It’s a tiny school in the remote village of Sujata—named after the queen who fed Gautam Buddha milk and rice before he achieved nirvana in Bihar’s Bodhgaya district. Niranjana Public Welfare School for underprivileged children would in most reckonings have been one of the thousands of nondescript dots that populate the countryside. Except for a mini cultural movement taking shape within, and on, its walls, one which promises to sweep the whole country. It had a serendipitous start.
In 2010, a group of Japanese artists on a pilgrimage to the holiest site of Buddhism chanced upon the school building, surrounded by what they felt were the “amazing natural colours of rural India”, and decided to initiate a ‘wall art project’ there. “They were struck by the golden-brown hues that emanated from the cow-dung-plastered walls of villagers’ huts near the school, for instance, or the pristine white of rice-powder-patterns that women painted on the floors,” explains school director Devendra Pathak. “They wanted to experiment with these colours and went straight ahead.” Pathak points out that he and the other co-founders of the school—started as a non-profit tutorial for orphans and other poor children and run entirely on donations—were “only too happy” to let its premises be used for the project. “They seemed really serious and focused and we knew it could only be a good thing,” he says.
What they did not anticipate was the spectacular results. The artists started painting in February 2010; by the end of April almost the entire two-storey building—including its corridors and stairways, not to mention most of the classrooms walls, even the ceilings of the seven rooms—were covered in captivating murals generously dipping from a wide colour palette. The themes ranged from Sujata handing the bowl to Buddha to details of daily village life. Thereby, a regular, boxy school building was transformed into a throbbingly alive piece of art. To see it, say locals, was to simply fall under its spell.
In three months, much of the two-storey building, including corridors, stairways and rooms, were covered in murals.
The method of collecting the colours was particularly fascinating, especially to the schoolchildren who were asked to get involved in the project. Mohit Kumar, 11, recounts how they would set out early in the morning in search of different colours. “We got brown from cow dung and golden brown from cow dung mixed with hay. We extracted pale yellow by scrubbing together lemon rinds. We raked up leaves and ground them with stones for different shades of green and crushed petals of flowers to get pink and red,” he says, his eyes shining as he breathlessly recalls the sources of their palette. “There is also black from homemade kajal, blackish brown from various soils and mud.” Then, everyone eagerly joined in the hunt for saffron—extracted from a red-orange clay found in parts of Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa, known as ‘ranga mati’ (red earth). It’s also used by sadhus to dye their clothes. “This was not easily available in these parts of Bihar, so the artists would gather them from the roadsides in case there was any spilled from trucks and cars transporting them from place to place,” says a teacher.
Akiko Oguni and Kaznori Hamao, the Japanese artists of the wall art project, invited painters from across India to join in. Rajesh Chaiti Wangar, practitioner of the Warli style of tribal art from Maharashtra, and Raj Kumar Paswan, who works with Madhubani painting, participated and painted walls with designs unique to their traditions. Soon, word spread and the wondrous murals started getting local visitors. With the widening of the arc, people flocked to the school from all over Bihar, other states and, finally, from around the world, particularly Japan.
Sadly, their fame was not to last long. After three years, in 2013, school authorities were given the ruthless instruction to have the walls whitewashed and erase the murals. The request came from the artists themselves. But why this apparently Talibanesque step? As the paints used are organic, over a period of time it starts to fade and decay. Also, since the paintings are executed on walls, not canvas or paper, it peels off and crumbles in patches with daily wear and tear. “This gradual degeneration is the reason that the artists asked us to erase the paintings. They argued that for about a year it remains more or less intact, after which it starts to decay. No creative person wants imperfect versions of their creations to be out there,” says Pathak.
Erasing the art, say scholars, is in keeping with Indian philosophical traditions—a cycle of birth, life and death.
Organisers of the wall art project also reason that the whitewashing is in keeping with Indian philosophical traditions, which is the inspiration behind the wall art. “Essentially, the Japanese artists were inspired by the indigenous art found in the homes of our tribal folk. The rural mud huts of the tribals of India are decorated with amazing drawings, sketches and other artwork,” observes a scholar associated with the school. “The cycle of creation, preservation and destruction, symbolising birth, life and death is an integral part of our country’s festivities like Durga Puja, in which the idol of the goddess is worshipped for five days, then immersed in water. It is intricately associated with our philosophy of detachment.”
Such profound consolations of philosophy weren’t enough for students and staff of the school when the final, heart-breaking obliteration of the many intricate murals began. “Actually, we were not unused to the whitewashing because it took place at the end of each year till 2010,” explains Vikram, a member of Niranjana’s welfare programme. “And we knew that the project would continue here in future and the walls would be repainted some day. So in the end we didn’t feel so bad.”
The last paintings in the Bodhgaya school took place in 2013; the walls were painted over at the end of 2014. The project is now headed for an undisclosed location in Maharashtra. “It will again take place in a school in a remote village much like ours,” says Pathak, explaining that the destination is at the moment a closely guarded secret. “The idea is not to create hype but to start a cultural movement in which the country’s indigenous art will be revived.”
At Niranjana Public Welfare School, they would like the cycle to return. “It was dreamlike, arriving at school in those days,” says Mohit Kumar, describing how lessons were saturated by the colours of psychedelia. “We can’t wait for our school’s turn to host it again,” he adds. Mohit has picked up enough Japanese in his three-year-association with the artists to make him want to pursue a career as an interpreter. “This is a place where so many pilgrims come from other countries. I have learnt many languages. Even Chinese,” he says, rattling off a couple of sentences.
Ask students at Niranjana about their favourite lesson, and the one that stirs the fondest memories is the impromptu one on wall art taught by Pathak. One classroom still retains one of his paintings. “We absolutely insisted on keeping at least one painting,” he says, pointing wistfully to a Madhubani artwork covering an entire stretch of a wall on the ground floor. Done by Mithila artist Paswan, who has sent his consent to the request, it depicts village life and has used traditional colours such as vermillion and saffron.
In a basement of the school, replicas of most of the earlier paintings are stored on makeshift stands. Often they are brought up as teaching tools for the class. Lest they forget what they have learnt, taught with such care, infused in them with such passion, by artists from a faraway land.
By Dola Mitra in Bodhgaya