By Mahesh Vijapurkar

Bhilar, village in the Mahabaleshwar – Panchgani belt is used to tourists coming in to pick the strawberries it grows and buy them though most of the produce is actually sold outside in several cities and to processers. It had, however, a unique experience of a huge contingent of fine artists descending on the place to paint over two dozen walls.

Swatva, an informal WhatsApp-based artist and art-lover’s network, was invited by Maharashtra government to use paint and brushes to convey genres of books to be stocked in several houses which volunteered spaces within to stock them. One would have child literature, another with feminine themes, yet another literature of and on saints, etc. Like sections in a library.

It is not the same as individuals painting what their creative urges lead to but a team forming to execute a visual that immediately strikes the viewer with a message. Hence, the adrenalin of creative juices had to be marshalled, a uniformity of expression ensured, but it involved nightmarish logistics.

The ten thousand books provided by the government are being segregated for keeping in 22 locations – a hotel, a temple, a school, and importantly, homes. The tricky thing was letting people know where to find what. Swatva, whose footprint is spreading beyond Thane, developed visual representations to be painted on the house exteriors so passers-by could quickly know what to find within.

No doubt the government’s Pustakanche Gaon (literally, ‘a village of books’ in Marathi) is an ambitious project which has twin purpose: provide tourists to Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani a new option to spend time instead of merely whiling away time, and hopefully trigger a passion for reading among the residents themselves. It means a book per head of the 10,000 population.

As one in the two busloads of 70-odd artists of varying levels of mastery and skill sets which landed in Bhilar on Friday morning, and left late on Sunday night, I think this new crowdsourcing of art is something to be shared with the world. It is generating a controlled genre of wall painting which has a theme, not just assorted visuals which merely colour walls with gaudy paint.

It is not the same as individuals painting what their creative urges lead to but a team forming to execute a visual that immediately strikes the viewer with a message. Hence, the adrenalin of creative juices had to be marshalled, a uniformity of expression ensured, but it involved nightmarish logistics. Few realise what painting anything involves: the intellectual property as well as the skills acquired and honed over years.

Swatva does not and did not turn away a single enthusiast who wanted to join this endeavour because it wants each individual to bring out their self within (“Be The You” is its purpose). Though essentially Thane-based, Swatva is thrilled at the volunteering from as far as Indore and Pune and joined in. Thanks to social media. The excursion involved rough living in school dorm, even bathing in children’s bathrooms, six at a go. Professional artists of repute and substantive worth rubbed shoulders and passion with the newbies.

Most in the contingent came to know each other only when they boarded the buses, and their skills only when they started work at the walls though, of course, each team had an experienced artist who led it. He or she had to guide the team members’ talent into a collective creativity by dovetailing varying skills brought by each. The creative synergy developed saw the teams working almost round the clock each day.

The unique aspect of the group’s activity is never to turn away anyone but to give anyone who has a desire to be artist to get an opportunity to try and be one. When several walls were painted with the Thane municipality’s support, any onlooker who wanted to wield a brush was welcomed. Some developed an interest and stayed with us, others frustrated at the first attempt returned after a while.

Errors of such enthusiasts are quietly corrected by senior artists, either as a helpful suggestion immediately or later but the intent is encouragement. Every Sunday outing for live sketching involves a lot of sharing of skills, even impromptu demonstrations for others. But an adventure – for that is what it was – to Bhilar, 250 km from Thane was something else. Everything had to be done in just three days.

Most in the contingent came to know each other only when they boarded the buses, and their skills only when they started work at the walls though, of course, each team had an experienced artist who led it. He or she had to guide the team members’ talent into a collective creativity by dovetailing varying skills brought by each. The creative synergy developed saw the teams working almost round the clock each day.

No doubt the government’s Pustakanche Gaon (literally, ‘a village of books’ in Marathi) is an ambitious project which has twin purpose: provide tourists to Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani a new option to spend time instead of merely whiling away time, and hopefully trigger a passion for reading among the residents themselves

It isn’t easy managing the logistics. An artist who can paint a wall with breathtaking speed volunteered to run the main supply point, another who is literally the driver of the movement, used a locally borrowed motorbike to monitor progress running between the scattered locations, another just helped by simplifying the work’s design to cut on time and retain the visual message.

Those who marvelled at the magic of paint and brush but were hopeful of doing something later were also in the teams, and they did not flinch if they merely had to fetch and carry. They later told me that they would take to art, learn by themselves, or join an art class, and in some cases eminent seniors offered continuing guidance via WhatApp. Such an attitude has helped me remain in art which I took to at the age of 64.