Event Children give form to their thoughts on the walls of the Lakshman Bagh temple, aided by artist Shanu Lahiri

E ighty-two-year old artist Shanu Lahiri is a livewire when surrounded by children. “I don't know if the children can understand my Hindi. But language doesn't matter once they start painting,” she laughs, as she moves from one group of children to another, leans over her walking stick and gently coaxes them to dip their brushes into the various colours. Nearly 100 children have gathered at the 400-year-old Balaji temple owned by the Pitties at Lakshmanbagh, Hussain Shah Wali Dargah. The incessant drizzle finally gives way to a sunny morning perfect for some colour and form.

The students are divided into batches and positioned at different points along the white wall outside the temple premises. Girls and boys from standards II, IV, VIII of Nagarjuna High School, Safrani Memorial High School and HIV positive children from Desire Society were some of the participants. The event is part of Rabindra Darshan, the week-long celebration of 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, conducted by Moving Images.

Artist Shanu Lahiri has shown Kolkata a thing or two about taking graffiti and murals to public spaces. “You know, Kolkatta is not a clean city,” she says with a childlike laugh. “Either the walls are shabby or they are filled with messages of political parties. I thought I had to do something about it. I wanted children, and in turn adults, to feel that the walls around their homes belong to them and their efforts can make it clean,” she recounts. Shanu Lahiri is the former dean of faculty of visual arts, Rabindra Bharati University.

“In 1984, I gathered some of my visual arts students from La Martiniere and told them that I shall give them Rs. 50 per day if they come out and paint with me. We selected a public wall and started painting on it. We didn't erase the political jargons but turned the wall into our canvas. People were curious at first and then appreciative,” she says.

An initiation was made and was followed by several walls lending themselves to beautiful murals over the years in different parts of Kolkata. Shanu Lahiri's eyes twinkle when she recalls how children always warm up to the idea. “Once they start painting, they are enthusiastic enough to spend the entire day doing it. And once the mural is done, they feel the wall belongs to them and see to it that no garbage is thrown near the wall,” she says. In the recent past, she also involved differently-abled children in painting. There have been testing times, when she had to request for police protection while working on walls smeared with political messages. “Sometimes, the political parties themselves clean up the walls and give it to us for graffiti.”

Shanu Lahiri tried wall mural paintings in Africa recently. “Apart from their own language, the children could only understand French. I could barely manage a few words in French. I chose four badmaash ladkas and made them in-charge. They helped me get other children complete the mural,” she smiles.

Meanwhile, the children have drawn houses, the National Flag, shrubs and trees and just about anything that caught their imagination. “I never impose my ideas on them. Though the event is being held as part of Rabindra Darshan, I know that many of them know nothing about Rabindranath Tagore. There is no fun in getting them to do something that they may not identify with,” she signs off.