In her debut solo, artist Nibha Sikander introduces us to the intricate details of the insect world

Benita Fernando

Nibha Sikander

It’s not often that the menacing mantis gets an art exhibition named after it. Nibha Sikander’s debut solo owes its title to a peculiar member of this species called the wandering violin mantis. Far from evoking deadly insectoids and aliens, a wandering violin mantis is more docile than its other cousins. It’s a master at camouflaging, with a body like a violin and appendages that mimic foliage. It’s also Sikander’s favourite insect.

On view at Tarq gallery in Mumbai, “Wandering Violin Mantis” displays more than 200 bugs and birds handmade from paper. Making these critter portraits has been on the 36-year-old artist’s mind since 2012, after she encountered a Great Indian Hornbill at Nameri National Park in Assam. Many of the species on display are those she encounters at her home in the coastal town of Janjira in Maharashtra. In her backyard is the Rousseau-esque setting of the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, which allows various fauna to visit her place regularly. “I used to see three kinds of mantises around my home. They are usually camouflaged well but I found a wandering violin mantis right in my house and was able to study it in detail,” says the artist.

Sikander’s creatures are stunningly lifelike. Viewers may feel that at any moment a luna moth may flutter right out of its display case. One can see the feathery edges of moths, the translucent wings of a dragonfly and the shimmer of beetles. However, the works are not just about representation.

In his catalogue essay for the exhibition, critic Ranjit Hoskote writes, “The artist translates the flower mantis — that beautiful, cunning predator, which camouflages itself to look like flora — as a segmented portrait, a choreography of head, abdomen, legs in yogic posture, antennae, and exoskeleton.” The same goes for the titular hero. Instead of presenting the wandering violin mantis in full, Sikander shows us that it is the sum of its eight parts.

The approach may smack of a natural history museum. However, instead of an entomologist’s obsession with literally pinning down bugs, Sikander is encouraging us to participate in her fascination with details. The artist is not dissecting, but deconstructing.

Resting in the intersection of art and science, the display in vitrines is intentional. Sikander says that her references came from research based on digital natural history resources, a field guide on Indian moths by Dr V Shubhalaxmi, and the natural history section at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.

Sikander’s works are apt examples of the inordinate amount of patience and precision that goes into paper cutting. Some of them took about a fortnight to make. She trained in painting at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, but is self-taught in paper cutting. While she did not intend the exhibition to be a comment on the falling numbers of insect population, it can be read so. However, the paradox of making forest creatures out of paper is there. Sikander says that she is careful to minimise paper wastage and has even exhibited the negatives of the paper sheets that she cuts. Her material is as neat as her art.

The names of some of the creatures in the exhibition are as evocative as the wandering violin mantis. There is a pomegranate fruit piercing moth and a crimson spotted emerald moth. But you won’t find the names listed under each critter, as with lab specimens. They rest here namelessly and we meet them, as if for the first time.

The exhibition is on view at Tarq gallery in Mumbai till January 4