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“Hum Hindi mein bhi baat kar sakte hain"

Kazunori Hamao, the young Japanese man seated in front of me, speaks fluent Hindi, and I have a hard time keeping up. The afternoon promises to be full of surprises. A Japanese organization has been quietly creating art on school walls across Bihar, Maharashtra and Ladakh to change mindsets about education, housing, even climate change.

The seeds of the Wall Art Project, as this initiative is called, were sown in 2006 when a group of Japanese students visited Bihar’s Sujata village. They were studying to be teachers in Tokyo and were interested to know how the Indian schooling system worked. When they visited a primary school run by a non-profit, they found that there weren’t enough classrooms. On returning, the group raised funds to help the non-profit build more classrooms.

“Though it was a laudatory feat, the group was worried. The team leader, who was my classmate, kept wondering if it was okay for the villagers to simply be ‘gifted’ a school. What was important was to teach the locals to be self-sustained," says 30-year-old Hamao, who wasn’t part of the 2006 group.

The Wall Art Project took off in February 2010. The idea behind it was to empower villagers, especially children, and create awareness about education through art. Hamao, now the director and coordinator of the project, invited Japanese artist Yusuke Asai from Tokyo to use the school walls as a canvas, and, in the process, work with local students in creating art.

This event did three things for Sujata village. The collaboration between artist and students helped revive the value of traditional arts such as Madhubani and gave expression to the talent and creativity of the children. Second, it changed the perception of the school from a forbidding space to an inviting one, which led to higher enrolment. “At the time of the festival, in 2010, there were 350 students in the school. But post the festival, the number increased to 450," claims Hamao. Third, it created awareness in the urban milieu—both in India and abroad, especially Japan—about rural issues.

For Japanese artists such as Asai, Indian art wasn’t really unexplored territory. They had already had exposure to certain forms, such as the Mithila painting practised in Bihar, through Japanese museums. “Initially, it was difficult for us to understand the villagers and for them to understand why we are doing all this," admits Hamao, who organized the event again in 2011 and 2012, in the same school in Sujata village, located in Bodh Gaya.

Support poured in often from unexpected quarters. “The Magadh University at Bodh Gaya has a Japanese language department. Seven students from the department approached us to become volunteers," says Hamao. One of them was Shivnarayan Mishra, a resident of Bodh Gaya. “I have been associated with the project since 2009. I can speak Japanese fluently, so my task is to coordinate with the Japanese artists," says the 25-year-old, who is currently pursuing a PhD in labour and social welfare management.

The ripples created by the project spread beyond Bihar. Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, an internationally acclaimed Warli artist from Maharashtra, visited Bihar in 2012 to participate in the festival. He invited Hamao to his village Ganjad, in Dahanu. Just like Sujata, the literacy rate there was less than 50% and school drop-out rates were high. The festival was organized in Ganjad in 2013 and 2014 in different government-run schools, with artists like Gauri Gill and Yusuke Aasai.

“In Dahanu, during lean agriculture months, villagers leave to make bricks in towns. They withdraw the children from school and take them along. After this festival, parents realized that education is important. They are now leaving their kids at the residential facility in our school," says 52-year-old Bapu Chavan, a science teacher at the Ashram School, where the festival was held in 2014. “Today, there are 400 students in the residential wing. Moreover, with each class adorned with a Warli, Gond or Japanese mural, the atmosphere has changed from the mundane to (something that is) vibrant and full of positivity."

Ganjad also serves as the canvas for the team’s new initiative, which began in February: the Noco project.

Inspired by the Maharashtrian word nako for “no, that’s sufficient", Noco asks villagers to eschew artificial fertilizers and blind acceptance of technology, and sync it with traditional wisdom. “Villagers have changed from kuccha to pucca houses without realizing that these houses take a lot of money to maintain and are extremely hot in summers and freezing cold in winters," says Hamao. So, the team built a traditional house to demonstrate their vision—it also enabled the Japanese team to learn the traditional techniques of building a house.

They will be building four more houses powered by solar, wind and water energy, to serve as accommodation for artists and students from India and abroad. “There will be classes or workshops on organic farming, ways of increasing the yield of traditional seeds, and also lectures on ecological development. These organic products will then be sold in towns and help generate income for villagers. This will show that there are ways to earn a living while retaining the simple traditional way of living," says Hamao.

The Wall Art Project has also reached Ladakh, where nomadic communities have been moving away from traditional ways of life. Glacier melts due to climate change are forcing them to abandon villages and move to cities. “This is putting pressure on cities such as Leh," says Hamao.

At a residential school in Puga valley at 15,000ft, Hamao asked the students he met what they wished to be when they grew up. “Usually, kids say doctor, engineer. But here, the kids said they wanted to be educated nomads," says Hamao, who realized that education could bring future generations closer to their roots. The community sells handicrafts like the traditional ornament perak and pashmina shawls, but is dependent on middlemen for sales. So the team started the Earth Art Project in July. The idea was to introduce the youth to the region’s culture in the hope that they would eventually take production and distribution of the crafts into their own hands.

Battling low oxygen levels, artists from India, Japan and France made murals and installations. One costume designer made garments based on the children’s designs, and a soundscape artist mimicked the natural sounds of the countryside. “She went to the countryside with the children and recorded sounds such as the voice of a yak, the gurgling of the running river, the soft sound of snowfall and more. The children replicated this sound by mouth in front of a live audience," says Hamao.

“At this year’s Parents’ Day, some were amazed at the remarkable transformation of the kids. The children look soulful and organized the dance and other activities themselves. It has made the villagers more cooperative," says Naomi Spalzing, headmistress, Nang Middle School in Nang. They did a dry run of the project and the festival was organized in Puga. Students from other government schools also took part.

The Wall Art Project will return to the land where it all started—Bihar—at the end of this month. The New Holy Ganges School in Khagaria, Bihar, is usually a sleepy little place. But these days, the school is abuzz with excitement. Till recently, the words “graffiti", “Warli" and “contemporary art" were alien to the students. No longer. Seven artists, such as Anpu Varkey from New Delhi, Ichiro Endo and Daisuke Kagawa from Japan, TONA from Hamburg, Dahanu-based Tushar and Mayur Vayeda are splashing the school walls with murals and graphic art. “Khagaria is the smallest district in Bihar. Superstition is rampant, and there is lack of health infrastructure. With the help of the Wall Art Project, we want to raise awareness about such issues," says Abhishek Jalan, founder of the non-profit, iCanToo, which is supporting the project in the district.

The Wall Art Festival will be held in Khagaria, Bihar, from 28-30 November.

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