Kazunori Hamao, a 29-year-old Japanese man, walked into the National Geographic Traveller India office in Mumbai with travelling gear in tow, straight from a 16-hour train journey from Delhi, then a 20-minute local train ride from Bandra and an agonising half-hour rickshaw ride to Marol in the middle of a hot afternoon. I wondered at the ease with which he had navigated our public transport system and the infamous traffic jams of Andheri East.
That mystery cleared up five minutes into the conversation. Three sentences of broken English later, he asked, “Hum Hindi mein baat karein?” (May I speak in Hindi?).
For the next two hours, this young Japanese man sat in our conference room and discussed his work in Hindi, with a Bihari dialect to boot. I was delighted, not just because he was navigating Hindi better than I do on most days, but by the fact that his organisation was committed enough to immerse themselves in their work with rural communities.
Hamao, director and coordinator of the Wall Art Project, first came to India in 2010. He stayed at Sujata Village in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, working with the locals in a novel project that aims to create awareness about education through local art in schools. Since then, he has returned every year, expanding the project’s reach to Ladakh and Maharashtra.
In an attempt to spotlight local art, this organisation invites artists from Japan and India to paint the walls of a local school of a village. Hamao and his friends use the project to highlight a local issue or cause – education, unemployment, environment. Below, for example, is the wonderful work they have done in Bihar.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What does the Wall Art Project aim to do?
The Wall Art Project is a non-profit organisation with three purposes: First, to convey the power of local art to children. The artists we invite stay in the village, learn the local art, involve the children in the artwork and awaken creativity and pride in their culture. Second, this draws new enrolments from villages in schools. Third, this brings the village into the spotlight, highlights its issues and strengths to the rest of the country.
How did an organisation in Japan decide to do this in Indian villages?
It’s actually fairly by chance. A group of university students from Tokyo were visiting India in 2006 and visited a local NGO-run school in Bihar, the Niranjana Public Welfare Trust in Sujata Village. I wasn’t part of this, yet; the students were my classmates. They were all studying to be teachers, so they were very interested in the state of schooling in Bihar. The NGO discussed how there wasn’t enough space, not enough classrooms for students to study in. This group of 50 students went back to Tokyo, raised funds and helped the trust build a school. It was a big achievement for both sides but it was later, when my classmates came back to Tokyo that they started to wonder if they’d done enough. They started to question the effectiveness of their plan, and if they should have donated the money to the villagers, or given meals instead.
That was my cue. We discussed this at length. How could we maximise this school’s potential? I was against the idea of raising money and giving it to the locals. That plan had no long-term local empowerment. If someone just gave me money, I’d stop trying to make an honest living. We needed a plan that would go the distance. Suppose we took something that already existed in the village, something that they themselves had begun to take for granted, and showed them its value, its potential… that would support them in the future. We chose something we knew enough about. We chose something we knew India had in brilliant abundance. We chose local art.
What is the thought process behind the art each year?
For one, we make sure that the art is professional, because only then will people come to see it. And only then will interest be generated even in the village, or be talked about in government circles or even in tourism ones. We work on funding, and are backed by various organisations to continue this work.
We try for each artwork to convey something. For example, the Earth Art Project in Ladakh was done specifically to highlight the lives of the nomadic communities that inhabit the Himalayas and the rapidly diminishing glaciers due to climate change. Puga village, where we did the festival is at a height of 15,000ft, with hardly anything at all around it, no shops, neighbours. We worked on installations here along with art. Our team had a costume designer (who made costumes for the kids based on their own designs) and a soundscape artist who made a track with Ladakhi kids mimicking the natural sounds of their countryside.
Art is powerful, but how has it helped the villages?
After we painted the walls of the school in Sujata village, we organised an art exhibition with the villagers. This way, we learned something together. We were also confident that if professional artists came and painted with them, the children’s creativity would also take wing. This encouraged other children, who weren’t attending school yet, to come and start learning. After each project, the schools see 50-100 new students queuing up for admission. We always invite people in power, local government officials who visit the exhibition and then are able to participate in a dialogue about the other issues the villages are facing. Through art, especially local art, we want rural communities to take pride in their culture and look at it as something that can generate income. Of course, awareness of this sort is a gradual process but it has started to happen. It would help if people from cities start visiting rural areas as well, and start looking at these as places to travel to.
Here’s what one student, Sangey, had to say about the Earth Art Project in Ladakh:
“New things I want to try: Maki’s painting, filming, photography, oration. And I want to by all means, attempt new art. I will tell people to visit my school and see the artwork, and tell them about the many things I learnt from the Earth Art Project. I have got confidence to express signs from nature and learn about the life of nomads.”
If you’d like to get involved with the Wall Art Project, visit their website or email email@example.com.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.