Among monstrous ships of all shapes and sizes on the river Rupsha, I first saw the “Dolphin boat”, shining and bobbing its snout in the soft winter light. The impact is one of awe and curiosity, which is what the art form had intended – to spike the interest of onlookers as it cruises the riverways of Sundarbans eventually creating awareness on dolphin conservation.
That art and nature are connected is a no-brainer. But to see artists harnessing that inspiration to protect the very nature that inspired them is beautiful — art and wildlife conservation have amalgamated and given birth to something new, something that captures the imagination.
A MOBY DICK-KIND OF A BOAT
In the banks of river Rupsha in Khulna, chowais (people who work with golpata in Sundarbans), had worked day in and out to turn the traditional golpata boat into one that would resemble a River dolphin, or shushuk, which is a globally endangered creature and can be found in the waters of Sundarbans.
The brainchild of artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin, the Golpata Dolphin Boat, was going to sail from Khulna all the way into the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, making pit stops at villages and bazar-ghaat adjacent to the mangrove forest to showcase the importance of saving dolphins.
The reason these villages were chosen, is because, most of the inhabitants are fisher-folk who make their living by fishing inside the Sundarbans and come across dolphins regularly. And one of the main threats for dolphins, as identified by conservationists, is entanglement in fishing nets, making it crucial to ensure that the message for their protection reached the villagers.
Prior to my visit, I had already conjured up a mental image of what this boat would look like but I was not entirely prepared for what lay in wait for us. It was almost a small house, practically designed as a part-time gallery to exhibit dolphin photos, as a makeshift stage for puppeteers, an art and crafts classroom and during its slow hours, as a home to the crew members who would take the boat around to villages. It was lifelike, an art that you became a part of and interacted with.
It was early days of November when we set sail from Khulna; us on a larger ship, towing the “Dolphin Boat” along, for the first village by the forest.
In the tide country though, our timing and planning took a back seat as we had let the course of the tide take our decisions. It was morning – the next day – before we could reach our destination.
As the boat anchored by the village, hundreds of school children, men in colourful shirts and lungis and the women in equally colourful saris converged upon the boat.
For the villagers of the south, an “NGO” or any city people coming and promising them many a thing is commonplace. They are often wary of men and women shoving posters and placards on their faces. But despite all of that the villagers came in droves that morning.
At Joymoni village, right opposite the sprawling Sundarbans, students came by the hundreds, all voicing one word “Shushuk Nouka”. And it became clear that art as a means of reaching people to create awareness on River dolphin and Irrawaddy dolphin (both globally endangered) conservation had clearly made an impact.
“The point is to spark a conversation, make people want to question and create a platform for activists, and in this case conservationists wanting to protect dolphin habitats and dolphins in Sundarbans, to get their message through to people,” says Kamruzzaman Shadhin, an artist, who has made it his life's work to work closely with local communities.
Shadhin uses the medium of installation art and resorts to using local materials to create his art works.
“But you see, this is not art for the sake of art, alone. In the creeks of Sundarbans, the job of my art is to act as an agent, an agent of conservation for dolphins.”
Shadhin also believes the connection that the villagers make with art is more direct. “When they see the dolphin boat, they immediately recognise it as 'shushuk', so the premises for our work is already established and they know our topic of discussion. They then come to find out what is it that we want to say,” he adds.
In the small village by the Sundarbans, the word of a dolphin boat carrying all sorts of bizarre exhibits –bioscope, puppet show by Jolputul, huge photographs of dolphins and whales frolicking in the rivers and oceans, and an arts and crafts show — brought children and adults by the hundreds.
As the puppeteers sat behind a makeshift stage inside the boat, children crammed into the boat watching with rapt attention as the story unfolded in front of their eyes. It was a simple story by the Jolputul puppeteer team, as they showed how fishing practices, plastic pollution, factories, and other threats were hurting the animals, including the Ganges River dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins, which call the Sundarbans their home.
“It becomes difficult to often relay a message through traditional, often cumbersome means such as seminars and so on but when we break it down into forms that are both entertaining and simple to grasp, they often stay with people for days,” opines Shadhin.
WATCHING THE DOLPHINS OF SUNDARBANS AT PLAY
As the programme at Joymoni drew its curtains around afternoon, we left the village and headed off on our boat — MV Chuti — to spend the night inside the Sundarbans.
Conversations with conservationists on the boat revealed the many threats these intelligent mammals face on a day-to-day basis. Overfishing, entanglement in fishing nets, the use of dolphin oil as bait by fishermen and the rising threat of pollution, all have conservationists worried. Lose these aquatic mammals, and we stand to lose so much more; they maintain the balance of riverine ecosystems as top predators.
I saw these conservationists, sit through the last light of the evening, somewhat excited, somewhat fearful of the days ahead as rampant developments take over the last stronghold of the dolphin habitat.
Their excitement, of course, is owing to the sighting of Ganges River dolphins at play. They watched, transfixed with their binoculars, as one after another of these majestic dolphins jumped out of the water, catching their breath and going back in, a lub-dub-dub sound breaking the stillness of the forest.
I spent a few more days in the forest, hopping villages by the rivers, watching artists, puppeteers and conservationists raise awareness. Full of hope, they believe that if children become more aware, then the possibilities are endless because they are the ultimate guardians of nature.
The conservationists also urged relevant stakeholders and the government to declare the dolphin as a national aquatic animal, thereby raising its profile and ensuring further conservation efforts.
The Sundarbans is home to Asia's last two remaining freshwater dolphins — Irrawaddy dolphin and the Ganges River dolphin — both globally endangered.
As our time inside the forest drew to a close, I watched longingly at the dolphin-like boat disappear into the horizon, exposed to elements, its golpata feathers blowing in the northern wind. Beside the boat, the Ganges River dolphins come out to play as well and the odd juxtaposition of the natural world and the one made by us gets seared into my mind. I realised, yet again, the fight for conservation is essentially humans trying to mitigate all the trouble they have caused; I hope we succeed, for a world, where dolphins do not come out to play and birds do not soar the sky, would be a bleak one indeed.
*International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh in partnership with CNRS organised the fair under a project initiated by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Bangladesh Forest Department.