Nina Sabnani animated cloth for the first time four years ago for her film Mukund and Riaz. It was the story of two friends who suddenly find themselves on either side of the border after Partition. What made the eight-minute film stand out was the way the director breathed life into pieces of cloth that carried the story forward. From the small figures of the two boys, and the cycles they rode to the sweet shops they passed by – every frame was created by animating pieces of cloth that has now defined Sabnani’s style of filmmaking.
It seems fitting then that Sabnani was asked by Kala Rakshak, an organisation that preserves traditional art forms of Gujarat, to document the life and struggles of the artisans of Kutch. Two years since, her efforts have resulted in Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak), an animated documentary that has been bagging awards at short film festivals around the world.
The film follows the story of a clan living in Adigaam, a small exuberant village in Pakistan. The villagers earned their living by making handmade items of embroidered clothing, until one day, after the Partition, they are forced to flee their homes and are promised a better life in India. But on crossing the border, they are sent to a refugee ground in a village called Jurra in Kutch, and have to rebuild their lives from scratch.
“It is the story of the Kala Rakshak artisans. They had nothing when they came to India, not even land that they were promised. But one stitch at a time, they mended their lives,” says Sabnani, 58, professor at the Industrial Design Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
The illustrator spent six months with the artisans in Kutch, listening to their stories of migration and poverty. Next, she scanned some of their recent works. “It was in May, and electricity was allowed for only three hours a day. Our computer scanner would switch off by itself. So digitising the delicate pieces of cloth was laborious,” she says.
Once she had all the pieces back in her office in Mumbai, the animation began. Using the narration from the artisans as a voice-over, the film shows the pieces of embroidered cloth merging into and emerging from the backdrop to form the delicate figures of the artisans, the rough terrain and the lives they built around it.
Apart from narrating their story, Sabnani wished to highlight the dedication of the artisans to their craft. “Craftsmen are not treated with as much respect as artists. That needs to change,” she says, “The film shows them as artists — staring at a blank piece of cloth, waiting for inspiration to strike, innovating with design and technique, and looking to make pieces that excite continued…