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In 1991, the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata was faced with an unusual situation: a sheet-metal sculpture of a bird with a 22ft wingspan could not get through the doors of the art gallery. The artist, Chitta Dey, had to clip the wings before it could finally go through.

The bird’s proportions led an art critic to comment on its incongruity within a gallery space—the bird should have been smaller, he said. “That comment annoyed me," says Dey. “I told him I had a certain vision for my creation and it isn’t my problem that the city lacked a gallery space big enough for it."

In 1996, Dey found a space that was big enough. That year, the West Bengal government offered him an 800ft-high hill in Baghmundi in Purulia district. Pakhi Pahar, as it is known locally and in tourist brochures, is just the kind of canvas Dey, now 58, needed to realize his “dream", a word that the graduate from Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft uses often.

The wingspan of the smallest bird etched on the hill is 55ft, and that of the largest, 120ft. About 65 birds have been painstakingly painted on the rock face and sculpting work on some is under way. The plan is to cover the hill with about a hundred birds. Dey says about 40% of the work has been completed.

Bird Hill has become a matter of “life and death" for him, Dey tells us.

Dey’s is the story of a dream: a rock sculpture project that involves the local tribal community in an area that has been a hotbed of Maoists.

Birds allowed his imagination to take wing and the comparisons with humans came naturally. In the turbulent early 1970s, when Kolkata was in the grip of the student-led urban Naxalite movement, Dey recalls seeing strangers congregating in small groups every time a bomb went off near his school in north Kolkata’s Sealdah. Another bomb blast would see them disperse to form new groups elsewhere: behaviour, he reckons, that was similar to birds in distress flocking together.

Another time, at his ancestral home in Taki, close to the border with Bangladesh, Dey saw hundreds of birds taking flight one evening. The grace and synchronized harmony of that act, the coordination of their movements, was inspiring. For him, this synchronized with a gritty determination to “revive" an Indian tradition of hill-carved sculpture that peaked with the centuries-old Ajanta and Ellora cave temples in modern-day Maharashtra.

“You see a sparrow nibbling on food on your terrace. And then in a flash, it has flown to a tree’s top branches. I’ve often envied that little creature," says Dey. We are sitting on the terrace of the house he has built near Pakhi Pahar—the wind is rustling through the trees and I can hear the calls of birds and jungle cats.

One man’s dream

After the 1991 exhibition of metal-sculpted birds at the Academy of Fine Arts, his first solo show, Dey started looking for the kind of rocky hill that could best accommodate a sculptural project based on an illustration of birds he had created on paper.

He visited the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, and the hilly terrain of Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. “I’d look for a hill that matched the shape of my drawing, which I would carry, along with toposheets. I’d also collect rock pieces and get them tested for quality by a director at the Geological Survey of India (GSI)." It was then that a news report about this in The Telegraph newspaper came to the notice of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Bengal’s information and cultural affairs minister at the time.

Bhattacharya offered Dey the hill that was then known as Murra Buru (or Bald Hill, for its dramatic rock face) among the local—predominantly Santhal—community. Dey accepted the offer, but rejected Bhattacharya’s other request—to employ young, trained sculptors for the project. “I didn’t want sculptors who came over temporarily from the city. Instead, I selected youth from the local Adivasi community and trained them in sculpting for the first four years," says Dey.

Dey began with a batch of 40-odd students in 1997; the team, with a couple of additions, has since been trimmed to 24.

Dey got a grant of about 2 lakh from the state government initially. Some companies chipped in, and he put his own money into the project too. The basic implements were, and are, the chisel, hammer and drilling machine. The drilling machines used to be run with generator support before they got electricity for the project. For colours, Dey uses outdoor enamel paint.

They work on the project three-four months in a year, starting October. The gruelling summer and rainy season make it impossible to work on the bare, exposed hillside the rest of the year. That is the time Dey spends teaching art in jails and correction homes.

Sankar Hansda, one of Dey’s trainees, says: “(In the initial days) he would spend days just looking at the hill. He would look at it from different angles and study seasons. We didn’t know what he wanted or what he wanted us to do."

“The villagers thought of him as a mad person up to something with our hill. Yet he would eat with us and sleep with us on the floor," adds Paresh Mahato, a tribal sculptor.

For the first four years, much of their training took place at the base of Pakhi Pahar, where Dey taught the men to carve on boulders. Their creations—of floral patterns and animals like spotted deer, turtles and pangolin—decorate the trail leading up to Pakhi Pahar, part of the Matha region of the Ayodhya range of hills, estimated by geologists to be 250 million years old. Dey chose the themes consciously—centuries later, he believes, these carvings could be evidence of the animal life once found in the region. For development, he says, cares little for nature.

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