(May 7, 2022) He dedicated his youth to conserving the tribal art and thick forests of Jharkhand. Now, 79 years old, Padma Shri Bulu Imam, lives in a colonial house nestled in a grove of tall trees and lush bushes, in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. Presently, running a museum and art gallery, The Sanskriti Centre, the author of several research papers and books, is a hunter-turned-environmentalist, an archaeologist, a revivalist of tribal paintings, and the winner of the International Peace Award by the Gandhi Foundation for his humanitarian work.
“Our museum is home to old rock paintings that are about 10,000 years old. They belong to the Mesolithic, Chalcolithic and Neolithic eras,” shares Bulu in an interview with Global Indian, adding, “This land of coalfields has been home to millions of tribal people, who lived there for centuries. The coal mining was not only destroying the beautiful jungles, but also affecting the megaliths, some even dating back to 2000 BC.”
Son of the forest
The grandson of high court judge and Indian National Congress President Sir Syed Hasan Imam, Bulu was born in the lap of luxury. Despite coming from a family of politicians and diplomats, Bulu was a big-game hunter who followed in his father’s footsteps to hunt animals that posed threat to human life. “My mother was of French ancestry and my father was of the Arab ancestry. He was very fond of big-game hunting and as a child, I would accompany him on several hunting trips. I grew up surrounded by forest and tribal people, which is why I feel so strongly about them,” shares the art conservationist.
Contrary to popular belief, Bulu did not receive any formal secondary education. “I have studied till Class 12 in St. Xavier’s School, Hazaribagh. My entire family has studied at the Oxford and the Cambridge. But my uncle, who was an Aurobindo follower, had his own ideas about education. On his suggestion, my parents didn’t send me to college. And I feel, had my uncle not taken that stand, the world would not have seen the Sohrai and Khovar paintings,” laughs the conservationist.
Growing up Bulu was fond of painting, reading and writing poems. However, hunting was his passion. “I loved to go on hunting trips, but we never killed the animals for pleasure. During the ’60s and ’70s, I hunted 19 elephants and many man-eating tigers. In fact, most of my early adulthood was spent organising tiger hunts with my father in the region of Jharkhand,” he shares.
It was during one such trip that Bulu’s life took a turn. In 1979, when the conservationist was on a journey around the state with British traveller-writer Mark Shand and his elephant, he saw the thick forest razed down for coal mining by the state for the first time. “I was shaken by the mass-scale destruction of the forest,” shares Bulu. He learnt from forest officials that the central government had allotted contracts to mine six million tonnes of coal at 30 sites in Damodar valley. “That was when I decided to oppose the decision and spearheaded a movement,” he recalls.
Coal mining was displacing the local tribal community, affecting their livelihoods as their lives depended on the forest. Eventually, Bulu became a strong propagator for tribals and wildlife in the North Karanpura Valley against open cast mining. He also brought attention to the need for protecting corridors for elephants and tigers to have distinct habitats.
Tracing the tribal past
After five years of fighting the authorities to prevent the destruction of local culture, biodiversity and distinct animal habitats, Bulu became a known face. However, not much came out of his protests against the government. “The coal mining didn’t stop in the area,” shares Bulu, who wasn’t disheartened and continued to raise voice.
In 1986, Bulu took on an exploration for the identity of the adivasis, and was chosen as regional convenor for INTACH, a Delhi-based NGO. The following years, the conservationist conducted various campaigns to stop the mining activities from Damodar valley to Hazaribagh. Around the same time, he discovered the ancient art that helped him in saving the local culture.
“In 1991, an Australian Jesuit priest, Father Tony Herbert – who ran night school for the children in Barkagaon Valley adjacent to Hazaribagh – approached me with the news of some red markings found in one of the caves in the mining area. I was intrigued and decided to visit the site. I realised those markings were ancient rock art and knew we had discovered something significant,” he says.
The paintings discovered were a dozen prehistoric rock art sites more than 5,000 years old. He also founded palaeoarchaeology sites associated with the Mesolithic rock art, ancient megaliths, and Buddhist archaeological sites, which were later acknowledged by the Archaeological Survey of India.
“I was able to find a link between these prehistoric art paintings to the paintings adivasi women draw on the mud walls of their home. The painting style can be distinguished into Khovar and Sohari. The local women paint their homes inside and out, twice a year, celebrating harvest and marriage time,” Bulu explains.
The road ahead
Married to two adivasi women, Bulu lives in Hazaribagh with his son Gustav Imam. The father-son duo run the Tribal Women Artists’ Cooperative (TWAC), to empower and encourage adivasi women to continue painting. To help raise fund for the tribal community, Bulu has been putting these paintings on canvas and cloth and exhibiting it all around the world. TWAC has held more than 50 worldwide exhibitions so far.
“These mud wall paintings have been existing since the Chalcolithic and Iron Age period. I didn’t just want to protect the culture, but also collect and showcase them. So, I started collecting such stone tools in my museum and it is one of the recognised museums by the government,” shares Bulu.
Gustav has been instrumental in documentation of the artefact present in the museum which could be used by future researcher, academician and students. “Sanskriti museum is a result of 30 years of research. Each artefact or stone tool present in this museum has a story behind it linked to the human evolution. I really hope these documents will help the future generation of researchers,” concludes Bulu.