This February, the US Embassy’s Book Bus visited Jhapa in Eastern Nepal for a three week long trip. During our visit there, we collaborated with Readers Jhapa, a literary group; Dehi Arts, an artist’s collective; the Jhapa Arts and Literature Festival, one of the biggest literary and artistic events in the region; and worked with over 30 schools, colleges and community organizations in and around Kakarvitta.
As part of the Book Bus team from Kathmandu, we had partnered with the Kathmandu University’s Centre for Arts and Design (KUArts) and the Word Warriors, Nepal’s first spoken word poetry group, with the idea of making a large scale mural and hosting the first Jhapa poetry slam at the Jhapa Arts and Literature Festival.
Murals on the Book Bus
Murals are artworks painted or applied on walls or other architectural components. In Nepal, murals have been around as forms of traditional art and as tools of education. Traditional murals in Nepal often have a strong narrative and religious tone to them and are only done by master artisans. In an attempt to introduce this art to the youth, back in 2012, “Rainbow City,” the first mural arts program in Kathmandu was organized by Quixote’s Cove (QC) in partnership with KUArts and sponsored by the US Embassy.
As the co-lead for the Rainbow City mural project, James Burns, a staff artist at Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program with over a decade of work experience, conducted a nine-day program for local Nepali artists to teach them the mural-making process from design to installation as it is practiced in Philadelphia. As a result of this, a 20 feet tall by 25 feet long mural was installed close to Patan Dhoka on the wall of Café Cheeno in Krishna Galli.
Since then, street art and occasional murals have flourished in a few cities and towns in Nepal. QC, through the US Embassy’s Book Bus continues to partner with KUArts to make community focused murals and has made already made a number of community based murals in Gorkha, Chitwan, Ilam and Dhangadhi. Our murals are mostly in public spaces and retain an element of narrative, chronicle life in the region and capture the dreams and aspirations of its community. This is a natural result of our mural making approach that is community centered and relies on significant contributions from the community where the mural is being made.
In Jhapa, with the support of local artists from the Dehi Arts collective, and a large number of students and teachers who engaged in the process from design to execution, we were able to paint a mural that covered 200 ft. long by 20 ft. tall wall that spreads across Kakarvitta Buspark.
Jhapa on my mind: The making of Jhapa’s biggest Mural
Before we set off to Jhapa, we got in touch with Dehi Arts, a local artist’s collective that is actively engaged in promoting the arts in the region. Our preliminary conversations centered around finding a wall we could paint on, procuring resources in Kakarvitta and reaching out to schools for art workshops to collect design ideas for the mural. Some artists from Dehi Arts had painted a 60 ft. long mural on the wall of Kakarvitta Bus Park in April 2016. After briefly exploring the other options, we decided that our mural would go beside their preexisting mural and that we would try to cover the entire wall. With their experience in teaching and creating mural, we couldn’t have asked for better partners.
The KUArts team comprised of students, recent graduates and one seasoned teacher. Among them, Dinesh Sinkhwal and Sharad Raut arrived early for research. As a part of Kathmandu Triennale’s outreach program, they toured with the Book Bus to different schools in Jhapa and were joined by artists from Dehi Arts.
The nurturing of creativity and curiosity is sorely missing in most curriculum in Nepal, as a result it is not all that surprising when first asked to make some “art” the only thing that students mechanically draw are the Himalayas, mountains, rivers, birds and huts, except that in the plains of Jhapa most of them will have never seen such sights. In our workshops, to try to break the children away from this mechanical instinct, we introduced artworks by Triennale artists that dealt with the cities they lived in to broaden their vision of what artworks can be like. We then asked the students to draw what they saw around them, to draw the patterns, places and landmarks they remember from their own life. The drawings the young students made, eventually fed into the design of the mural.
Sujan Chitrakar, the coordinator of KUArts arrived a few days after we reached Jhapa. As part of his research into the mural design, armed with names of places and a couple of volunteers from Readers Jhapa, he set off to explore the region and meet the people who lived and worked there. Over the next couple of days, he engaged with community members, students and teachers, artists from both DeHi Arts and the Book Bus, and poets from the region and the Word Warriors to come up with a design that was representative of the region.
Kakkarvitta is right on the border with India, as a result, the bus park there sees a lot of traffic and a gives a permanent sense of transit. The wall that we worked on was in bad shape, people would often piss in front of it and throw garbage around it. In their effort to encourage their own community to care for its environment, Dehi Arts had previously painted a section of the wall. They hoped that this initiative would leave a mark on all the people who not only passed through Kakarvitta, but also lived here. They hoped that this would inspire everyone in their town to come together and make their town better.
An Artist on the Book Bus
KUArts student, Priyanka Singh traveled with the Book Bus to Jhapa to work on the mural, “Jhapa on my mind,” here she reflects on her experience.
Being a travel enthusiast, I’m always thrilled to explore new places. Getting to travel while making art is a rare experience and opportunity. The nearly eleven hours I had to spend inside the confined space of microbus on my way to Jhapa didn’t bother me at all, as the excitement of the work ahead was too great.
The hustle and bustle of Jhapa was similar to that of Kathmandu, only that Jhapa was a lot warmer. When I first saw the wall we were going to work on at Kakarvitta Bus Park, I was stunned by its size. I wondered how we would fill a wall this big in eight days. By the time we reached Jhapa, the layout for the mural had already started taking shape. We started working over the very next day with artists from Dehi Arts. We cleaned the area around the wall, drew outlines freehand where possible and by projecting them during the evenings when difficult. We also mixed paint and started filling the outlines that were already made. Over the next few days, we worked whenever we could, sometimes under the light of the Book Bus, sometimes with curious community members. We even had a community paint day when students from nearby schools and community members helped us paint the wall.
The mural we made is a dedication to Jhapa. The different elements that make up the mural represent Jhapa, like the bar, coconut and supari trees that surround huts unique to Jhapa; the infamous wild elephants and bamboo groves of Bahundangi; the customs gate at the border; natural artifacts like the mini-mountain and water lillies. We also painted a crab after finding out that Kakarvitta gets its name from Kakkar-Crabs that the Adhibasis or indigenous tribes in the region came to hunt here.
Since we were in Jhapa with the Book Bus, we wanted to leave something behind to encourage young students to pick up their books. At the center of the mural, representing the children of Jhapa, we painted a school girl we met during our stay there. We added wings to her and on those blue wings, we wrote poems in gold over and over again. The poems all came from workshops conducted by the Word Warriors with young students of Jhapa. The poems written by school children about the place they belong were fascinating! The idea was to let people know that given the freedom to express, they could shape their future. To leave something behind, we also drew one of our own and one of Dehi’s onto the mural with a message of saving it from becoming a garbage dump.
In an environment completely different than I was used to, the experience was very worthwhile. It was commendable how everyone came together as team to make our events happen. The eight days we worked there, I witnessed people’s curiosity and want to help. Praises from people passing by encouraged us to work harder. The Book Bus’s outreach to schools in the area also made it possible for us to connect with children and encourage them to work on the mural as well. I had never worked on such a large mural before and was very glad to get this opportunity. I got to meet new people and artists from the area, got to know them, and learned about their works. I enjoyed the place and ambiance so much that I wouldn’t even complain about the heat and how I had to work all day so that we could finish the mural on time.
Jhapa’s first Poetry Slam
As the spoken word poetry program coordinator for this trip to Jhapa, the task of compiling the lines that would go on the wings of the girl fell on me. I agonized over the poems I could not select. The agony, I was to discover, was rather unnecessary. The words, painted over again and again, by the time the artists and community members were impossible to decipher. This maintained the anonymity of the poet, while validating their ownership over the words and the mural. The anonymity was, I felt, a beautiful thing because it let the rest of the community take ownership as well.
The sense of community was present in the spoken word program as well. The Word Warriors conducted a three-weeks long program of performances, workshops and slams that led to a Final Jhapa Slam 2017. The program reached out to students in 12 schools and colleges. Jhapa Slam 2017 was the first of its kind in Jhapa and was a part of the Jhapa Art and Literature Festival organized by Readers Jhapa and DeHi Arts.
Before the ten Finalists were set to perform, we held a preparatory session for them to ask questions, and practice. We reminded what we had been telling them throughout the workshops and slams that had led up to the Finals – that, in slams, ‘The point is not the point; the point is poetry.’ They wanted to know what they could do to continue with the art form. One of the finalists shared how expressing herself through poetry had given her the strength to stand up to her bullies. We even got talking about what it means to create art that means something to them. We asked them to share what they had learnt with friends and spread the poetry bug.
During the finals, some of the participants of the first workshop who had not made it through came to watch their friends perform. The finalists performed wonderfully to a predominantly older audience who laughed, cried and applauded for them. In Jhapa, for the first time in the history of slams in Nepal, the top 5 winners: Seewani Mainali, Prakriti Angdembe, Tanuja Bastola, Sabita Bhattarai and Rachana Sitaula were all girls. One of the winners, Seewani shamed the contemporary Nepali society for the discriminatory way it treats its girls.
After the finals, I stood beaming and mostly silent, surrounded by poets praising and congratulating each other. I was almost giddy with pride, and with excitement for what lay ahead of them. In that moment, our work in Jhapa came together into a full circle where together, these young ones were each growing wings of poems on their backs.
We ended our work there with a formal program where we handed over the mural to the local authorities. With the bitter-sweetness of having finished the work and having to leave the place, we named the mural ‘Jhapa On My Mind’. A local signboard artist who had just set up shop in the bus park wrote the credits to the mural for us. With the paint leftover from the mural, we thanked him by painting his shop a sunny yellow with a huge paint brush to go with it.
By the time we were done, the locals of the bus park: the vendors, conductors, shopkeepers, school children knew us by sight, if not by names. People were taking selfies and sometimes asking us to take their pictures in front of the mural. We gladly obliged. Small gestures of inclusivity made the experience enriching for the artists involved and for the community, as all community based art projects should be. Hoping this transformation of their space will inspire them to maintain its beauty, we left with #jhapaonourminds.
Written by Pranab Man Singh, Nasala Chitrakar and Priyanka Singh. Pranab Man Singh is the director of QC. Nasala Chitrakar was the spoken word poetry coordinator for the trip to Jhapa. Priyanka Singh is a third year student at KUArt.