Artists in India’s Bihar State Spruce Up Their Environment to Save it

Image: Madhubani tree painting depicting a Hindu religious scene. (Courtesy of BBC World Service)

By Nicole Barr & Phill Provance

Deforestation is both an economic and health issue today. This is especially the case in India where climate and population have intersected to make global warming an acute threat. As one of the world’s emerging economies, India is also one of its most polluted countries. According to Helen Regan of CNN, 21 of the 30 cities with the worst air pollution globally are in India, and six of these are in the top 10, according to data published by IQAir AirVisual’s 2019 World Air Quality Report.

This extreme degree of air pollution affects millions in densely populated India, exposing them to life-threatening levels of  toxic smog. And yet, unlike in many developed countries, one major cause of this air pollution is not industrial waste or automotive emissions–those of course are factors too–but deforestation through burning to clear land for cultivation in rural areas where a combination of soil makeup and poor farming practices combine so that the countries many subsistence farmers can continue growing crops.

This issue is that when a forest is felled and burned it releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, even as it removes plants that provide natural carbon capture and convert smog into breathable oxygen. As a result, this deforestation worsens India’s already poor air quality caused by factories and cars.

What’s more, a significant portion of deforestation in developing countries like India is caused by illegal logging, a leading cause of forest loss. In India, illegal logging on both small and large scales is especially prevalent due to the continued use in under-developed regions of household fires for heating and cooking. Naturally, this is a consequence of India’s extraordinarily high poverty rate.

Nevertheless, India’s poor villagers and farmers find themselves in a Catch-22: while dependent on deforestation for land and basic household needs, according to the World Health Organization the resulting air pollution is responsible for more than one million premature deaths each year in India alone. In fact, the health risks are so serious that India’s government has legally banned illegal logging–though these laws remain under-enforced.

Recently, however, residents in the country’s Madhubani district, in Bihar, have begun using the traditional artform Madhubani (or Mithila painting) to help make a difference. With only 7.76 percent of its forest cover remaining, according to the India State of Forest Report of 2019, Bihar is one of India’s most heavily deforested regions.

In response, the Gram Vikas Parishad organization has organized a group of local Madhubani artists to paint religious scenes on tree trunks. The hope is these scenes will deter god-fearing Indians from cutting down the trees featuring such paintings. The program got its start when Bihar’s local government passed an ordinance supporting the use of traditional arts to encourage ecologically friendly practices.

For centuries, Mithila painting has been used to enhance homes in the Bihar region, which are mainly constructed of materials like mud and bamboo. Characterized by boldly outlined human figures with large eyes and pointed noses, as well as vibrant colors and detailed geometrical patterns, Madhubani artists utilize various easily obtainable, such as twigs, brushes, the points of fountain pens and matchsticks, and even their fingers to create their compositions, and their materials are all eco-friendly biodegradables like paints made from fruit pigments and powdered-rice paste. The most popular subjects for Mithila paintings are scenes from Hindu mythology, featuring gods and goddesses like Radha Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha, and Saraswati. To devout Hindus, defacing images of these deities is considered a sacrilege.

According to Lata Rani of Gulf News, Shashthi Nath Jha, who organized the Gram Vikas Parishad campaign, couldn’t bear the sight of further deforestation in Bihar. He began painting trees to make the region more “livable,” and soon artists across the region began to follow suit. The results have been beyond anything Shashthi Nath Jha could have foreseen. As Arti Kumari, one of the artists who joined the campaign, confirms, “Not a single painted tree has been cut down yet.”

The movement has also improved Bihar’s economy by attracting tourists to the region. According to Jha, many tourists even take photos with the painted trees. The Mithila painters therefore hope their initiative might find an audience outside their region and even outside India, spreading their eco-friendly art practices to other parts of the world where deforestation remains a major issue.