The painting’s on the wall

Padam Lal and his bullock and their colourful portraits are among the last few inhabitants of Saur village

Updated - September 24, 2017 12:46 pm IST

Published - September 23, 2017 08:00 pm IST

Turning back time: Tiger-painted walls

Turning back time: Tiger-painted walls

"Our village looks different now. Are these the same broken, abandoned houses?” asks Padam Lal rhetorically. The ends of his luxuriant moustache quiver as he smiles. I look at his portrait drawn on the wall of the house. His moustache is prominent there too, as is his bullock. “She has gone to the forest now,” Padam Lal tells me, following my eyes to the painting.

Padam Lal and his bullock are among the last remaining residents of the village Saur in Tehri Garhwal of Uttarakhand. All of 12 families live here now, amid the remains of a not-so-distant flourishing past.

As recently as the 1980s, 250 families called this home. Today, Saur is well on its way to becoming a ghost village, with a few tottering older inhabitants, patches of agricultural land, miles of barren stretches, and houses overgrown with weeds. A few kerosene lamps flicker in the wind, and the sound of silence descends as fast as the night.

Past perfect

Uttarakhand has many such stories of rapidly emptying villages. According to the 2011 Census, 1,053 of the 16,000 villages in the hill state have been abandoned.

Lack of livelihood options, higher education or even health centres, and the relentless fight with wild animals is driving away the pahadis to towns and cities. Although migration remains a favourite election campaign issue, no village has gotten its people back.

“Saur had no roads or electricity. We would go uphill for five kilometres to reach the main road. If anybody fell ill, the young men of the village would take them to the hospital in makeshift palanquins,” says the elderly Salmati Ramola. Now, there’s a road and electricity, but it’s a bit too late. There are no people. Salmati’s family, like the others, also migrated to Mussoorie, Kanatal, Jharipani, Dehradun and Delhi.

Deepak Ramola is a pahadi boy who now lives in Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s capital. Distressed at the rapid loss of a beloved past, he started a painting project. Funded by RoundGlass, the Wise Wall Project began to paint scenes of daily life and record the wisdom of village lore on the crumbling walls of Saur’s homes. Today, Ramola and his team have painted all of the village with scenes from everyday life and folk tales, turning it into a poignant art gallery of sorts.

In one mural, villagers gather and sing songs to the goddess Surkanda, asking for rains. In another, girls play the old hopping and balancing game with pebbles called ‘Panch Patthar’. Women sing songs in a forest to birds and to each other while men wait for their turn at the hookah. Some listen to Akashvani

Lucknow at the village pradhan’s house.

Still life

The paintings are mostly inspired by the Garhwal School of painting as well as by Mughal miniatures. Poornima Sukumar, a muralist who led the Wise Wall Project, tells me they decided on the Garhwal

School because it was an effective method of storytelling. “We were telling life stories and it became easier to correlate them,” she says.

Over 100 volunteers, or Wise Wall Warriors, came together from across the country to paint the abandoned village. “The villagers were initially sceptical. For the first two days they would come and stare and laugh at us. Gradually, they came nearer and began to help us. ‘This is not how we wear saris’, they said, or ‘This is how we do the famous dance called Mandan’. Eventually several children and villagers also took up brushes. It was interesting to see how the villagers wanted to see themselves.” Virendra Singh Arya, who helped paint himself on the wall of his home, says he felt overwhelmed. “I trimmed the bushes, I cleaned the weeds and painted the walls,” he recollects with a proud smile.

Ramola and his team tracked down every family of the village, interviewed them, recorded their lives, and found their original village house. Every house has life lessons painted on it collected from its family members.

Niteesh Yadav, a typography artist, studied handwritings and created a unique writing style to reflect that of the villagers. Phrases like, ‘A village life is self-governing, unlike city life’, ‘Cities are warm and

sultry, a village has peace’ appear on walls and stones everywhere.

These voices linger, as if the villagers were still here. But the 12-odd remaining inhabitants of Saul doubt that their hamlet will become vibrant with real life again. “Of course, it’s a colourful place now. But we continue to live the old life of silence and drudgery. Our livelihood depends on the sky,” says Geeta Ramola matter-of-factly.

As daylight fades, Saul is once more an eerie place where the wind whistles past crumbling walls.

But a couple of families have reportedly moved back in the last couple of years.

“Hopefully, in the next few years, the village will have tourists and more residents. It shouldn’t too late,” says Sanjay Ramola, who works in a new village homestay that’s come up.

Meanwhile, Deepak Ramola says the work of Wise Wall Project is not over yet. Two volunteers will soon arrive to teach English and computer skills to the remaining children. An annual village festival is also on the cards.

“The festival will be organised by and for the villagers. There will be art, music, treks and workshops on cooking and agriculture. It could generate employment so that they can sustain their way of life,” Ramola says.

The Uttarakhand-based writer explores the lives of those who walk the mountains.

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