PATNA // Dozens of artists in Bihar are painting roadside trees and their leaves with colourful stories from Hindu epics, hoping to save the region's already critically sparse greenery.
The unusual campaign, using coats of paint and brushes, has been launched in Madhubani, a northern Bihar district known for its religious and cultural awareness, resulting in hundreds of otherwise untended roadside trees covered in elaborate artwork.
Artists are depicting the moods of deities, scenes from Hindu classics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or an imaginary scene showing an elderly woman restraining a man coming with an axe to cut trees.
They believe the artwork will prompt the deeply religious residents to drop any idea of cutting down the trees out of fear of incurring the wrath of the deities.
"We are using the deities as a cover", said Shashthi Nath Jha, who also runs an NGO dedicated to empowering women and child labourers.
"We thought people will not do any harm to trees once they come across the images of gods and goddesses on them."
According to state records, the forest coverage of the state, which suffers from recurring floods, is currently just less than 7 per cent.
The tree-painting campaign began in September after Ms Jha managed to overcome numerous local objections, including doubt that the campaign would last long, worries about how much the paint cost and fears the colours would soon fade.
"I had to convince them a lot before they agreed to join me," Ms Jha said.
"I made several experiments to check the durability of the paint in the open. Finally we decided to apply a mix of natural and artificial paints to ensure the painting survives the fast-changing weather conditions."
They work in the style of Madhubani painting, a form of painting done with fingers, twigs, the points of fountain pens and even matchsticks, using natural colours and characterised by brilliant geometrical patterns.
"I have painted themes of 'Sita-swayamvara' (the marriage of the deities Rama and Sita) on the tree trunks so that those willing to cut them would drop the idea," Kushaboo, 19, said.
The initiative has drawn the attention of the international community as well, with a team from Switzerland recently visiting to study how art could be used to convey a strong social message.
The government is taking additional steps to increase greenery in the region, with plans to plant 250 million saplings in the next five years and appointing "Tree Friends" to care for young trees planted along roads and other public places.
But Ms Jha said locals also had a debt of sorts to repay.
"Plants and trees have brought colour to our life. Now it's our duty to put colour on them."