Almost 30 years ago, while visiting her sister in Nairobi, biologist Seema Bhatt picked up a frog figurine. It was made of cane and could be used as a pot holder. “I picked up the frog because it was cute and innovative,” said Bhatt, a Delhi resident. “Over the years, as I travelled extensively both within and outside India, I found myself picking up a frog artefact almost everywhere I went. It was the perfect souvenir.”
Bhatt now has over 400 frog figurines, mementos and artefacts collected from around 40 countries, most of which are currently set up in the foyer and the courtyard of the World Wildlife Fund office in Delhi, as part of an exhibition titled FrogFest, which is on until April. The exhibition has been curated by environmental educator Mamata Pandya and advertising photographer Aditya Arya.
A lucky charm
In the agrarian communities of various states across India, there is a strong belief that a marriage ceremony performed between two frogs will please Indra, the Hindu rain god. There have been reports of such weddings being organised to bring rainfall in times of drought. In 2016, a complete ceremony was performed between a female frog and a bamboo puppet in Assam in the hopes of good rainfall.
“There is no scientific evidence that this works, but it is a strongly held belief among many communities,” said Sathyabhama Das Biju, an amphibian biologist who is known as the “frogman of India”. “In Assam it’s a big festival celebrated every year and there is an innate belief in the power of this ritual. It has been happening for hundreds of years.”
The most common theme across the different folk art forms in India – such as Madhubani from Bihar, Pichwai from Rajasthan, Warli from Maharashtra, Gond from Madhya Pradesh and the Patachitra from Odisha and West Bengal – is the depiction of nature and environment and how these influence the lives of these agrarian communities. As a result, the themes chosen by artists for their works are usually about the gods and goddesses they worship and the flora and fauna around them. According to Bhatt, frogs have found space in folk-art traditions because they are integral to the life of the community.
The Madhubani art on display at the exhibition in Delhi includes frogs drawn in various hues, while the Warli art on display depict the tradition of farmers praying to the rain god or conducting frog weddings.
Across the globe
The idea behind the event is to shine a spotlight on the need for amphibian conservation but with a quirky exhibition to drive the point home. “It is fascinating how frogs appear in cultures all over the world – Thailand, Egypt, Sri Lanka, the US, Canada,” said Bhatt, who was at the opening, sporting two pieces from her collection as a part of her ensemble – silver frog earrings and a silk stole with frogs printed all over it.
There is a deep significance attached to frogs in most cultures across the globe. “Unfortunately in India, we only talk about tigers, elephants and peacocks but the frog is equally important as far as our country’s culture is concerned,” said Biju. “Peacocks are considered an indicator of monsoon, but frogs are much more accurate as environmental barometers. We even have a frog temple in India, the only one in the world.” The temple is located in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh.
“[They] are very clued into their ecosystem,” said Bhatt. Their skin “is sensitive to temperature change, moisture in the air, and they can sense change in season much before we can”.
Frogs, which are called manduka in Sanskrit, have also appeared in Hindu mythology. A 1971 book by EJ Brill, titled Plant Myths and Traditions in India, relates a story from the Katha Sarita Sagara, an 11th century collection of folk tales, on how the frogs got their croaking voice. The gods had approached Agni, the god of fire, for help to stop the amorous play between Shiva and Uma, the friction from which threatened to destroy the world. “Agni, afraid to interfere, fled and entered the waters, but the frogs getting scorched by the heat, told the gods of Agni’s whereabouts. Agni cursed the frogs and made their speech inarticulate and again disappeared.”
The word manduka was also the inspiration for Mandukya, the title of an Upanishad which discusses the syllable “om”. According to The Science of The Rishis, published in 2015, “Quite a few conjectures are given as to why it should have been called ‘The Frog Upanishad’. Varuna was the rishi to whom this was revealed and it is said that he had taken on the form of a frog at one time. Another and perhaps more plausible reason is that this Upanishad tells us how to leap like a frog from the first to the fourth step of consciousness without difficulty… The Upanishad says that it is possible to reach the state of awareness in one leap like a frog by meditation on ‘om’.”
The FrogFest also talks about the cultural significance of frogs in other countries, like Egypt, where they are a symbol of fertility, or China, where they signify prosperity.
A dying species
The exhibition has been set up to look like a museum of artefacts and to sound like one is in the middle of the jungle, with a soundtrack of flowing water and various frog calls following the visitors through the space.
The decline of amphibians serves as a warning, and a reminder that they need to be preserved for a healthy ecosystem. At FrogFest, the artworks and artefacts are punctuated by posters highlighting the role of amphibians in the natural world. The posters educate the viewers in how they can help in preserving the environment by making small lifestyle changes. Simple steps, such as reducing the use of paper, plastic, using carpool or joining local conservation groups, will help in creating a healthy ecosystem and safe habitats to attract frogs.
“An abundance of frogs signifies a healthy, clean environment,” said Biju. “They are extremely sensitive and any alteration in the ecosystem, for example, the pH level of water, is a danger to the frog population.”