There’s No Miracle Water Here

BY DAWN TAN
May 17, 2011

Bulu Imam is a man on an unlikely mission: to save the tribal way of life in India. And he's going to do it with art.

824 Photo by Todd Wilkinson

Bulu Imam is a man on a mission and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. Neither does he care about stirring controversy. “Oh, lots of people don’t like what I say and I don’t give a hoot,” he tells me as we sit on the sun-drenched roof terrace of the Noor Us Sabah Palace in Bhopal, former residence of the Begum Abida Sultan, the last female ruler of the Bhopal throne.

His list of accomplishments overwhelms – artist, writer, philanthropist and environmentalist, with an arguably unparalleled contribution to bringing the tribal art of India to the international panorama. As Bulu Imam describes it, he’s on a personal quest to stop what he calls a systematic attack on India’s tribal people. “We are talking eradication and extinction to the point of ethnocide,” he says with urgency.

“When the buffalo disappeared from the plains of America, people understood the relationship between the animal and the native American Indians. In India’s case, the forests are the mainstay of the tribes. If we remove the forests, the tribes will go.”

He mourns the continued deforestation across India for development and mining projects, and flirts with the ideas of conspiracy theorists, at once infuriated and in agreement with them as he wonders out loud if the powers at be – the U.S. government, NASA and rich industrialists, who have knowledge of the future devastating consequences of climate change, are not doing more to stop it. “You don’t have to worry about finding a solution if there are no people [left] to save,” he explains ominously.

His list of accomplishments overwhelms – artist, writer, philanthropist and environmentalist.

He insists the problem is a moral one. “Who is going to answer for the millions of people in the Third World who are going to die due to rising temperatures, falling water levels and mass migrations?” I don’t have an immediate answer and as we consider the bleakness of the scenario he has just painted, a private helicopter carrying a popular lifestyle guru into Bhopal for a spiritual convention, flies so low above us that the whirring of its blades chops the air audibly and drowns out our pontificating for a moment. “I don’t agree with everything he preaches,” says Bulu Imam pointing into the sky, “but gurus make good points about apathy.”

The problem, as Bulu Imam sees it, is capitalism. Having left the “mainstream” several decades ago to live a life with the tribals of Central India, he laments the loss of the traditional exchange economy for a capitalist one where aggressive marketing has resulted in goods the tribals never needed being sold to them. “Bras, panties, nighties – you don’t sell these things to villagers who’ve worn one cloth all their lives,” he argues vigorously. He readily admits to finding the discomfort in creature comforts. “I’d rather sit under a Mowar tree smoking my beedi (a rolled cigarette) than get onboard a Boeing 747,” he says. But as a regular and honoured guest at universities and museums around the globe – Vienna, London and Frankfurt are scheduled in the next few months – international travel is an inconvenience he has to put up with to “address groups of people, who, believe it or not, pay me to talk”.

And they are listening. Bulu Imam was nominated by for the prestigious 2011 Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award. But saving the tribals will pay other more important dividends, he argues. It will also mean the preservation of ancient painting styles which are as rare as they are beautiful. Sand painting by the nomadic Birhors, finger and comb-cut paintings called Khovar by the Bhuiyas, and Sohrai art, made with mud and vegetable pigments, by the Ghatwal tribe. From his home, Sanskriti, in Hazirabagh, where he lives with his two tribal wives and their collective children of four sons and three daughters, he devotes his time to writing, conservation projects, exhibiting tribal arts and has invitations from art enthusiasts all over the globe to spread the word about the heritage of a dying art.

He is also a senior member of 350.org and convenor of the Hazaribagh chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and laid the foundation for the karanpuracampaign.com that protests green felling and open cast coal mines in the forested zones.

I’d rather sit under a Mowar tree smoking my beedi (a rolled cigarette) than get onboard a Boeing 747.

“I’ve had a colourful life, I can’t deny it,” he says with a gleam in his green eyes. A former hunter, he knows the forests well. He shot his first tiger at age 18, spent his first honeymoon hunting rogue elephants and readily adds that if the numbers weren’t so miserable, he’d be tempted to shoot man-eaters again. He comes from a long line of hunters, nobility and education, but offers with a chuckle that his father wanted to raise him away from the rigours of school rooms and test scores. “He stuck a gun in my hand and said it was more important that I learn to shoot a tiger,” he recalls, adding that he never completed his Senior Cambridge exams.

Bulu Imam insists that degrees and diplomas won’t save us in the end. What we really need, he confides, is another Gandhi Ji, before lamenting at the paucity of compassion in the 21st century. “But I’m not meeting any Gandhis these days among environmentalists,” he says shaking his head. Bulu Imam has shouted himself hoarse on “rules” and what is morally “right”. “Now the only way to do it is to talk straight from the heart,” he enthuses. “There is no miracle water here. We can only save what’s left.”