Milan Rai is the artist behind the white butterflies that have now turned into a global phenomenon. As an artist, he grew tired of the confines of art studios and stifled exhibitions and now he chooses to express himself through nature. His most prized asset is his team of skilled volunteers who have wholeheartedly joined him in his endeavors to bring urban greenery to the cities of Nepal. Through his organization Vrikshya, Rai has brought together people from different disciplines to work for a cause they all passionately believe in. Here is what he has to say about his accomplishments.
1. Could you give us a general introduction to your idea and your organization?
The idea I presented at the Smart Urban Tech Challenge was for an art installation that would be a large replica of a pair of lungs with indoor plants inside of it. It is an art piece with utility, meant to emphasize the severity of air pollution in our cities. The metal sculpture would have indoor plants growing within to raise awareness about indoor air pollution since we don’t discuss that very often. We typically don’t keep plants inside the house either, so I wanted to promote that. My vision for the piece was to create a contrast between the hard, metal frame of the lungs on the outside and soft plants on the inside. That was the basic concept, to have an open structure in a public space with a social message.
My interest in projects like this isn’t commercial or economic. My profit would be to see more indoor plants in people’s houses, more green walls and green roofs in city spaces. I hadn’t considered establishing an organization but as I kept working towards increasing urban greenery, people seemed to join me because they believed in the cause. Now we’ve got a great team and have registered our non-profit organization “Vrikshya.” It all happened so serendipitously. We have five people on the board and everyone else involved is a volunteer. We are working towards designing parks in urban areas and for this, I collaborate with a lot of our volunteer architects. Everything that I need for designing this project seems to materialize solely through people’s goodwill.
2. What made you want to start this organization and these projects?
The whole point of the Smart Urban Tech Challenge was to come up with technology that could create a smart city. In my opinion, a smart city is one where the rivers are full of fish and there are birds in the sky and trees. Nature is the most sophisticated technology there is, so I wanted to broaden people’s views on what technology could be. The intention of the project was to show how a little bit of technology could be used to maximize the overall output. Instead of investing in expensive air pollution absorbers and measurement devices, having lots of trees and plants is a much better place to start. It benefits our mental and physical health. As for the investment, it doesn’t need a huge initial investment or a lot of maintenance compared to other big projects.
The park we are designing through Vrikshya is interactive, playful, inviting, accessible to all and has no fences. It is a dynamic art piece that evolves in interesting ways. We talk about our history, architecture, and culture but now we must sing the song of our times. We should create great art in our time and that is what I want these parks to be. It is an opportunity to create art that is living.
3. How do you fund these projects?
I don’t think funding has driven the projects we have done so far. Initially, when I started going to government offices about these ideas, no one listened to me, so I went every day for 14 months. I wore my gas mask when I went to meet people. One day as I was on my way again, I happened to meet the mayor who said: “You have been showing up for so many months, you must be crazy.” I was spending all my money on going to these offices and finally, one day when I reached into my pocket to pay for a tootle, I didn’t have any. I got myself a bicycle but on the day of an important meeting, I found the tire was punctured. I had no money at that time, so I ran. So, what was the force that kept pushing me to do this? If money only was my motivator then I would have given up a long time ago. Our incredible team has planted 500 trees already without a single rupee from the government. There is a huge amount of budget allocated for the greens two crore budget for the parks but it is hard to say how much of that will actually go towards the parks. I am also applying for various international grants and we are discussing with private investors. We are also partnering with WWF Nepal. The main thing is to not lose our enthusiasm.
4. What are your company’s needs?
I think I’ve been very fortunate because all the people I needed for this project just showed up and were willing to spend their time and energy on this. We don’t even have an office but we’ve been working on things for a long time and doing so with great sincerity. Everyone is open-minded; I want more people to come together and do more amazing things. So, I am always happy to invite more people to come together and collaborate.
5. What are your main challenges right now?
Here, I’d like to shift the perspective. I think challenges are a good thing. We are always going to face obstacles, in fact, if something isn’t challenging to you then just leave it be. If you spend your time complaining then you become part of that problem too. The environment that you are surrounded by consumes you and you become like everybody else in that environment. I am trying to remain positive and not focus on what isn’t working, but focus on what is. Focus on the negative takes a lot of energy away from you. I read Lalitpur metropolitan city as Lalitpur meditation city to direct my energy towards positive things.
One thing that does delay progress is the presence of people in power who decide exactly how the rest of the people are going to exist. Me, I’m an artist, not an architect so I don’t have the expertise to handle architectural aspects of an issue or a project. So, even for them, it is crucial to listen to the experts and use their knowledge to devise the best possible plans for any context. Despite our hurdles, the mayor of Lalitpur has been quite understanding. He is truly a good person who frequently meets with a lot of brilliant minds. Because what usually happens is that people bring great ideas to the government and they are faced with a system that is extremely difficult to navigate. Lalitpur’s Mayor has a vision and is open to new ideas; he is far-sighted and supports the youth. But one person obviously isn’t enough, we need more people like that and people like us need to talk to them to give them good ideas. Things were much more difficult for us in Kathmandu.
At the end of the day, there is no formula for this. I’m learning every day. People interested in doing something like this often don’t start their ideas and if they do start, they give up far too easily. But if we keep at it, it will happen. We must focus on our goals, stay on track, be sincere, and don’t expect anything to go your way because it pollutes the purity of your thoughts. When you hope, hope for the bigger picture, think beyond yourself.
Interviewed and Article by Jyotika Shah