I didn't choose butterflies; they chose me -Milan Rai
KATHMANDU, Dec 26: Once a butterfly fluttered into Milan Rai’s studio and settled itself on his paintbrush. “It wasn’t the first time I had seen a butterfly but it touched me deeply then and I couldn’t overlook the incident,” he says.
A few days later, he noticed a butterfly on his bike’s looking glass when he was stuck in traffic and despite the pollution and clamor surrounding him, he claims it heightened his imagination. He felt as though he had been transported to a wonderland.
Butterflies have always been referred to as a symbol of transformation. “The impressive process of metamorphosis a caterpillar goes through and how it turns into a vibrant butterfly is an example of how we can emerge brilliantly in life,” adds Rai.
Both butterflies that Rai encountered were colorful, and while they inspired him to turn Kathmandu into a butterfly city, his paper butterflies aren’t colorful. In fact, they are plain white.
The first set of butterflies was installed on the trunk of an old tree in Nag Pokhari. But within a few days, Rai noticed that the 100 butterflies were taken out and the tree was as dull as before. It comes as no surprise, of course, vandalizing public infrastructure and taking efforts like these for granted is a tale often told here.
People often ask him why he’s still continuing the project when he knows that somebody is going to take them off the branches, tree trunks, and fragments of walls and tear them off. “I tell them the butterflies flew away,” he says in such a way that you almost believe him.
Since the project’s inception around two months back, Rai has installed swarms of butterflies in Jawalakhel, Kupondole, Maitighar, Naxal, Babar Mahal, Patan, Baneshwor and Ratna Park.
Some 2,000 of his butterflies were displayed at the Mile End Art Pavilion in London recently, and another set is scheduled for a group exhibition in April in Germany.
When asked why he chose to not make his butterflies colorful, he says he’s not trying to decorate the city. “The reason I chose to stick with white is because I’m a purist and I want clarity in the messages I’m trying to send,” he adds.
These installations he’s been doing around town gives him immeasurable happiness, like the time in Thapathali when an old man ran to him, picked up one of his butterflies and left. “I could see the butterflies brought out the child in him,” he shares.
Another time, a woman asked if she could take a butterfly for her kid while he was working on his installations in Jawalakhel.
A principal of a school in Dharan shared with his students about the butterfly project and the students declared their class a butterfly class the next day, decorating it with butterflies.
Rai believes that the impact of this project would have been different had he chosen a gallery for it. “Previously, when people said they didn’t understand my art, I used to tell myself that it’s working but this project has simplified the complex relationship between art and audience,” he says.
For him, the ‘Do Not Touch’ sign in galleries is what distances audience from art. He explains, “I don’t mind people touching and collecting my butterflies because that’s the whole reason I decided to take it beyond canvas and the walls of art galleries.”