The City Through More-Than-Human Eyes
Animals often challenge human-centric understandings of urban spatial arrangements through their unpredictable and ungovernable presence. From the nonchalant sauntering of cows through bustling markets to the raucous territorial feuds of a pack of vigilant free-ranging dogs in residential neighborhoods, from the scavenging vultures, raptors, and critters populating mountains of trash in landfills to troops of monkeys infiltrating the parliamentary buildings in the nation’s capital, a wide variety of animals redefine urbanism in contemporary India.
The dynamics of this multispecies coexistence are prominent in the mixed-media sculptures and paintings by Gurugram-based Indian artist Jagannath Panda. Panda experiments with the material and symbolic meanings connected with animal presence to imagine a multispecies urbanism. His artwork renders other-than-human experiences of the urban environment uniquely visible through strategies such as the creation of hybrid animal figures and juxtaposition of assorted textiles. These approaches highlight the intersection of anthropogenic species extinction, gentrification, industrial modernization, and urban disenfranchisement.
The Interspecies Flâneur
Panda’s thematic and stylistic concerns about the liminality, ambivalence, and hustling practices associated with urban livelihood in a fast-paced satellite city like Gurugram (formerly Gurgaon) are prominent in his signature mixed-media artwork titled The Profiteer (2017). It features a bird-human hybrid figure wearing lace-up dress-shoes and carrying a briefcase, with an exceptionally large head of a crow and legs of a Pinocchio-like wooden doll. While the shoe-donning plywood leg gives off the impression of an automaton, the other leg is covered in a tiger-skin printed fabric which extends beyond the leg and spreads out on the floor.
When I interviewed Panda in 2022, he revealed that living in the rapidly developing city of Gurugram had exposed him to the impacts of industrial expansion on wildlife habitats. Donning the flayed remains of an endangered species, the Royal Bengal tiger, the bird-human hybrid figure demonstrates the relationship between species endangerment and upper-class, upper-caste urban domesticity. Viewers are unsettled by the tiger-skin printed fabric, which resembles the flayed remains of the endangered Royal Bengal tiger. More broadly, it reveals the violence implicit in the choices made by those who possess social privilege, cultural capital, and upward mobility—choices such as using animal-skin rugs as home décor.
The human-like legs and briefcase of The Profiteer also mimics the trope of the door-to-door salesman as an urban flâneur who moves around high-rise residential buildings in gated communities and negotiates questions of profit, utility, and hospitality associated with the class-regulated power dynamics of neoliberal globalization. The crow bust atop these legs, however, unsettles the anthropomorphism of the bottom half of the figure.
Panda’s combination of human and animal features represents the permeability of species boundaries. The viewer can’t help but perceive the crow’s intelligence when meeting their gaze and wonder about their experience and perception of urban hustles.
When a Bat Stares Back
One of the most persistent features of Panda’s mixed-media artwork is his use of multiple forms and patterns of fabric to texture animal skin. Inspired by the depiction of Indigenous animals in Indian tribal art and elsewhere, Panda juxtaposes transnational and cross-cultural motifs, patterns, and designs across a wide array of textiles to mimic the realities of multispecies coexistence. By creating textured skin for animal figures, he represents animals as repositories of urban transformation and highlights the unlimited potential of fabric as a storytelling medium.
Panda’s use of textured animal figures to represent urban displacement is particularly prominent in the mixed media sculpture titled In the Dark (2009). It features a life-size bat hanging upside-down from a branch in a corner of the gallery with their wings fully extended on both sides of their body. Panda used bits and pieces of brocades, sequins, and embroidered patches, meticulously extracted from feminine garments bought from street-side hawkers in New Delhi, to construct the bat’s wings. His manipulation of these materials to create the bat’s body reflects how gendered and speciesist precarities interrelate and intermingle in urban spaces. Strategic positioning of the light source on the sculpture ensures the wings cast intricate shadows on the background wall. The shadows blur the difference between the animal’s body parts and textiles, hinting at the bat’s abilities to camouflage.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the sculpture is that the bat raises their head to look directly at the viewer. In his classic essay titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel states that the conscious mental state of an organism determines the organism’s unique experience of their environment. This “subjective character of experience” is inaccessible to other organisms, humans included. Nagel demonstrates that even though bats represent “a fundamentally alien form of life” by virtue of possessing sensory faculties and perceptive forms unavailable to humans, the impossibility of mutually shared perceptions does not prevent humans from acknowledging that bats are experiential subjects.
The interspecies exchange of gazes initiated by the sculpture affirms and legitimizes the animal’s phenomenological presence, even in the anthropocentric space of an art gallery. Widespread deforestation and urbanization have brought bats closer to human spaces of habitation, which has threatened both bats and humans alike. By reclaiming space, exchanging gaze, and inspiring awe, the bat in Panda’s In the Dark encourages onlookers to imagine a non-anthropocentric perspective about urban citizenship.
Thinking With a Masked Canine
The concept of interspecies exchange of gazes reappears in The Gaze of the Metropolis-ii (2019), a mixed-media painting featuring a canine figure with pointy ears, prominently brown eyes, and brownish yellow fur of uneven coloration covering their face, which stares at the viewer. The lower part of the animal’s face is covered with a contraption like a gas mask fitted with devices resembling a combination of camera lens, microphone, and canisters. The animal looks like a cross between a wolf and a dog. By denying taxonomic specificity, Panda might be critiquing the use of genetic purity and biological determinism to assume the characteristics of an individual animal.
The animal’s face emerges out of a dreary, discolored, and grayish foliage against an overcast sky, which gives the impression of a severely polluted environment in which the animal’s survival is contingent on the contraption fitted on their face. As the Air Quality Index in India’s national capital records some of the worst levels of air pollution in the world, the masked canid figure destabilizes anthropocentric species hierarchies and makes conspicuous the biopolitical and immunological vulnerabilities of both humans and animals.
The idea of bodies and objects forming complex assemblages finds an accurate expression in Panda’s mixed-media sculpture titled The Cult of Survival II (2011). In this work, he uses industrial plastic pipes to construct the conjoined figure of two snakes so entangled in the act of devouring each other that it is nearly impossible to separate or differentiate them. Nevertheless, the title suggests that urban survival depends on interspecies collaborations.
This repurposed ecocritical iteration of the Ouroboros symbol looks simultaneously like a snake with patterned skin and a pitch-black sewage pipe covered with crawling snails, floral outgrowths, and composite organisms. The polyvalent figure draws on Indian, Chinese, and Greek mythologies to negotiate the coexistence of life and death, good and evil, and humans and animals.
Panda says that he drew inspiration for this artwork from situations where infrastructural anomalies become sources of sustenance, like a leakage in a water-supplying pipe creating a “natural fountain” for those who do not have access to safe and secure piped water. If the structural congruence between pipes and snakes indicates how urban infrastructures are enmeshed with animal habitats, their imbrication also alludes to urban animals’ capacities to repurpose infrastructure for survival (e.g., urban snakes are known to use subterranean drainage systems for navigation and feeding on rodent population).
Ultimately, The Cult of Survival II brings human precarities that result from inequitable access to basic resources in conversation with reptilian precarities associated with threatened habitats in flourishing yet segregated urban spaces by instrumentalizing both material and symbolic meanings related to snakes.
Migrants Anywhere Anytime-III (2011-2013) is one of the most politically relevant artworks by Panda. It is a set of mixed-media sculptures based on Panda’s experiences of living in Gurugram. Gurugram is a city inhabited by both professionals who work in some of the largest multinational corporations, blue-collared migrant laborers, slum-dwellers, and menial workers. A definitive case of agrarian urbanism, Gurugram has witnessed widespread land acquisition for industrial development and gated residential enclaves since the economic liberalization in India. Underprivileged working-class communities, who used to own much of the land on which the city has been built, have been ghettoized into isolated colonies with poor infrastructures. And the grazing pastures for their livestock have been reclaimed by elite, upper-class housing societies.
Panda’s work captures Gurugram’s diversity and spatial segregation. It features a herd of unsupervised and free-ranging goats loitering in what appears to be a construction site littered with tarpaulin, bricks, and fences. The textured skin of the goats have been created from glossy brocades in shades of black and red.
When I asked Panda about this particular artwork, he revealed that he had bought the brocade from high-end stores that primarily supplied home décor materials for the upscale clientele in Gurugram. The goats signify the absent presence of pastoralists and farmers who have been displaced by gentrification and pushed to the urban peripheries. They are spectral reminders of the agricultural ecologies that have been obliterated by neoliberal globalization. At the same time, wearing the skin of upscale domesticity, the uncanny goats with brocade coats speak to urban alienation and class- and caste-based disenfranchisement.
However, as companion animals of Gurugram’s marginalized communities, many of whom occupy precarious labor positions, the goats defy spatial segregations with their unregulated presence on upcoming residential and office buildings, sites from which their human companions would be prohibited. If the material and symbolic figures of the goats are metonymies of the contradiction between the spatial autonomy of the urban rich and the peripatetic citizenship of the urban poor, they also represent how animals subvert human spatial classifications with their agentive presence.
These artworks show that there are many ways—both human and nonhuman—of experiencing cities. His multispecies urbanism exhibits how multiple cross-species worldviews converge to create the idea of the Indian metropolis as a world of many worlds. The animal figures in his artwork symbolize the impact of climate change, urbanization, and industrialization on marginalized communities in contemporary India. By juxtaposing transcultural textiles and miscellaneous objects and creating interspecies hybrids, or what he calls “humanized animals,” his mixed-media art sheds light on the politics of multispecies co-constitution in urban spaces. Panda’s attention to the intersection of social inequalities and environmental degradation also highlights the importance of animal agencies in shaping urbanism.
Featured image: Jagannath Panda’s artwork, titled “An avatar-II” (2009), portrays a multipecies encounter in an urban setting. Image by Michèle, 2011.
Sreyashi Ray is a Ph.D. Candidate in environmental humanities and South Asian literature, culture, and media in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research has been published in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Humanimalia. Email. Website.