Creative Crusader

Written by Ravi Sagar
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Gandhi Peace Prize awardee Bulu Imam wears many hats, each related to his central concern—that of getting Jharkhand’s people their dues.

Bulu Imam has many claims to fame. He is a poet, a writer, an artist, an activist and many things besides, all rolled into one. But all his diverse talents and interests are bound together by a single leitmotif—his abiding socially relevant application of each of them for the betterment of human life. When we met him finally, unravelling the layers of his protean personality was a journey of discovery and denouement.

Imam was born into an illustrious and erudite family—his greatgrandfather was Nawab Imdad Imam, Shamsh-ul-Ulema, a Persian and Urdu poet-laureate, his grandfather an eminent lawyer and jurist, Syed Hasan Imam, while and his father was S.A.H.A.A. Tootoo Imam, a well-known international wildlife and equestrian authority. Growing up in the backyard of the natural resource rich Jharkhand, Imam developed an affinity for the wilderness and an abiding love for the simple folk of the land. The formative years of the artiste-activist were spent in the soaking in the pristine ambience of the natural habitat. “As a child I spent my days amid the natural beauty of Jharkhand’s forests and my attachment for nature and wildlife has only grown stronger over the years. I grew up observing wildlife and this led to many researches in the field.”

This perhaps explains the career choices that Imam made later in his life. His vast body of work in various fields can roughly be divided into three distinct phases. The first was dominated by his contributions in the fields of art, wildlife, and literature (1960-80). The first great artistic output found expression in his works in at the one man exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta in 1961, at the All India of Fine Arts and Crafts Society, New Delhi, 1962 and 1982, and Museum of Fine Arts Punjab University , and Chandigarh State art Museum. His paintings were acquired by Chandigarh State Art Museum and Punjab Arts Council. The next period—1987–2004—saw him emerge as an environmentalist, author and art researcher of repute. And the subsequent years crystallised his zeal as an activist. However, none of the phases are distinct and each activity segues seamlessly into another.

The childhood umbilical bond with Jharkhand’s wilds brought Imam international recognition as a wildlife armament. “I have conducted research and identified tertiary albinism in crow (Corvus Macrorhincos), golden crow, mithun and sub-species of Gaur/Gayal in Assam,” says Imam talking about his many landmark researches. The study on indigenous dog (Santal Hound) was another milestone in his wildlife career. “I studied the ancestral link of Santal hound and traced the relationship between Australia and India. The study led to the discovery of the ancestral link of the dog breed to Chinese wolf and I documented it in 2005 for the National Geographic channel in a film titled In Search of the first Dog,” he adds. Imam’s work in identification of wildlife corridors in India, especially of tigers and elephants confronted by transit habitat loss, has also been widely recognised.

Speaking of his ties with art, the artist says, “they are as old as I am”—he has spent more than six decades in the field. “Art is my way of looking at life and representing it. I have held 54 international and many national exhibitions related to tribal art forms.”

His intense involvement with the tribals of Jharkhand began sometime around 1987 when he became the regional convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Hazaribagh Chapter, and began environmental work to protect the upper watershed of Damodar Valley (North Karanpura Valley) in Hazaribagh. In 1989-90, Imam became the coordinantor of the Chipko-Chotanagpur and began conducting padyatras in jungles to save forests. He launched Chipko Jharkhand in October, 1989.

Imam was felicitated with Rashtriya Gaurav award for his work in environment protection. “In 1986 coal mining was at the peak and resettlement of the displaced tribals was another issue for the state. It was the time when the state and the nation were plagued with various issues relating to human rights. At the time I saw the real condition of rural people, especially women, and took up the cudgels to work for women and their human rights.” The activist is pained to see the environmantal degradation today. “The major agenda today is global warming,” says a concerned Imam adding that given the rapid degradation of the environment in the last 20 years, human species may soon join the list of extinct dinosaurs. “Now my primary concern is to work towards global warming.” The crusader is now on another important mission.

In 1991, Imam’s love for the indigenous people of Jharkhand took another turn when he discovered the Isco rockart site in Hazaribagh district. Over the next six years he worked diligently to bring rockart sites in Upper Damodar Valley to the notice of the world discoving a series of them—1992: Thethangi, Satpahar I, Satpahar II, Satpahar III, Raham, Khandhar; 1993: Sariya; 1996: Sidpa, Gonda; 2000: Nautangwa Pahar I (Salga), Nautangwa Pahar II (Salga). In 1992, Imam brought to light palaeolithic habitation sites connected with rockart and ancient megalithic sites, and outlined the basis of the Damodar Valley Civilization archaeologically. He institutionalised his efforts by building the Sanskriti-INTACH Museum collection of palaeo-archaeology of Hazaribagh, dating from 250,000 BP to the contemporary period. The collection has been certified by the pre-history branch of Archaeological Survey of India (Nagpur).

His work with rockart led him to the Khovar marriage art of Hazaribagh villages which he then brought to paper in natural earth medium. Imam later brought Sohrai art the same recognition and wrote a book, Bridal Caves, on the art form that was published by INTACH in 1995. His work in the field led to the founding of Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC) and the Sanskriti Centre at Hazaribagh and fetched him the Vijay Ratna award for his immense contribution to tribal art of Jharkhand.

“Even now my passion and energy for art is same, as it was earlier,” says the artist. His dedication to Jharkhand’s ancient art forms remains undiminished. “This year I am releasing another book titled Antiquarian Remains of Jharkhand,” he informs. The book with 250 coloured photographs of varied art forms of Jharkhand is scheduled to be released in Ranchi. Jharkhand is certainly close to Imam’s heart and a prominent subject to be imaginatively rendered through his various creations. His largest art creation is a mural in oil painting at Khalari Church which is 100 feet x 33 feet and his next project again is a book which will be an exposition on art forms of the state. “I am writing a book Painted Forests and Villages of Hazaribagh.”

Art and wildlife enriched other facets of his life too. “It has helped me explore much in life and this is reflected in my films and books”, says Imam. Imam’s versatility is best brought out by the diversity of subjects he has chosen for his writings. His collection of hundreds of book includes poems, songs and art. “I have written a book on Santhali songs and a book on Birhor and Oraon songs. It is a collection of 100 songs which is now available online.” Talking about his future writing projects he says, “Around 15 books are expected to be released in coming years, all based on art, wildlife and social welfare.”

Jharkraft, that has come to be emblematic of Jharkhand’s aesthetic sensibilities was a result of Imam’s vision of social welfare. Shilpgram, another organisattion promoting tribal art, owes its existence to his vision. “Women in the villages were not getting the recognition they deserved and their human rights were at stake. Tribal mural art is the USP of village women’s identity. It struck me that this creative identity of the women could be converted into income generating medium for them.”

Felomina Tirkey Imam, his wife, recalls, “When he began working for the tribal women, they would close the door when he visited their homes.” Felomina joined him in his cause and so have other members of his family. “There are people in world who have journeyed on the same path as I have, but they seldom received the support of their family as I did,” Imam acknowledges. Today, all the doors in Jharkhand remain open for their leader and his family.

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