PATNA, India Dozens of artists in the eastern Indian state of Bihar are painting roadside trees and their leaves with colorful 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 locals 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 laborers, speaking by phone from Madhubani, around 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) east of New Delhi.
"We thought people will not do any harm to trees once they come across the images of gods and goddesses on them."
According to Bihar state records, the forest coverage of the state, which suffers from recurring floods, is currently just under 7 percent.
The tree painting campaign began in September this year after 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 colors would soon fade.
"I had to convince them a lot before they agreed to join me," 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 Indian painting done with fingers, twigs, the points of fountain pens and even matchsticks, using natural colors and characterized 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," 19-year-old Kushaboo told local media.
According to Jha, 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 Jha said locals also had a debt of sorts to repay.
"Plants and trees have brought color to our life. Now it's our duty to put color on them," Jha said.
(Reporting by Delhi newsroom, editing by Elaine Lies)