How Far Have Butterflies Flown?

December 2, 2013 , by Nikita Tripathi, Leave your thoughts
How Far Have Butterflies Flown? » My Dreams Mag
Milan Rai’s white butterflies bring hope and happiness.

Before there were any rave reviews of Milan Rai’s ambitious effort, passer-bys would stop, watch him for a few seconds, and carry on. Those who had a little time to spare would ask what this man on the ladder slouched against a tree and pinning paper cut-outs of white butterflies was doing. Rai, at the risk of being laughed at, would politely respond.

It’s been a little over a year since Rai installed his first batch of handmade cut-outs on a tree in Naxal, he’s now referred to as ‘the butterfly man’, the papers call this venture of his ‘the butterfly effect’.

It is evident, in the way Rai slowly processes your question and starts off weary, that he’s talked about his vision too many times before. The idea was born one afternoon when a butterfly hovered around his palette and rested on his paintbrush. He was instantly transported to a dreamland, he claims, and no matter how elusive the idea of converting Kathmandu into a butterfly city seemed then, Rai decided to give it a go.

He started decorating parts of this city, a tree trunk in Naxal, another tree in Kupondole, the pillars under the Sankhamul bridge, compact and handmade paper cut-outs of white butterflies on walls and remains of demolished buildings, branches of trees outside Dashrath stadium, to name a few.

White Butterflies

His minimalist approach has been a part of several occasions in thirty countries including the Taksim Square protests that took place earlier this year in Turkey, Kunstansichten art festival in Germany in April, International Day of Peace celebration in Athens, and an exhibition at Ursa Major Gallery, Massachusetts in September. In June, Rai also teamed up with a few concerned citizens here to start a campaign called ‘White Butterfly Movement’ to contest the government’s decision to cut down more than 1,200 trees along the Koteshwor-Kalanki stretch for ring-road expansion.

Rai calls himself a full-time painter, and says his butterflies are born out of love. It is his love for nature, he adds, that guides his creative course. “When you put your personal story out there, your audience is entitled to their own interpretation. Such is the language of art,” says Rai, particularly emphasizing the purity of his visual art. He has also been distributing white butterflies at protests and campaigns to express his solidarity at social discontents, and spread hope.

White Butterflies at the central station - Brussels

The last time I interviewed Milan Rai, he was getting ready to participate in an art festival in Germany. A lot has happened since then. A Euro trip and an extended stay in the US under his belt, Rai seems calmer. He’s a man of fewer words now. Looking out the window of a small café in Lagankhel, he eagerly narrates the encounters and short-lived friendships from these trips.

A German newspaper called him ‘an artist from the Himalayas’ and apart from the special treatment he received, Rai had the opportunity to see some incredible contemporary artworks. In his own words, “the experience was everything an artist wishes for.”

After the festival, Rai went for an impromptu Euro trip. All the while with very little money and a backpack full of butterflies. Apart from sharing his stories with the locals he met on the way, Rai befriended tourists from all over, many of whom offered to buy him food, shelter and tickets. “People won’t believe me when I tell them how I travelled, they don’t think it is possible with no money,” says Rai.

Rai says things that put a pessimist in an uncomfortable place; talking about love and God, “People are always questioning the existence of God and debating about it. For me, God comes as opportunities, and the biggest opportunity is that you’re alive. Human beings are capable of doing amazing things but they have stopped to strive.”

helen sotiriadis photography

Photo: Helen Sotiriadis

A couple in Paris is planning to get married in a forest surrounded by white butterflies. Linz Barbour, a writer from Scotland, wrote her late daughter’s name on one of the butterflies and pinned it to a tree in her village. The entire village followed suit and they now have a memorial tree full of white butterflies.

Rai visited a preschool in New York for a session. He had taken the kids outside to pin some butterflies on walls and trees. The next day when they returned to the same place, the butterflies were all gone. To the surprise of his then realist self, the kids had their own stories of what might have happened to those butterflies. He said, “I’d have probably said something like the wind blew them away, but one of the kids said, ‘The butterflies went to visit my grandparents in the city’, and then I realized how we all lose that childish imagination whilst growing up.”

These simple white butterflies have garnered an overwhelming response, the likes of which Rai had never imagined when he initiated it. “I’m not the person I used to be, the people I’ve met and the experience of travelling the way I did in today’s world has expanded my horizon of understanding,” says the visual artist.

Although he claims he’s way past complaining and finding faults, there are still things that bother Rai. In pursuit of everything else, people have somehow compromised with happiness. “It doesn’t have to be anything unusual for it to be a miracle, everything is a miracle, even the most ordinary and mundane,” says Milan Rai, “I look around and see how people waste tremendous amount of energy in frustration, this butterfly is one of my efforts to channel that energy positively.”

Peter Pan with White Butterflies

Peter Pan with White Butterflies

Some might say Milan Rai makes the most hyperbolic statements. Some might say he’s genuine. Either way, what the error of judgment fails to conclude is that his butterflies are reminders that all is not lost. My teacher in school used to say, “Little things are little things but to be faithful in little things is no little thing”, and there’s something about these butterflies that makes even the most reeking places in the city look beautiful, you can’t put your finger on it but it’s there.


Text by: Nikita Tripathi
Image Source: Milai Rai


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