Art is a basic right, not an afterthought

July 18, 2016 , by Sewa Bhattarai, 1 Comment
When artists from the group ‘imaginative virus’ walked into Harisiddhi after the earthquake, they had little imagined that they would be building a boat out of a broken old cycle. But that is exactly what they ended up doing, eventually. And in the process, also helped ease the children’s trauma, and engaged them in creative projects instead. Like imaginative virus, several groups of artists had geared into action immediately after the earthquake of April 25, reaching out to earthquake victims through art creations and workshops. While many of them helped divert children’s minds and reduce their stress, others helped even adults express their feelings of anger and frustration after the quake.

credit: Imaginative Virus

Imaginative virus

Imaginative virus first reached Harisiddhi a few days after the earthquake of April 25, when they started helping out the local people with reconstruction and cleaning. In addition, they gave art workshops to the local children, when they found that the local children were very creative. “I found that the children were already very curious and innovative. They would take apart and put together small motors, they would take the parts of one machine and build something else. They had even built a small tattoo machine,” says Suraj Dangol of Imaginative Virus. The group then asked the children to imagine something big, and they would help build it.

Then followed a process of creative brainstorming, where several ideas were pitched and vetted. Children came up with the idea of a fan powered by a cycle, of rebuilt furniture, and several other innovative designs. But the one that stuck was the idea of a boat, built with the remains of an old cycle. Even this design went through several modifications before it was finally built.

“We took apart the cycle, and brought some old tires and bamboos. When bamboo did not work, daiharu (elder brothers) tried wiring, and that worked,” says Rithik Maharjan, 14, a part of the construction group. What they got eventually was a small paddle boat, with the cycle peddles used for paddling. The boat could seat four people, and was used to clean up the local pond.

In Harisiddhi, Imaginative virus also painted murals to brighten up the dreary post-disaster atmosphere, and repaired the local people’s damaged furniture, often making a different piece than what existed originally. One of their major focuses was an art workshop for the children of the area, where children gathered for free or guided artistic exercise. When they heard singing and saw people drawing in a local school’s classroom, the children were immediately attracted to it. The artists, as well as the children’s guardians, all agree that the workshops helped engage children and keep them away from mischief and depression during a difficult time.

credit: Artree

The same feeling is echoed by Aabishra Panaj Basukala, a resident of Thulo Byasi, Bhaktapur, where artists of the group Artree held extended art workshops over a year.
“In the absence of schools, children were simply running around doing nothing. They wouldn’t listen to us. But when the artists came and started holding workshops, the children gathered around and were engaged,” says Basukala.

Indeed, after a few months of art workshop, children in Thulo Byasi had produced a substantial amount of artwork. Chaudhary believes this helped children express their fears and let out their stress. Mekh Limbu, another artist from this group, combined the sketches made by the children and made a cartoon out of it, calling it ‘chalne chitra’. “This brought sophisticated arts like movies into the reach of children,” says Limbu. “When they saw their own pictures displayed on the projector, it became something they knew and could do, not something they watched from afar.”

“At first people were in shock and were not talking to us. Children were especially traumatized after the second quake because they lost trust. We used masks so that they could act out their emotions from inside the masks,” says Silasha Rajbhandari from Artree. As they spent time in the community, they found that women were more traumatized and depressed. Women had to do a lot of physical work, domestic work, and were exhausted. They had no space to express themselves, many women talked of suicide. The artists invited psychologists and ran sessions there.

On their part, they did a workshop where women were encouraged to express through colors. Though they had every color at their disposal, most women chose darker shades. “One woman chose black, and when I asked why, she said, the earthquake makes me angry,” remembers Rajbhandari. Some women became angry and tore the paper. One woman had chosen sky blue color when everyone else was choosing dark shades. When asked why, she said it was because after earthquake, in her traumatized stage, she looked at the sky, and its blue color gave her some peace. Another woman did a self-portrait, which made her feel very happy and important, because she had only seen portraits made for powerful people and politicians, so a portrait of herself made her feel important too.

Lavkanta Chaudhary from the group had guided the youngsters into producing simulations of what they were doing at the moment of the quake. And the results are little houses, 1 foot X 1 foot, where children have showcased various moments like hiding under the table, or running. Artists from other groups have also found that children’s artworks reflected their immediate experiences.

credit: Bindu


Saurganga Darshandhari, of the group Bindu, found that children in different areas expressed different things in their artworks. In Kathmandu, children drew a falling Dharahara, a motif that was absent in children outside Kathmandu. In Rasuwa for example, children drew tumbling mountains and landslides. Basically, children everywhere seemed to find art as a means to take off the burden weighing heavily on their mind.

Bindu was the first organization to reach Ghyachchok, very near the epicenter of the earthquake in Barpak, one of the groups that chose to go far out of their comfort zone in Kathmandu Valley to help earthquake victims. “We saw so many children who were so scared and had forgotten to smile, and wanted to work with them,” says Darshandhari from the group. They began by talking and playing with the children. At first, the children were shy and did not respond to them, only three girls came to them. But when they started working with origami, it attracted children and they started playing. “Eventually, the children became very happy that day,” says Darshandhari “they said it felt like they were playing in school after many days.”

credit: Srijanalaya


Sharareh Bajracharya from Srijanalaya also found a similar response from the residents of Gorkha. “Katti bhako thiyo nahaseko (it had been so long since we had laughed).,” they told Bajracharya, “Only after you came in did we lighten up a little bit.” One and a half months after the earthquake, the team of Shreejanalaya, which helps children learn through art, had gone to Ghyacchok. They had started with doll-making, and then moved to different kinds of arts including performance arts and language arts. The response was overwhelming. Kids became enthused and were heartily involved. That was when the adults joined in and found that they still had some laughter left in them after all.

For Bajracharya, one of the most powerful moments was when she and her team were doing performance arts and asked the community members to perform what they wanted. Some older men of the community got up and began dancing Sorathi. They danced in whatever little clothes they had, when traditionally they never danced without full costume or topi. But the moment was too precious to pass, especially as the song they chose to perform was the story of Ram’s Banbas, which told their own story of losing a home and seeking refuge in the wilderness.

Bajracharya believes that they got such enthusiastic response from the locals because art is a part of who we are. “It is one of our essential rights, and not an afterthought,” says she. And her viewpoint was reinforced when even the people who had lost everything to earthquake responded so well to arts.

Afterwards, Bajracharya and her team of nine artists continued to hold 3-5 day workshops in different parts of the country. Bajracharya believes that dramas are the most effective ways of learning for kids. “When you do a drama, you need to write a script, and you research local histories and stories for this. And then comes stage making, costume making, and finally, the performance, which includes speaking, singing, and dancing. All of this includes an extraordinary amount of coordination as well. So, at once the children learn a lot of skills. ”


The Toilet Diaries

And of course, there are some artists who went out of their regular artistry to help earthquake victims in more material ways. Milan Rai was once famous as the artist who spread white butterflies all over. Known then as the “butterfly man,” he later came to be known as “toilet man” for his work in making toilets after the earthquake.
“Most of the time when I come back from field trips, it is because of some injuries but with lightness in my heart and sparkle in my eyes,” says Milan.

After the first earthquake, Milan posted a picture on facebook, asking anyone who wanted to come out to join him with a backpack, a whistle, and water. He went around city with the volunteers, reaching Teaching Hospital at 3 in the morning and then coming to Tundikhel. He started talking to the people camping there. Thousands of people were forced to use four toilets. Women had to wait until dark to relieve themselves.

“Tomorrow I will come back,” he said to them. They had only Rs. 4,000, while a roll of tarpaulin cost Rs. 21,000. Somehow they managed to arrange for the money, but then they went to the bamboo supplier who demanded another Rs. 2,000. They gave the supplier their phones for security, but he did not accept it. Later Milan’s brother gave him the money for the bamboo. They called for volunteers on Facebook and Twitter. In half an hour there were a good number of volunteers, and they cut bamboos to size and dug a twenty-meter long trench.

The army was impressed as well as ashamed. It was their responsibility to build toilets, while Milan’s group finished 50 toilets that night. “There was fear of cholera but we were spreading faster than cholera: everyday increasing number of volunteers,” says Milan.

At first, they focused mainly in city areas where there were camps. Their toilets evolved. Commode chairs were added for physically disabled and elderly people. They started getting better. Children were missing schools, so a volunteer wrote ABCD on one side of the tarp that made the wall of the toilet. On the other side was ka kha ga gha. Another volunteer came up with the idea of raising the roof so that water fell off of it.

“I did not know how the money would come, but I knew it would come,” says Milan.
They have since graduated to building concrete buildings and schools, and Milan continues to aid earthquake victims in any way he can.



For the artists, it was important to reach out to the earthquake victims in whatever way they could. “This is the only thing we know, and this is how we wanted to help,” was many artists’ common voice. The artists mentioned the shyness of the people, especially children, as a huge barrier. And later, when their program began to gain success, scaling up became a huge challenge. It was difficult to implement in other areas what they had successfully done in one area. But despite these challenges, the artists are happy to have been able to contribute to society through their work.

Words by Sewa Bhattarai
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