Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, is often synonymous around the world with the misery of poverty, conjuring up images of Mother Theresa giving refuge to the destitute and dying. While even today this characteristic of the city does exist, it is unfortunate that the world is often unfamiliar with another Kolkata, one that is more well-known to Indians: the nation’s capital of arts and culture, with colorful street life, breathtaking scenes of life along the Ganges River and a population passionate about its politics and spirituality. My wife, CJ and I fell in love with the city on our first day as we wandered through the colonial-era bazaars, bombarded with the intensity of the sites and smells of the bustling crowds, street vendors, Hindu shrines, rickshaws and rain-battered British-era buildings. I didn’t want to look down for an instant for fear of missing another magical scene, which would seemingly appear around every corner.
Near a leafy lake in the south of the city lies the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, a hub of ancient and contemporary Bengali visual art. I was excited and honored to have the opportunity to paint a mural on a large outdoor wall on the side courtyard of the center. The project, organized by the Meridian International Center, the US Consulate in Kolkata and the local NGO, Banglanatak dot com, was to be a collaboration between myself, a team of Bengali artists and a group of teenagers who were receiving support from five local NGOs. These young people had been through a variety of tragic life situations at early ages, facing issues including homelessness, human trafficking, poverty and addiction, but were working to overcome their pasts and were specially selected for this project because of their passion for visual art.
At the introductory workshop on the first day, I met with all the participants and gave a presentation on mural art. To break the ice, the group took part in some games and activities, before settling down to design our mural. After some discussion, we decided on representing a journey from a dark past to a future full of hope. The teens each came up with drawings to illustrate the different phases of the journey. The adult artists and I were all impressed by their skill level and creativity in turning their concepts into imagery. We ended the day by contemplating all the drawings and deciding how they would be woven together to create a cohesive mural design.
The following day, we were ready to begin our week of painting! CJ and I began each day with team-building activities, and each day the kids opened up more with each other and with us. In one section, they painted the personification of the demons in their lives and communities, portrayed as a giant fiend terrorizing a city. This concept was originally conceived by one of our most enthusiastic teens, Prantik, who is deaf and announced on the first day that he communicates with the world through his art. He did not allow his disability to get in his way by any means, and was among the warmest, most playful and personable young people in our group. He volunteered to model for the face of the demon and succeeded in doing a great monster pose!
In the next section, each student painted representations of that which gives them peace, strength and support to fight these demons: positive relationships with family and friends, activities such as art and music, religious faith and education. A giant girl towers over the city, a reference to the tendency in Indian art to paint important, powerful people as being larger than others. In a twist, this girl is portrayed as large and powerful despite being a normal teenage girl who has been through struggles, much like the participants themselves.
A boy and girl, modeled after Ravi and Jyotsna, members of our young artist team, have their faces joined together in the center of the mural, referencing the half male, half female Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara, and balance in the universe. The girl reaches out from the city and unleashes a river from her hand, which is filled with the future versions of our students: we asked each one to envision how they see themselves in the future. They painted their future selves as athletes, fashion designers, graduates, artists, politicians, scientists, and as having families. This exercise is intended to encourage young people, especially those who have been through trauma, to envision the positive future that they wish to manifest in their lives. The background is filled with Bengali folkloric art, which the local artists gave the teens a lesson on, and a typical Ganges River boat rests on the water.
One of our stand-out participants was Binod, whose warm, outgoing spirit seemed to be in direct contrast to his life circumstances, which he was open about sharing with the group. He did not know where he was from, nor to what family he belonged. He had a chaotic upbringing, with bouts of homelessness and instability in which he frequently moved around. Now, at 18, he lives in a rehabilitation house for substance abuse. Despite his past, or perhaps because of it, he reached out with generous affection to his peers and to adults, even taking to calling me “dad” and CJ “mom” during the project. He invited us to visit the center where he lives, as well as another for younger children who also had suffered from addiction. It was shocking to see kids as young as 8 living there, but soon we were laughing and playing and dancing with the kids, who were hungry for our attention and affection. While I was glad to see that some support existed for these children, I knew that it could never replace the families that weren’t able to care for them nor the stability that is so important for a young person’s development.
Several of the local artists who partnered with us on this project live in a community in north Kolkata by the Ganges, and we were honored to be invited there to meet their families. Our friend and artist, Sayak, took us to his home and studio, and his mother cooked an absolutely delicious Bengali lunch. We visited the homes of Broto and Babu as well, and took a ferry down the iconic Ganges, or Ganga, River. That evening we all visited the famous temple to the goddess Kali, which was full of worshippers giving offerings to her and placing flowers in the river.
At the closing ceremony for the mural project, dozens gathered around to celebrate the artwork and its message. The teens were clearly proud of what they had accomplished, posing for photo after photo with the mural and with each other. Speeches were given, folkloric Bengali music was played and there were congratulations all around. It was sad to say goodbye after our time creating together and forming bonds, as we didn’t know when we’d all cross paths again. But we had all learned from one another and discovered something about ourselves through the process. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this project: the Meridian International Center, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, the US Consulate in Kolkata, Banglanatak dot com, CJ and all our incredible adult and youth artists! –Joel Bergner