing up, she “got realized that it’s the university [she] wanted to study in and nowhere else.
Scientific information can be important. It may not reach all audiences, especially if people have not had access to formal education. We have seen that using simple communication tools such as maps can spark interest in nature. At Shiv Nadar University, this project showed us that an atypical visual tool could be powerful in communicating complex terms to a well-educated urban target group while creating a positive attitude towards the nature around them. We invite other universities to explore how folk art can be an educational tool in a time of climate change and species loss. We believe projects like this will have a lasting effect on viewers while communicating concepts related to biodiversity science in offbeat, memorable and reliable ways.
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.