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Walls With Stories – The Wise Wall Project

Design Log 21 Sep

Life lessons, wall art, historic stories, anecdotes, a specialised typeface and a whole lot of love – We find out what happens when city dwellers travel to an almost-ghost-like village in Uttarakhand plagued by mass migration and try to infuse it with life, art and fond memories.

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The first village of painted stories and life lessons.

“Simply put, a life lesson is a lesson from your life. It is whatever life has taught you, it is the most important piece of advice that you’d give your loved ones”, says Deepak Ramola, founder of Project FUEL, an organisation that collects life lessons from people and turns them into interactive, performance activities and learnings.

Through all his travels across the world collecting life lessons – he recently spent 90 days in Europe with Syrian refugees – Deepak always found himself wanting to do a village of life lessons. “I wanted to document the wisdom of an entire community. It was a long-standing vision goal”, he adds. And so, earlier this year, Deepak teamed up with Poornima Sukumar, wall-artist and founder of the Aravani Art Project – a project that ‘aims to embrace the Transgender community by creating consciousness, well being through art, awareness and social participation’, and some talented artists and spent two months collecting life lessons and painting the walls of the houses in the little village of Saur in Uttarakhand.

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“Saur is a 600-year-old remote village and it is believed that the goddess Surkanda used to live here. It is like the base of a bowl, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Saur actually means togetherness, and strangely, that’s the contradiction of the world, because the village has faced mass migration over the years”, quips Deepak. “When I started researching, I decided that I wanted to do something in Uttarakhand, since it’s facing severe migration at the moment. Almost 1300 villages are empty as people leave in search of better opportunities. I knew for sure that if we do something, we want to do it in a village like that”

We spoke to project spearheads, Poornima and Deepak, who took us behind the inspirations and stories of their favourite nine walls from Saur.

Poornima Sukumar (PS): The first wall we started painting was on 3 houses and I think that should start this list. Laila Vaziralli (the other artist) and I started painting the wall and it was of three women working in the paddy field. Each woman in the painting was a representation of one of the women from each of the three houses. What inspired us was how these women worked, day in and day out, and no matter what happened, they continued doing their work. The clothes they wore, the colours of the garments and how they stood out against the mountains was extremely beautiful and really inspired this wall.

Deepak Ramola (DR): I really, really love this wall we did on the radio, which is also one of the most shared images on social media. During our research, one of the villagers told us that back in the day, only the head of the village had a radio and that was given to him by the government of India to stay up-to-date with news and current events. All the villagers would gather around his house daily to find out what the news was. The head of the village even distinctly remembered the radio station – Akashvani Lucknow – that he tuned into. The entire story was special, like an anecdote from history and it was great to showcase technology from back in the day.

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PS: I loved the rose wall as it was the first wall we painted patterns on. We took a lot of inspiration from the local flora and fauna and decided to take something mundane yet beautiful and let that fill up the space. What resulted was a long wall of roses that looks extremely beautiful from a distance. I was very sure I didn’t want to overdose the entire village with stories because it seemed very easy to do and it would not have brought a perspective to the village like this wall did.

DR: This was one of the first walls that the villagers joined in to paint and it really gave them the confidence.

DR: In Saur, people practice this unique tradition. Every time it doesn’t rain for a long period, the villagers gather together in the temple courtyard with the village musicians and they say, “hum baarish maangne ja rahe hai”. It is believed that over the last six years, it has always rained on exactly the same day. And if, for some reason, it doesn’t rain, they remove the stone from the temple so that god also suffers in the scorching heat. The villagers ask god to suffer too. It was this unique and lovely relationship with the almighty that we wanted to cover, which is more friendly as opposed to god-fearing.

PS: Saur ends in a particular way; there’s 3-4 houses that border the village and then there’s a cliff. We used this wall for the tiger painting, and it has an extremely interesting and crazy story behind it. Several years ago, goddess Durga came in the dream of the village blacksmith and she told him her tiger had been injured and was by the stream flowing by the river, and asked if the blacksmith could tend to it. Obviously frightened, the blacksmith told the other villagers of his dream and they said you must go help the goddess and her tiger. So he went at 12am and the goddess was so happy that for several years she would visit the village. In the morning the people could see her footsteps and they would bring the soil home and worship it.

The crazy part of this story is that the night we painted the wall, there was a tiger that came to the village and we heard it roar and one of the villagers saw it in the morning.

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DR: One of the walls had a woman with her buffaloes that was inspired by an extremely pretty woman from the village, Geeta maasi, whom we all loved. While we were discussing the wall with Geeta maasi, she said the most important thing in her life was her buffaloes, and so we decided to paint that – Geeta maasi in the same sari she wears and with Bindiya and Sonali, her buffaloes. The joy on her face when she saw the wall was close to none. For us, that wall is special because it celebrated her in her daily life.

PS: There’s a smaller element of surprise to this wall, as well. We were following the Garhwal style of art for all the walls and we tried to stick to the same style here. We found a picture of Lord Krishna with two cows and we decide to change the cows to buffaloes because the composition was extremely pretty. Before we started painting, we went to take a photo of Geeta maasi with her buffaloes and at the right moment she turned to look at her cows and it was a replica of the reference image. That was pure magic.

PS: The wall with the entire wedding procession was the most fun wall for the villagers. They would come by the wall every day while we were painting. We tried and imitated an entire Garhwali wedding scene on a big, abandoned row house.  

DR: In Garhwali weddings, the man and woman are both made to sit in palanquins – yellow for the men, red for the women. No one does this anymore, but back in the day they were carried into their weddings because they were the gods and goddesses on their special day. We had an entire wall of people dancing in the baraat and I think it was this wall that made the villagers realise that we knew what we were painting and we weren’t just there to fill in the walls.

DR: There is one wall dedicated to Birinder ji, who was the person from the village who we had hired to support us during the project. He’s, quite honestly, the most amazing person you’ll meet. So, when the time came to paint his house, everyone was charged. He asked us to paint a guy, painting a painting. We called it Painception. The whole experience of painting that wall was beautiful. His house was the last house of the village and we would spend entire evenings outside the house, admiring the view and chilling with him and his wife.

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DR: Finally, the wall that Poornima did with Ghana (one of the other artists), was special in it’s own way. On this wall we’ve drawn the nath, which is the most important accessory for a woman. A girl in the village had gotten married 3 months ago, so we painted the wall with that girl and the nath to symbolise the fashion of the region.

And as if they walls weren’t pretty enough, what is also interesting to note about The Wise Wall Project is that the team managed to create a typeface called ‘Saur’ that is specific to the area. “Niteesh Yadav is a typo artist and one of India’s youngest typo artists. He wanted to come to Saur and we really wanted him to be a part of the project so we asked him to help us write the life lessons in the stone. He came down for the weekend, traced and documented the handwriting of the villagers from the 12 remaining families and then when he came back the next weekend he told us that he’s created a new typeface called Saur using the handwriting samples. And that was amazing! We honestly had no clue he was working on it.”

Ultimately, the villagers of Saur got their life lessons documented in their own handwriting style and the village got a makeover that has left it with memories and friendship that will last a lifetime.

The Wise Wall Project is an initiative of Project FUEL sponsored by RoundGlass.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.