Un éléphant blanc géant.

Andrew Gillott
Aug 9, 2015

The image shows a steam train as imagined by a 19th Century Indian artist who was yet to see such a machine. It is painted on the exterior wall of a haveli in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. When I came across this painting in 2005, it stuck in my mind. Last week as I wrote a short post on the impact of folk-culture on practitioners (or about goldfish and tigers, depending on your perspective) I realised why that was:

In 2005, I spent several weeks looking at these incredible frescos and I think this steam train may have been unique in that for the artist, it was a story of the future rather than a story of the past exploits of kings, lovers, heros, deceivers and their gods that he painted. The train was coming and it would replace the elephant. But conjuring an image from his imagination, how else was the artist to image it but as a huge, steel, mechanical beast, breathing steam from its exhaust as it pulls the great and the good in an endless parade of elegant carriages.

A crisp, elephantine boundary to his vision.

It’s a beautiful fresco but for the artist the vivid reality of the future is muted by the paradigm of the past. It’s impossible to not be reminded of Jules Verne’s La Maison à Vapeur (The Steam House). The steel giant takes on a familiar shape but contains a future in which the only certainty is change. As it lumbers across the pages of Verne’s novel, this mechanical white elephant is a powerful symbol for change and the responses and emotions tochange.

With this in my thoughts, it’s provided a lens through which I’ve viewed my interactions with others this week. I’ve worked with those who are struggling to let go of the stories they tell themselves and allow new practices to invigorate their personal and professional progress. And sometimes you need a bit of help with seeing past the boundaries, imagining a future with an entirely unfamiliar shape, seeing how much more vivid the palette could be with which we paint our own pictures of the future.