Interviewsand Articles


Awakin Call with Artist Milan Rai: The Butterfly Effect

by Trishna Shah, Mar 6, 2018



The following conversation took place in Harrow, London as part of a ServiceSpace Awakin Circle. June 28, 2017. The host was Mita Shah and the moderator, Trishna Shah.

Trishna Shah:  I thought I’d share a little bit about how we met Milan. A few other friends from the ServiceSpace community were visiting from India and China last month and we’d gone down to the South Bank Festival. I’d read about one particular installation of white butterflies so we wandered down there and walked into this butterfly installation. It took our breath away. There were twenty to thirty thousand white butterflies on these massive windows on the fifth floor of the South Bank center. Usually when you see an art installation, it’s been done previously by the artist and then disappeared. But in this case, I saw some girls still putting some butterflies up on a window. I asked one of these girls, “Is there a particular way the artist has asked you to install these butterflies?” She said, “Oh, the artist is right behind me.” So we met Milan! And he shared a little about his journey. All of us were completely blown away. As we dug deeper we thought, “This guy is such a kindred spirit!” So of course, being ServiceSpace people, we said, “Milan, do you want to come to an Awakin Circle?” He said yes!
     One of the things I want to share by way of introduction is something Milan said about people’s search for happiness. He said, “It doesn’t have to be anything unusual. Everything's a miracle. I see how people waste a tremendous amount of energy in frustration, and these butterflies are an effort to channel that energy positively.”
     So I wanted to start by asking what were some of the seeds that were planted during your childhood in Bhojpur?

Milan Rai:  Bhojpur lies in the eastern region of Nepal on a very remote hill. I was born there and left when I was three years old because my father started serving in the British Army. We moved to Hong Kong where the army camp was. I spent three years there. At the age of six, I came back to Nepal and grew up like normal kids do.

Trishna:  And was there anything that happened in your childhood that you think was a catalyst for the journey that unfolded later on in life?

Milan:  From my teenage days, yes. I felt very uncomfortable in the classroom inside the school compound. And people called me, especially teachers called me, a very weak student, never focused. But I felt like I was a very bright student, always roaming outside the classroom on bright sunny days (laughter). It was the classroom that was limited! I failed all the subjects and then I had to change schools because I didn’t want to repeat with my juniors. I was expelled from that school in just one week. I changed to another school. In three months, I was kicked out again. Then I came to Kathmandu to continue my studies and soon I realized they were going to kick me out again. So I kicked school out of my life.
     I never went to school again. My colleagues and friends started pursuing their higher education and I felt left out. Everyone told me I couldn’t do anything without a degree certificate. Everyone labeled me as a hopeless kid. That led to frustration, depression, drugs, fights and other negative things. It really harmed me. Those were tough days.

Trishna:  At what point in this journey did art become a tool for transformation?

Milan:  I once got very badly injured in a gang fight. I was hospitalised for 45 days. During that time, I started asking many questions and looking for the purpose of my life. I’d tried so many negative things and the results were so bad. So I asked myself, what really makes me happy?" Then I remembered that when I was in school just scribbling, painting and sketching gave me joy. Teachers would say I didn’t pay attention, but I gave so much attention to my art. I could see someone and then paint them just from memory, yet I couldn’t memorise formulas and mathematical stuff.
     I realized that art made me very happy, and I started painting. Soon my parents and well-wishers were asking how will art sustain you financially? But I didn't listen to them. I didn't get admission to art school so I taught myself. I learned from my mistakes.
     One day I’d gone to buy some colors and noticed a poster for an art competition in India. I decided to take part. There were two forms, one for professionals and another for students. I started to fill in the student form, but there were too many questions.
     So I tore up that form and chose the one for professionals. I put in fake details and entered the competition with no hope. But in two months, they’d short-listed the top ten paintings and my painting was in that list. The painting was made during a phase where I was trying to come out of my darkness. I called it Light. I was asked to send in the original painting for the final round. In three weeks, they announced that I’d won first prize! [applause from listeners on the call].
     This was in 2007. They invited me to receive the prize. I was a very shy, introverted person and now I had to face a respectable journalist who was to interview me. It made me shiver. To cover my awkwardness, I pretended not to speak the local language, Hindi, and somehow managed to collect my first prize without saying much.
     Then I came back to Nepal and did my first exhibition. In light of my award in India, it was easy. Out of twenty three paintings, twenty one were sold. I started making money, but that didn't give me inner satisfaction. I started asking questions like "Why are people buying my paintings like hot cakes?" The answer that came to me was, "People are buying my paintings because they like my work. Now stop painting what they like, and start painting what I like." Then they stopped buying my paintings! (laughter)
     I also felt that the art being sold in galleries was beyond the reach of ordinary people. Only the privileged ones could buy that kind of art and keep it inside their house - and maybe boast about it. I thought art should be for everybody. I felt so limited inside the white cube of a gallery, just like I did in the school classroom. So I started experimenting with different audiences, spaces, and mediums.
     I started live-painting on the spot, in front of an audience. I did this for three years in different venues, collaborating with so many other artists and practicing various forms of art. One day, while I was painting, the canvas could not withstand the force of my brushstroke and it fell. And I started painting on the floor. Suddenly, I realized, "Wow, there is a space beyond the canvas."
     So I started feeling limited within the space of the canvas, as well. And also, I wasn’t feeling deeply connected to many people, because not many people could afford these places where I was performing - restaurants, bars. They were expensive. Like a newspaper seller couldn’t sit there and enjoy a drink and experience art, or a taxi driver. So I felt the art had reached a certain number of people, but it was still not enough.
     So I stopped doing this type of art. When I look back, I see I kept experimenting with different ideas. Before I go to the next phase, do you have any questions?

Trishna:  I think your next phase may be where I'm going, anyway. When we met you, one of the things you said was, "I was creating art to change people, to make this magnificent impact on people, and it wasn't really working.” At you went through a transformation. So maybe you can share with a bit about that.

Milan:  Okay! I was still longing to bridge the gap between art and audience. And after stopping the live paintings, I started talking to people I met - in the streets, on the bus, everywhere. I started stopping random strangers and asking for their earphones -- "Excuse me, can you please give me your earphones?" And they would say, "No, I'm using them." I’d ask, "Do you have a spare or any damaged earphones at home?"
     So I started collecting earphones from people. I did this for a year and collected 4000. I was not just collecting materialistic pieces. I was collecting the feelings, the sounds, the voices deposited in these earphones. I wanted to make a big public installation out of these earphones. When people passed by in their everyday commute, my thought was they would immediately feel “I am a piece of that.” So I went to the city municipality to obtain space for this. But they were misinformed about the power of art so they did not give me permission.
     I started thinking of more complex ideas. I started thinking, “I'll be a great artist. I'll shock everybody with my art! I'll change everything around me!” [laughter]. I wanted to inspire everybody, but nobody got inspired. And that led to frustration. I spent nearly two years struggling. I did lots of experiments before Butterflies, and failed and failed.

Trishna:  This journey led to that infamous day, where you're sitting in your studio. So could you tell us that story?

Milan:  Okay. One day I was thinking and suddenly, I noticed this tiny butterfly in my studio. I was drawn to it and managed to capture it. I’d heard a Native American proverb, that said if you capture a butterfly and whisper your wish and let it go, it will take your wish to the greater spirit and your wish will come true.
     So I made a wish and without expecting my wish to come true, I just let it go. That was my first learning - letting it go. When I did that, suddenly something felt so light in me. I stopped worrying and spent less time in my studio and galleries and started going more into parks and specifically, the forest. I’d just lie down or sit under a tree. I was doing this every day. 
     One time I happened to listen, accidentally. I heard the sound of a leaf fall to the ground.  Then I became conscious of another leaf falling. I started closing my eyes and hearing the sounds - hearing the flight of a bird, moving from one branch to another.  And slowly, I began consciously listening to all these things. From the outside, it looked like I wasn’t working, you know? But so much deep work was happening inside. Everyday. 
     I started collecting fallen leaves and bringing them home as messages from the trees. I started hugging trees. I started talking to a tree like I talk to another person, but even more deeply. I stopped collecting leaves at one point when I realized my house was full of leaves [laughs]. Heaps of leaves!
     And butterflies kept coming and visiting. Sometimes they sat on my forehead. They kept coming and reminding me of the power of simplicity. So I said to myself – “I don’t have to do complex things. Make it simple and be very honest with your work and don’t expect anything from it.”
     So after doing all this, one day I designed a butterfly shape and pinned it in a public space. When I went to check on it, I saw the butterflies on the ground. People had torn them down. I thought, “People are tearing them down. Rain will bring them down. It’s not practical.” And when I asked my heart to confirm it, and my heart said, “Butterflies don’t stay in one place.” So I went to another place with more butterflies and nobody destroyed them. It was like the same butterflies flew from one place to another.”
     After than, every time I pressed a butterfly, I said, “I love you. Let go.”
     People started taking more butterflies. So I started climbing higher [laughter]. I said, “The butterflies are soaring higher!”
     I had no resources or funds. I borrowed ladders from schools, colleges, hospitals. I carried ladders on my shoulders and walked around the city. Ladder became my best friend. When ladder couldn’t walk, I carried it on my shoulder; when I couldn’t climb, ladder gave me its shoulder.
     One day, someone who was following the butterflies messaged me saying, “I used to steal your butterflies. I was collecting them, but now they are always too high. I can’t carry a ladder like you to collect them.” She sent me this message, and in response to that, I brought thousands of butterflies down and covered this public space. I sent a picture to her and said, “Today thousands of butterflies came down, but you were not there.”
     This is how I engaged the public with my imagination. I kept doing this: it was done at 3 AM, and then I realized that there is no time, there are only moments. Everybody was in bed. I was here alone - in winter, making butterflies. I started covering more places.
     One day, I found my butterfly on the ground; it was withered. It was during the monsoon time. I felt so broken, so vulnerable. I started crying. Then I saw an overhead bridge and realized that if I put butterflies under it, they would be safe from the rain.
     The pillars and ceiling were both white, so I immediately bought paint. Purple is my favorite color. I borrowed ladders and started painting the wall and then put up the butterflies. I came home with the feeling that I’d saved some butterflies, and slept. But the same night, there was big thunder and rain. There were so many other butterflies that I’d left in the tree that I couldn’t sleep. I just walked out of my room, ran and sat under a tree and got drenched in the rain with the butterflies. That’s how I worked.
     Soon I ran out of money to make more butterflies, so I started asking for small sums from my friends. This was my caterpillar phase. But I couldn’t ask them again and again, so I approached 6 sponsors. All of them laughed at me and insulted my dream. They said it was a stupid idea, that even their daughter could do it and there was nothing creative about this - so stop wasting our time. But in spite of being insulted, I kept approaching sponsor after sponsor. Soon, I realized it was draining my energy and I couldn’t continue. I felt very sad.
     I took my backpack and went on a personal quest to India. Throughout my journey I cried. I talked with cows, with lamp-posts, with trees, with strangers, while I was still crying. Then suddenly I realized there is nothing to be ashamed about crying for your dream, to do what you really want to do. So when I came back to Kathmandu 14 days later, I was comfortable crying in front of people in public, like in a bus. I made four trips to India altogether in this phase, and after the fourth trip, I came back with a solid realization that nobody can stop me. Only I could stop yourself, if I stopped moving.
     Then somebody from UK who I’d never met, messaged me that he had been following my work. He said that he was missing new posts of my butterflies. “Please don't stop doing this,” he wrote.
     I replied that I’d run out of money. He responded by sending me more than 500 pounds - a huge amount in Nepali currency. I made a lot of butterflies with that money.
     When I was doing all these things, I received a message from a writer in Scotland who said, "I’m so touched by the simplicity and power of your art. Can I request some butterflies for Scotland?" I couriered a bunch to her and she started putting butterflies in trees, giving them to neighbors etc. The stories kept coming.
     One day she asked me if she could put the name of her daughter on the butterfly wings. At first, I was not feeling comfortable about this because after 8 months of working with these butterflies, 2 of the sponsors who had earlier rejected me, called me and said, "People are talking about your butterflies; people are sharing pictures and you’re everywhere. It’s a good time for you to make some money. Whenever you do butterflies, give us a credit and we will give you volunteers, resources."
     Though I was in need of money to continue my project, I said, "I will not take your money. If I take your money, you will make me work for your money. I cried for my dreams. I would prefer to work with my own volunteers.”
     They said I would regret this decision. Their idea was to make some logo on the butterfly wings, so when the lady from Scotland wanted to similarly put her daughter's name on the wings, I was not comfortable. I asked her why she had this thought, and she said, "Tomorrow is the 6th death anniversary of my daughter and I wanted to remember her. Every year, it is so difficult for me."
     I apologized for my insensitivity and requested her to go ahead. I told her why I was hesitant. So she wrote her daughter's name and placed the butterfly on a tree. An old man with a stick asked her what she was doing, and she replied that this was her way of honoring her daughter's departed soul. The old man asked if he could add the name of his wife. Then he went to the village and invited all the neighbors to the tree, and they started writing names of departed husbands, cousins, lovers. It became a memorial tree. This has now become a ritual and every year they come together to the tree.

Trishna:  That's a sweet story. So you embarked on this journey, and a year into it, you were invited to an art festival in Germany. While you were there you spontaneously decided to travel around Europe with no money. Could share a little bit about that experiment and what you have learnt from it?

Milan:  I was doing all these things in Kathmandu - like sharing stories, giving butterflies to people - and suddenly there was this invitation from Germany to attend an art festival. They had discovered me at the last minute and didn’t have funds to cover my travels. But they loved my work and said, "We would love to bring the white butterflies. If you can't come, please send the butterflies."
     I had no money, but no worries. I said, "I need an invitation to get my visa." They sent me the invitation. I showed it to the sky and asked "What is this, universe? You give me an invitation without a ticket. Is this cosmic joke?" [laughter]
     Four or five days later, someone from California - a philanthropist who I've never met - heard about my story and contacted me. She said, "What you’re doing is very important. You should not be stopped by these little obstacles. You have to go, not only to Germany, but all over Europe.” She sent me enough money to travel Europe. 
    I always look at things from my own perspective. The last time I was traveling from Boston, the customs officer at the airport asked me, "Excuse me, Sir, are you carrying any valuable items?" I said, "What could be more valuable than this piece of life? I'm 75% water. My name is Milan. Sometimes I wonder if I'm a watermelon with consciousness.” [laughter]
     I landed in Germany. I went to Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Brussels. After I did the butterfly installations, people would come and add their own ideas and take photographs. One of the ladies said, "I forgot all of my problems for a while looking at these butterflies." Many strangers became friends.

Trishna:  When you met Sheetal last month, you shared with him something really profound. You said that you give without expectations and receive without burden. You seem very deeply aligned with this spirit of gift, and of giving without expectation. I mean you even turned down offers to copyright your butterfly design!

Milan:  So many people suggested that I should have a copyright. I said there is enough copyleft  [laughter]. Anybody can come and take it!

Trishna:  Which is amazing, right? For someone... you could have easily made money just on that, and you said no. I wonder if you could share what's moved you to run this project on a gift basis, as a labor of love.

Milan:  Because I don't need to force anything. It just comes effortlessly. I just have to drop back and watch. It's like nature will carry you and the best kind of publicity is no publicity. Don't talk about it. Just be it.

Trishna:  Which you do. You so beautifully walk your talk. I wondered if you could share also about the role of community and noble friends on your journey.

Milan:  Yeah... When I was traveling in Europe, I was giving butterflies to people in the train station, wherever I met them. They would ask me, "What is this for?" Sometimes they would immediately connect and say, "Oh, this came as a sign for me." They would hug me, they would forget where they were going, they would talk to me in the park, spend hours crying with me. They would open their doors to me. They would ask me, "Where do you want to go next? I have friends over there. I can connect you with them." Some even bought me tickets. So the money that the woman sent me from California - I could not even use it. And when I was in South Bank this time, the two women I met in my journey who had given me shelter in their home, they had traveled, one from USA and one from Brussels, to take part in the festival.

Trishna:  So when you give without expectation, all that generosity gets paid forward and comes back to you in so many beautiful ways. I think when we see journeys like this from the outside, it looks like it just flowed effortlessly and magically, but obviously inside, all kinds of things had been happening. Could you share some of the challenges or edges that you've faced in doing this work?

Milan:  In the early days, there were lot of challenges. I think it was because I was resisting so much. I was fighting. I was working against it, not with it. Now, there are challenges but I enjoy them. I say the attitude has to be "try me," not "why me?"
     If the challenges come stiff and hard, like wood, become a carpenter; make an armchair, and relax. Transform everything. The challenges come to serve you, to make you strong, to teach you, to further the evolution of your own growth. So we should be very welcoming! I was also very afraid about depression and frustration and sadness. Nowadays, I say, "Hi sadness. How are you doing?" I recognize them. And the sadness goes elsewhere. It says “I came to visit Milan and he said “Hi.” He didn’t pay much attention to me; “I feel so sad.”  [laughter] 
     I learned this from a tree. I’d been visiting one tree every day, every night, whenever I was in Nepal. It's not in a very peaceful place, believe me. It's in the middle of the city at a traffic junction. I just sit there. People think I'm a passerby just resting. But I'm deeply meditating. I become aware of every sound, every light, but everything around me cannot interfere with the peace within me. I learned so many things. I learned presence, to be grounded, to be humble, to be giving from that tree. 
     And every time I travel, before I leave my country, I go and hug that tree. I say, "I'll come back soon." This has become my ritual. This time, I was so busy I couldn’t go to greet my tree, so I called a cab. We got there and I said, “Please wait fifteen mins. I need to see someone." And I went and sat under the tree [laughter].

Trishna:  That's really wonderful to see how you have grown in all these beautiful ways. I know from reading about you that you don't like to give advice; you tell people to listen to their heart. But could you offer us some advice to encourage us to be able to listen to our own hearts, and to live what our hearts are telling us?

Milan: I know there are many people who feel happy when people follow them on Facebook. I feel happy when people follow their heart, instead of blindly following others. When I see a musician walking with an instrument, or playing on the street or travelling in the train, I just take a moment and pray for them - may you, one day, play on the biggest stage possible. If I see someone carrying a long ruler, I figure she’s an architect or an engineering student. I pray, may you create the best designs in your field. Similarly, when I see an ambulance, I pray. If I’m in a traffic jam, I say, "Nice meeting you. This was a divine plan to have us meet."
     Once I went and studied a central square of Kathmandu that was long neglected. It was a time of political turmoil. I imagined a rainbow in this square and went to get permission from the municipality to create an installation. They refused. I pleaded and said I wouldn’t need any money from them. They refused again. I went for seven days, and was met with rejection. On the eighth day, I asked, "What if I do it without your permission?" They replied that I might get into trouble.
     I went back and surveyed the area. After a few days I went to the place with a few volunteers. We painted a rainbow of colors over all the political slogans. We had to work fast, like robbing a bank. Our painting was not perfect, but when the people liked it the next day, it was repainted with my original color scheme. Now all politicians go there to make speeches.
     I held an art installation in Kathmandu with 9000 butterflies. Four hundred volunteers turned up simply in response to a Facebook status update. When journalists came to interview me, they were puzzled how I’d managed to pull this off without funding or media support. I said, "I managed to do this because I was not managing anything."
     Many people ask me if I’m a spiritual person. I tell them spirituality is within, so I turn on my spiritual wifi, connect with source and download straight from there. Many people depend on pen drives and that’s where the virus enters. I used to have pen drives, but I got rid of them.    


About the Author

Trishna Shah is one of the early founders of


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