Bulu Imam: A Lifetime of Working with Adivasi Art and the Environment

in Article
Published on: 05 September 2018

Gauri Bharat

Gauri Bharat is Chair of Architectural History and Theory Program at the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India. Her teaching and research focus primarily on how people engage with the built environment. She explored this in her PhD, which analysed Adivasi built environments as an archive of their history. The project not only demonstrated what architectural change can tell us about the social, environmental and historical lives of such communities, but also reflected on the role of research and history in shaping personal and collective identities. Additionally, for the past few years now, Gauri has been fascinated by the oddities and untold stories of Indian cities. She has experimented with teaching architectural history, theory and humanities using the city of Ahmedabad as a laboratory. Her students have mapped cows, roadside shrines, fruit and vegetable markets, temporary markets, and roadside eating habits, among other things. By immersing themselves in the seemingly mundane but actually complex urban phenomena, her students learn to make sense of built environments as both sites and processes. Gauri continues to do research in the ways in which people produce, inhabit and transform built environments, be it the street culture of Ahmedabad or in the rural areas of Jharkhand.

Dusk was settling over the Sanskriti Museum in Hazaribagh, when I arrived to meet Mr Bulu Imam. His house nestled within a grove of tall trees, he was seated in the veranda surrounded by a group of people. He was speaking to two students who were scheduled to represent Jharkhand in a national tribal art competition. Accompanied by their school teachers they had come to seek advice on how to best project their traditional art. Ever the student himself, Mr. Imam declared, ‘How am I going to advise you when it is you that I constantly learn from?’ As he flipped through photographs of the students’ work, he spoke about the historical roots of the motifs they drew. He described the similarities between patterns made by adivasi (tribal) women artists on the walls of their houses and the rock art from prehistoric periods found in sites around Hazaribagh. He discussed the etymology of the word Sohrai, which refers to the harvest festival celebrated across the region. ‘Soro’, he explained, refers to the act of corralling animals within a fenced shelter or to the act of whipping cattle. The word Sohrai thus embeds in itself the history of the domestication of animals and probably the beginnings of agriculture among the adivasi communities of the region. Your tradition of painting, Mr Imam told the two girls, has ancient links. It is rooted in some of oldest practices in the region.


Meanwhile, a second group of students from a local university’s English department arrived. They were deeply concerned about a proposed highway project that threatened to cut through an important nature reserve bordering the city. Historic properties, large numbers of very old trees and fauna in the nature reserve were likely to be irrevocably damaged, or destroyed. They sought Mr Imam’s opinion and advice on raising public awareness regarding the development. He listened with interest but told the students that his activism days were over. The project was too far progressed to be stoppable, but he emphasised that it was crucial for the youth of Hazaribagh to raise their concerns. It was after all their heritage and future that was at stake. The students suggested organising a seminar where these issues could be brought out in the public realm. Mr Imam iterated that his days of activism were long past, but he agreed to chair the public discussion and lend support to the cause.


Moving from a conversation about adivasi art to one on environmental activism reflects but a slice of the diverse interests that characterise Mr Imam’s intellectual and professional oeuvre. He is renowned nationally and internationally as an authority on the tribal art of Jharkhand and the prehistory of the region. But this was not how it all started. Born into a distinguished family of lawyers and politicians, Mr Imam followed his father’s footsteps to become a big game hunter. Like his father before him, Mr Imam only hunts animals that threaten human life. They neither of them hunted for pleasure. His turn to activism came when he witnessed the destruction caused to forests by coal-mining activities in the Hazaribagh region. The foray into tribal art happened nearly simultaneously, with a serendipitous introduction to an ancient rock art site. An Australian Jesuit priest, Father Tony Herbert, ran night schools for villagers in the Barkagaon Valley, adjacent to Hazaribagh. He had been told about a cave with some red markings by another traveller, and in turn mentioned it to Mr Imam. On visiting the site, Mr Imam recognised that these were no ordinary markings but ancient rock art, and that he had stumbled on something of considerable significance. During that and subsequent visits to the site, he picked up a number of stone tools as well. The significance of the site and the objects was confirmed by visiting archaeologists and rock art experts who dated them to the Meso (9000 BP) and Chalcolithic (4000 BP) periods of human history. For Mr Imam, this opened up two avenues of thought and action. First, that these sites were worshipped by local communities hinted at connections between the adivasis and the prehistoric settlements in the region. This eventually developed into an exploration of adivasi art and its prehistoric antecedents and contributed to his advocacy on indigenous land rights. Second, the presence of the rock art sites, together with the significant wildlife population in the Hazaribagh and surrounding regions, became a rallying point to challenge the coal mining industry, which threatened this environment and heritage. His efforts—a significant and well-documented campaign—bore fruit when an important commission to Coal India was cancelled by the World Bank and coal mining was halted in the region.


By the time the students left, it was dark. Mr Imam suggested that we shift to his sitting room and requested that the fireplace be lit. This is probably the only house in Hazaribagh that has a fireplace, he said with amusement. As we sat around the fire, we picked up the threads of conversation from earlier, and returned to the topic of adivasi art. My own research was on Adivasi art in Singhbhum, which lies in south Jharkhand. Hazaribagh, where Mr Imam has extensively worked with Adivasi artists, lies in north Jharkhand. As we compared photographs of mural art from both regions, Mr Imam elaborated on the differences of local history and art practice between the two regions. Hazaribagh presents an earlier, almost primordial, moment when compared to the rather precise art found in Singhbhum, he observed. Women artists in the Hazaribagh region paint with a more organic flourish. The art of Singhbhum is rooted in a very different sensibility. Could this be linked to the history of industrialisation in the Singhbhum, I asked. He agreed that this was possible. After all, the inspiration for art comes from the local cultural history of the communities as well as from deep-rooted perceptual connections with their environment. When the environment changes, artistic sensibilities will change as well. Which is not to say that Hazaribagh has not changed. But most villages continue with old ways of life, whereas in Singhbhum, industrialisation is a reality that pervades everyday life more deeply. Then, in Hazaribagh, there are the rock art sites, where the artists can encounter the art of their ancestors! We discussed that art practices would inevitably change, but it was important to maintain some traditions. How else would we leave a legacy for future generations?


Mr Imam’s work with adivasi artists may have begun on a serendipitous note, but it developed over the decades of the 1990s and 2000s to become a globally recognised institution. In the days of campaigning against coal mining, he brought together a number of women artists from villages around Hazaribagh and formed the Tribal Women Artists’ Collaborative (TWAC). Prior to the TWAC, the walls of their homes were the only canvas that the women had and the tradition remained largely bound to the cultural sphere of the family and community. The TWAC however created new opportunities. On the one hand, Mr Imam’s activism had already meshed local environment, prehistory and art into an interconnected narrative of living heritage. Through the TWAC he then developed and curated a number of international exhibitions which drew specific attention to the murals and to the artists as the custodians of this tradition. Artist Putli Ganju, for instance, is a notable example. Mr Imam first encountered her work when she painted the walls of her house in preparation for her marriage. Her marriage unfortunately did not work out. Subsequently, she came to stay at Sanskriti (Mr Imam’s residence, museum and research centre) and produced a number of murals under the TWAC. She and other artists have had their murals displayed at national and international galleries, and have given face to this tradition. This led to the empowerment of the women artists, but also, through these opportunities, presented a strong case for the recognition of indigenous rights in international forums. What is interesting is that at a time when indigenous identity and politics were but emerging as mainstream discourses, and adivasi art had very little currency and only in urban centres such as Delhi and Mumbai, mural artists from Hazaribagh were already gaining visibility in circles as far as Europe and Australia.


Mr Imam had arranged for me to visit the villages. He had recommended his son Justin Imam as the best guide one could have. Justin and his wife Alka run an organisation called the Virasat Trust which also works with women artists. Prior to my visit, Mr Imam’s other son Gustav had sent me some documentation in preparation for the visit. So I had seen images of walls resplendent with motifs of flowers, animals and mythic figures. I mentally expected to find the landscape dotted with mud huts, each gloriously covered in motifs. While the visual impact of the murals was tremendous, what was less evident at first was the difficulties of keeping the practice going. As we drove to the first village, Justin explained some of the challenges that mural artists faced. The colours they used were usually white kaolin clay, black manganese clay and red. These colours were quite difficult to find, he said, and women were often so busy that they were unable to put in the effort. He, through his organisation, often sourced material and delivered it to the villages to facilitate the painting of murals. It was not until we reached the villages that the full extent of the facilitation by the Virasat Foundation became apparent. 


As we entered one house and Justin introduced the purpose of my visit, the conversation steered towards some blankets that the district administration had promised the villagers. The women mentioned that they had not received the blankets. Could Justin help? Justin explained that administrative procedures took time and he was making every effort, but it was important that the women continue to paint so that they and their villages get better visibility. The story repeated itself in different villages. Some asked about saris, others about blankets that they had hoped to get in exchange for painting murals. It was clear that these incentives were providing crucial encouragement and ensuring the continuity of mural painting. Justin later explained that until a few years back, most artists had nearly completely stopped painting. It had taken much conversation, cajoling and some incentives to get the artists to paint again. He was also requesting better-known artists such as Putli Ganju to train and encourage other women in the village to take up painting. We noticed in Putli’s village that some houses in proximity to her own had murals, some clearly painted by novices, while most of the other houses in the village sported blank walls. Justin asked Putli why so few women had made the effort to paint muralshe had hoped to see more artwork. Didn’t Justin know how difficult it was to find the time and resources, Putli responded. Justin then observed that the murals could have been better. Putli replied that the murals were made by beginners. It would take them time to develop skill and finesse. We left asking Putli and the other women to keep trying, to make more and better murals.


The encounters in the villages made it apparent that domestic art practices are fragile traditions. They face two key challenges. First, their canvas, which is the mud walls of their homes, is transforming, as rural houses are increasingly built using bricks and concrete. Second, women artists face serious constraints in terms of both time and resources. Caught between domestic, agricultural and familial demands, they give up painting. Justin and Alka Imam’s efforts recognised these challenges and offered support at these crucial junctures. They often procure and deliver black, white and red clay to different villagers in time for the women to start painting. They also liaise between relevant government agencies that offer facilities for villagers, philanthropists who contribute monetary and other assistance, and the villagers for whom these incentives ensure that murals would be painted for another season. One of the biggest demands of this approach is that it requires ceaseless effort. Mr Imam’s TWAC revived and brought recognition to the mural traditions, and Justin and Alka Imam’s Virasat is helping to keep it alive at the source, that is in the homes and villages of the women artists themselves.


One of the other major achievements of Mr Imam and his family’s continuous engagement with adivasi murals and the women artists is the mainstreaming of this tradition within local and national public consciousness. Their search for newer avenues for the artists led to a recent public art project that involved the painting of Hazaribagh Railway Station. Women mural artists used traditional techniques of painting with coloured clays and covered the walls of the station with Khovar and Sohrai motifs. The project received much acclaim, including a public mention by the prime minister. This led to the idea being adopted and implemented on a much wider scale by the Government of Jharkhand. Today, as one drives out of Ranchi airport into the city, or through the main streets of Hazaribagh, the walls are covered with Sohrai and Khovar motifs. From a situation about two decades ago when the practice of mud murals was barely known, it has grown to have much better visibility.


It was the final day of my stay with Mr Imam. I had visited the villages, seen some exceptional mural art, got a taste of the prehistoric sites around Hazaribagh in the form of 8000-year old rock art in a cave shelter. Little did I realise that there was more in store. As I waited for breakfast, Mr. Imam decided to show me the Sanskriti Museum. We had talked of it in the evenings by the fireplace. Mr Imam had described the significant numbers of stone tools, ancient figurines and of course paintings by the TWAC artists that he had collected over the years. He mentioned the difficulties of cataloguing, storing and dating all his pieces. As time and resources permitted, he had authenticated the prehistoric pieces and catalogued the artwork. His son Gustav made it his own life’s mission to collate the material and further the scholarship on the art practices of the region. But in a lifetime of working with the antiquarian remains of Jharkhand and the mural artists, Mr Imam had accumulated a wealth of things. As we walked into the museum, he pointed to ancient flint tools, roughly carved figures and microliths. Glass cabinet after cabinet of objects that would find pride of place in any museum. That the age of some of these was probably the same as the objects found in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa and treasured by the British Museum in London heightened the sense of amazement. Here I was, standing in front of tools and art produced by people more than 100,000 years ago.


What should have been a profound moment of connection with prehistory was simultaneously a slightly worrying one. In spite of Mr Imam’s efforts, and the corroboration by national and international scholars of the veracity of the historical significance of the objects, neither has Hazaribagh been recognised nor these sites protected from potential damage. Being located nearly in the heart of the some of the largest coal mines in the Indian subcontinent makes for a palpable threat to the historical sites and villages. Protecting these sites and practices is crucial because the erasure of history is not just a nominal loss of a few old things, but a dangerous disconnect from our collective past, and threshold from which no recovery or return is possible. As Mr Imam had advised the university students who were concerned about the highway project, it is important to start talking and raise consciousness about these things because it is the legacy of future generations that is at stake here. Though Mr Imam may have long given up activism, the institutions he has established are exemplars in advocating how the environment, indigenous rights, women’s art, and the prehistory of the region are intimately bound to/up with each other.


Further Reading


Imam, Bulu. 2009. ‘Kovar and Sohrai Art: The Painted Houses of Hazaribagh’ in Heritage India 1.4.


———. 2017. ‘Karanpura must Live: The Story of a Campaign to Save a Landscape” in Sanctuary Asia 37.8.