Everything is an art installation in Laalbazar, a tribal village of 80 people in Jhargram district, West Bengal. On the walls of the mud houses — painted in bright colours — are scenes of everyday life: goats gazing, tribal dances, farmers in an orchard, children at play.
Depicted on one wall is a wedding ritual of this Lodha tribe, where the groom threatens to jump off the roof and the bride says he doesn’t have to take his life as she will be with him forever.
There are exhibition spaces where artefacts are sold, and a workshop where children learn to paint, adults try their hand at sculpture, and women at quilting.
Kolkata-based painter and sculptor Mrinal Mandal has led the transformation of what used to be a regular mud-huts Lodha settlement. He first visited in 2014, while on a visit to his home town of Jhargram city.
“The village has only one entry and exit. To the rear of it is dense forest. Entering it gave me an enormous sense of peace and positivity,” Mandal said.
The artist had, two years earlier, co-founded the Chalchitra Academy with fellow artist Jayati Banerjee, to promote the dying arts of Bengal.
In Laalbazar, he found a village of impoverished daily wage earners and decided perhaps his art and the art academy could help.
They started small, with free drawing classes for the children. “Two artists from a neighbouring village — painter Rameswar Soren and sculptor Jogeswar Hansda — began to teach.”
Mandal and fellow artists from the academy simultaneously asked if they could paint the walls of the mud houses. “They permitted us to paint one wall first, then three, and then they saw that we were doing something nice.”
By 2018, all the homes were painted. Scholar and writer Shivaji Bandopadhyay visited the village and rechristened it Khwaabgaon, or village of dreams, a name that has caught on with the residents. Renowned artist Jogen Chowdhury designed a logo to go with the name. On it are the motifs of the sun, the moon and trees.
The houses are re-made with mud every year, so all the paintings are done over each year too. “We didn’t stop there. We started teaching them crafts as well,” Mandal said.
Artists have stepped up to provide free instruction. A popular craft villagers now earn from is the style called Katumkutum, made famous by Abanindranath Tagore, where figurines are made from wood, twigs, leaves and roots collected from the forest. Workshops on sculpting, quilting, kantha work, the making of natural dyes are also conducted.
Khwaabgaon has become a tourists attraction and visitors invariably end up buying the crafts as souvenirs. (Products cost between ₹200 and ₹1,000.)
“I never thought I would see a time like this,” said resident Sashthi Charan Ahir, 42, a differently abled labourer and now Katumkutum artist. “My children are learning to draw, the women in the family are quilting, my brother is learning to sculpt and I earned ₹15,000 from my Katumkutum in 2019.”
Painter Saumen Khamrui visited Khwaabgaon last month to hold a workshop on the art of Batik printing. “The best thing about the villagers — male, female, child or adult — is the willingness to learn a new form of art or craft,” he said.
A nursery is now being built to grow Ayurvedic plants and make natural compost, for use and sale by the villagers. “We are also planning to build a small studio here so that artists can come and stay here with the villagers and create art, do a kind of residency,” Mandal said. Eventually the hope is that art will become the sole source of income for at least some of the families here.
The initiative has been so successful that neighbouring villages are now approaching Mandal to do the same for them. “We are planning to start drawing classes in a village about 6km away, called Uranshol. It’s a tribe of Bhil people who are eager to learn from us,” Mandal said.