The creation and sustenance of life is as much art as it is science. We discover this and more with Shaun D’Sa and his terrariums.
I meet Shaun D’Sa at his workplace, as he is putting together a video of his first exhibit of terrariums ‘The Worlds Within’, that took place in Chennai last month. The response has been tremendous, and now his Savage (the moniker for his botanical art) world belongs to many. For the uninitiated, terrariums constitute sealed or open transparent objects, such as glass jars or bowls, within which plants and whole environments thrive. These pieces of living art have done more than capture imaginations; they are now the seeds of a growing list of possibilities and opportunities for the man who made them.
D’Sa is most obviously a creator, a wild one at heart and ever so often, you can catch glimpses of a complicated, burgeoning spirit. Born and brought up in Chennai, he is a graphic artist by skill and trade and Creative Head at Whoa Mama Designs. He is also a passionate motorcyclist and the President of The Power Puff Brigade – a Royal Enfield brotherhood. D’Sa is the kind of restless spirit that always seems to have an endless source of creative energy. As he puts it, “I prefer to be a jack of all trades, and don’t believe in being the master of one, because that way, you will always stumble upon invention.”
D’Sa began putting together terrariums in an organic way at the Whoa Mama Design studio. His first few not-so-successful attempts at creating these small worlds stemmed from the need to take a break from the stress and demands of a newly growing business, and something that didn’t involve cigarettes. “This terrarium thing started as a way to get away, just escape and do something, make something with my hands, to feel like I had achieved something in the day other than just digital work” says D’sa. However, it soon became a heady mix of curiosity, scientific inquiry and an attempt at pushing the boundary for himself and the life forms that can be nurtured and preserved in such limited environments. D’Sa explains his fascination with terrariums. “These give you a lot of gratification, because it’s something to do with the earth and you are able to bring the outdoors inside, in a small space and in a completely sufficient ecosystem, which is sealed and can support itself without anyone caring for it. It kind of feels like you are slightly playing God.”
D’Sa soon found himself foraging for plant life in every nook and cranny of Chennai’s urban scape, and even on bike rides with his brigade. Soon, a shovel and other gardening essentials became part of his travel kit. He loves the hills and the lush biodiversity they house, and has created and preserved a slice of Kodaikanal in one of his pieces, while another mimics an Assamese tea garden. Almost everything he uses to create his terrariums has been found and not bought. Garbage, family heirlooms, odd collectibles and even motorcycle parts have been recycled to contribute to and support these miniature worlds. Each terrarium is different, and takes as long as it needs to be completed. D’Sa also dabbles with kokedamas – plants strung up in balls of earth – and air plant installations, which are stunning in their own way.
He attributes his green thumb to his father, who has an agricultural background, and as for his fascinations, motorcycles and lush forests and landscapes top the list. His ‘The Worlds Within’ exhibit was the culmination of three years of effort and patience. The collection included several steampunkinspired pieces, which incorporated motorcycle parts and other objects that are otherwise categorised as ordinary. These pieces are perhaps his most unique, and truly reflective of his passion for classic bikes and the wilderness. “My actual passion is just getting out in the hills and enjoying the vastness of nature… and motorcycling actually supports this (terrariums). I can just travel with my group, have a nice ride, get some moss and ferns and come back,” says D’Sa, as he describes his process.
D’Sa was happy to just create his pieces of botanical art and house them in his office (which did get a tad overcrowded) and accept the occasional note of gratitude and admiration from visitors and clients that dropped by. When he finally decided to share his work with a larger audience, it was because of close friend and fellow artist Joyston Vaz, who has been a driving force over the years. D’Sa had close to 110 terrariums, kokedamas and air plant installations ready to go. After the show, he’s left with a few prized and dear pieces that he’s held on to, like The Bulb – a terrarium that houses a succulent from the bryophyllum family in a large bulb, which is over three years old and has survived without watering. The rest of the collection is now spread across the city, with detailed care instructions attached.
D’Sa doesn’t foresee another showing any time soon, as he wants to take stock of where he’s headed and to intensify the scale and sophistication of his art. The requests for terrariums, however, keep pouring in, from one for a pet tarantula to another that you can walk through. D’Sa is taking them as they come, and has the privilege of choosing the projects he would like to create. On the immediate cards is a rather challenging terrarium for an upcoming workspace in Chennai. As for long term goals and retirement plans, D’Sa knows where he’s headed. It will be motorcycles, nature and terrariums for him, and he might just have his daughter by his side when that journey begins.
When nature is transformed and adapted to create art, the infatuation of it all can be quite intoxicating. D’Sa’s terrariums are inclusive, intricate and intense. I am no expert on them, but it is hard to imagine how one could better (or make more unique) these living, dynamic pieces of botanical art. You can follow D’Sa and his entertaining and wild world on Instagram — @savageterrariums