From this Sunday, for the next three weeks, people in Mumbai will come across elephants at various street corners. 

Little statues of the animal will be on display at different locations as part of an art exhibition by Elephant Parade, a social enterprise. Having already previewed in Jaipur (5-6 November, with 22 elephant statues), Delhi (8 November, 25) and Kolkata (21-24 December, 10), a full repertoire of 101 statues will be on show here, all of them created by practitioners of fine arts, folk art, fashion, design and architecture, besides a few celebrities.

The sculptures—4 feet 11 inches long, 4 feet 9 inches tall and 60kg in weight (with a few exceptions)—will be up for auction and the proceeds will go to the charity The Elephant Family, which will use the fund to create elephant corridors—pathways for the wild animals to move from one feeding forest to the other without disturbing human habitats. The Elephant Family has raised £10 million through public art events since 2002.

Working with the Wildlife Trust of India, the charity has identified 101 corridors in India, reason why there will be 101 statues on display designed by 98 creators.

It was in 2010 when, for the first time, a herd of baby elephants, hand-painted by British and Indian artists and designers, were let loose in London to raise awareness about the plight of Asian elephants. The statues—in parks and other public places—added more than a dash of surprising colour to an otherwise dour London landscape.

The sculptures will be up for auctions and the proceeds will go to the charity The Elephant Family.

The parade has come to India for the first time, after travelling through Milan, Singapore, Bangkok, California and Hong Kong over the years—so far, 24 exhibitions have been held around the world.

The reason this exhibition took so long to come to India—home to the Asian elephant—was because after the death of Elephant Family founder Mark Shand in 2014, the organization lost a “charismatic leader capable of convincing and persuading every section of society—corporate, artistic, political etc—to get involved". 

“Since then, we have been putting together the jigsaw of his friendship group here so we can do this," says Ruth Ganesh, a trustee at The Elephant Family, who credits member of parliament Poonam Mahajan for facilitating the project.

Among the pachyderms on display will be a 200kg statue made of brass—“hollowed out as a metaphor for the corridors"—by interior designer Vikram Goyal. Fashion designer Rohit Bal’s statue in blue includes silver embellishment, fashion designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla’s model has mosaic mirrors, then there’s one made of reclaimed wood and another one with 101 rubies.

The contributors include actor Amitabh Bachchan, artists L.N. Tallur, Bhajju Shyam, Kalyan Joshi, Seema Kohli, visual artist Dhruvi Acharya, designers Christian Louboutin, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Masaba Gupta and Manish Malhotra among others.

“The theme (of the exhibition) is basically how the creators were inspired by elephants," says Farah Siddiqui, the exhibition curator. “They could project their signature styles, so all of them have done their designs in individual expressions, and each is unique."

“There is no restriction on the creativity as long as they are ethical," adds Ganesh over the phone.

Gond artist Shyam’s piece, for example, is set in a jungle, amid nature and other wildlife. In the elephant’s eyes, there is a woodcutter, cutting a tree. Helped by wife Deepa and teenage daughter Ankita, it took Shyam about two months to make this model.

“Animals and trees are getting destroyed but adivasis get blamed for it," says Shyam over the phone from Bhopal. “They are not responsible though, it's the government." 

A panel approves the designs before it is commissioned and artists make the sculpture at their own cost, though they can take a 15% cut of the sale price. In some cases, where the artists may not be able to afford the production cost, the organizers provide some resources.

Those interested in buying a piece can bid for it online on the auction house paddle8 website. Bidding will start at Rs5 lakh. (There is an option for impatient to buy elephants outright too, without going through the auction.) The auction will close on 25 March.

The average selling price per piece when the exhibition was done in London was £15,000, with some statues going for even £150,000, according to Ganesh.

Pieces that are not sold will go to London and get displayed there. “Oh the agony! I would love for London to see the level to which India has taken the brief, in the unlikely case that anything remains unsold," she says. 

“I am trying to manage expectations, but Mumbai will go mental," adds Ganesh while trying to estimate people’s reaction. “It’s like being in a sweet shop as a 5-year-old with these beautiful, divine collections of elephants. The difference, unlike in a New York for example, is so many people here have stories about elephants; they have a direct connection. It (an exhibition like this) has never been done (here) before. It’s not a hands-off exhibition, its free and tactile where people can hug and kiss the displays."

The exhibition will be inaugurated at the Gateway of India on Sunday and displays would be (in phases) placed at Worli Seaface, Priyadarshini Park, Bandra Fort and other places in the city, including malls, till 18 March.

“It’s a cliché—go big or go home," says Ganesh. “Because they are on the street, in your face, it’s a free ad campaign. We have found them (the exhibitions) to be phenomenal in raising awareness. With (social) causes, a lot of campaigns are depressing. But these are joyful animals, which make people smile."

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