The starting point for the Hilldaari mural in Dalhousie India. | Photograph courtesy of Hilldaari

One fine morning, a king and a queen arrive for a tour of Dalhousie—a quaint Himalayan hill town located in the Chamba region in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The royal couple’s charioteer, locally known as the saarthi, doubles as their tour guide and takes them through the narrow winding roads of the town. Each turn opens to breathtaking Deodar-dotted valleys as the snow-capped peaks glisten in the distance. But while the mountains are indeed a sight to behold, the king and the queen find themselves intrigued by Dalhousie’s cleanliness. So they turn to the Saarthi for questions. 

Queen: “Why are there two different wastebaskets?” 

Saarthi: “Green is for wet waste and Blue for dry waste like plastic and metal. “ 

Through the rest of the tour, the Saarthi explains Dalhousie’s sustainable approach towards waste segregation and its recycling initiatives. He introduces the king and the queen to the waste workers and their efforts. The queen is not just impressed with the town but also with the advocacy of her Saarthi towards sustainability. “Who are you really?” the queen asks him. Suddenly, the modest saarthi takes a larger than life avatar. Posing as a hero, with his arm up in the air, he declares, “I am Hilldaar.”

To find Hilldaar, one must walk through Garam Sadak—a long, winding street in the town recommended to tourists for its scenic views. Cafes and roadside dim sum stalls frame its entry point. However, a few meters down the road is a quiet, serene stretch shadowed by towering trees on which monkeys jump. On the left, Garam Sadak overlooks a lush valley enveloped by the mighty Himalayas. On the rock walls running parallel to the street, Hilldaar appears in paint. His story, as retold above, is part of an elaborate mural art narrative called “I am Hilldaar.” Comprising ten murals, the narrative tells an enthralling tale of a king and a queen who learn about the importance of waste segregation in achieving sustainable tourism.

Across tourist destinations like Dalhousie, dustbins overflow and streets are littered with trash. The problem is especially dire in the Himalayan regions, where solid waste management systems are restricted due to topography and harsh climates. This has spurred a recent movement to use street art to spread awareness about social issues and public health messages. The practice has become  widespread over the last few years with the introduction of Swacch Survekshanan annual cleanliness survey under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan [Clean India Mission] that “aims to encourage large scale citizen participation in making towns and cities more habitable and sustainable.” 

The art series is an initiative by “Hilldaari—a social impact project aimed at transforming waste management in tourist cities. The word Hilldaari is a combination of “Hill” and “Zimmedari,” which means “Responsibility” in Hindi. It’s tagline is ‘Humaara Kuda, Humaari Zimmedari’ [Our Garbage, Our Responsibility]. Launched in 2018, Hilldaari is a multi-partner initiative, supported by Nestlé India, Recity Network, and Stree Mukti Sanghatana. Dalhousie’s murals are one of the more ambitious efforts to spread awareness about sustainable waste management systems. Unlike much of the other street art created through the program, which uses bold, brightly colored motifs, the Hilldaari mural takes a more nuanced approach. The multi-part narrative stretches across approximately 5,000 square feet and is rendered in a softer, more delicate style uncommon to street art murals. This approach was custom designed for its location.

A mural painted on a rock wall in Dalhousie, India. | Photograph courtesy of Hilldaari

Painted in earthy tones without a base color, the art seamlessly blends into the natural environment.  “Garam Sadak is such a quiet place, and we didn’t want to ruin its experience. Also, we didn’t want anything on the walls that would hurt the eyes. So we decided to leave the rock walls in the background as-is, and only painted base paint for figures,” says Achintya Malviya, one of the two artists of the “I am Hilldaar” series. 

The 28-year-old from Allahabad comes from a family of poets and writers. “I’m the first one to drop the pen and pick up the brush,” he says. A painter who explores social issues through human stories, this was the first time Malviya both designed and painted a mural. His partner in art, Arun Sharma, though, was already a mural maestro by the time they started working on the Dalhousie project.

Sharma hails from the small town of Deoband and believes that street art has a duty to create an impact on people. Much of his work is bold and satirical; it uses visual  shock value to question prevalent socio-political practices like caste-based discrimination and gender inequity. “Painting the Hilldaar series was a different experience for me. I was forced to think outside my usual style and create something more positive and hopeful,” he says. 

When the artists started working on the brief, they originally had the idea of painting  standard awareness murals with a straightforward graphic and social message. After visiting Dalhousie for two weeks, they decided to scrap their original concept and come up with a new design. “We were taking a stroll through Garam Sadak, the proposed location for the murals. It was so beautiful, and we saw several people walking through the single stretch of road,” Malviya says. “We thought it would be fun to make a narrative so that people would be curious to know what’s coming in the next slide.”

The style of their artwork draws influence from the local Chamba School of Art, which is part of the region’s Pahari Miniature Art, originating from the Himalayan hill kingdoms of India. Pahari translates to “mountainous” in Hindi. Usually painted on Wasli, a specific handmade paper, the miniature art is intricate in its details and uses bright and contrasting color palettes. The royals of the Rajput Kingdom would commission local artists to paint narratives about their lives, which meant Pahari  art often tells stories of kings and queens. 

While Hilldaari’s story and the characters drew inspiration from the royal tradition of Pahari miniature art, the artists inverted the gaze in their narrative, showcasing the king and the queen as spectators of their subjects’ efforts. In another departure, the artists used a modest colour palette and dialogue-based text to drive the narrative. “We didn’t want the murals to look a lot like folk art, which unfortunately, is not appreciated as much as it should be. So we took inspiration from it, especially for the attire and the leaves,”  Malviya says. 

Views of Dalhousie from Garam Sadak. | Photograph by Devyani Nighoskar

Under the Hilldaari initiative, local artists have had the chance to make their mark on the city’s sustainability efforts. Parikshit Sharma, a famous Pahari miniature artist, painted a series of murals at Dalhousie’s Subhash Chowk and SDM court. Each mural showcases a snippet of the indigenous “Gaddi tribe” while incorporating waste segregation and anti-littering messages. One of them showcases two Gaddi women seated outside their house upcycling waste into a basket and weaving a braid accessory. Another one shows a family seated for dinner with two other wastebaskets: one for dry and wet waste segregation. 

There have also been efforts to recycle and upcycle waste through the project. For example, the Hilldaari  claims to have transformed an old public park in Dalhousie, reusing metal waste and 2,643 pounds of used tires, freeing up to 222 feet of space in the landfills. In addition, 60 benches are being installed in various project locations using 9,259 pounds of plastic waste equivalent to 6.3 million chips packets. Ten of these have been set-up in Dalhousie. These efforts echo in other Himalayan hill towns such as Mussoorie and Nainital, where the artists have painted seven garbage trucks and 14 life-size portraits of sanitation workers on prominent walls of the cities; to honour them. 

“I think it was important for us to demonstrate through various examples how waste can be looked at as a resource. Upcycling waste into benches; making parks out of tyres was one form of visible change communications,” says Meha Lahiri, founder of Recity Network, a partner organization for the Hilldaari project. “I believe experience in communication is a big facilitator towards a behavior change strategy.”  

Observing the narrative mural. | Photograph courtesy of Hilldaari.

Across time and civilizations, art has been used as a tool for social change communication.  Street art, in particular through its larger than life, overpowering format, has the power to influence people’s psyches and collective memories. It is, in some ways, an unavoidable part of the urban landscape, which makes public art an ideal medium to address large audiences, especially in India’s culturally and socially diverse demographics. Public art becomes a universal language, accessible and understood by all, albeit interpreted differently by anyone who views it. 

Still,  public art’s ability to inspire on-the-ground change remains a debate, especially when the art is taken at its face value, without considering the power dynamics between the artists, the subjects and the space.  As this essay by Maria Tartari, appearing in Flash Art titled “Public art, cultural memory and social change,” notes that ‘entering the discussion about the social perspective of art in the public sphere means means also giving relevance to every marginal fragment of a global and globalized society made up of hyper-diverse and physiologically conflicting communities, by supporting their drive toward self-determination and right to identity.’

Malviya, the mural artist, often thinks of these dynamics himself. About a year ago, he was  creating portraits of sanitation workers, also known as Safaikaars. One day, he stepped off his ladder to observe the portrait he was working on of a woman named Sonali Ji. “I asked her, ‘how do you like it?’ She said, ‘Par isse kuch hoga bhaiya? Humko paisa aur milega? Hum kachra bin na chhor kar kuch aur kar payeinge?’ [Will anything happen with this portrait, brother? Will we get more money? Will we be able to do something other than picking up garbage?] I had no answer.” 

It’s easy to think something similar when you see a pile of garbage at Dalhousie’s Garam Sadak, right next to segregation bins installed under the Hilldaari initiative. However, the bins are also almost full, which means that at least some people are getting the message and that change, even if slow, is occurring. But there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. Art initiatives need to be coupled with tangible, on-ground change that Hilldaari and its partners are doing in their organizational capacity. For instance, Hilldaari’s implementation partner, Stree Mukti Sanghatana, has provided training on occupational health and hygiene to waste professionals at project locations to ensure a healthy workforce. They have also facilitated various empowering training sessions on the formation of Self-help groups, leadership skills and work culture to support the socio-economic status of waste professionals in the cities.

As lockdowns open and tourists flock to these hill stations, couples and families can be seen engaging with Hilldaari. Parents explain to their young children about waste management; couples take photos and selfies in front of the murals and uploading them to social media. With just a click, the hero Hilldaar transcends geographical borders and spreads his message to anyone who might listen.