Against the star-spangled sky and a luminous half moon on animator Nina Sabnani’s website, an introduction reads: “The story is in the telling”. Zoom in closer, and you see the stars created with stitches, while the half moon is an applique work — both bearing the signature Kutch handicraft. Sabnani brings together animation and ethnography to add a new dimension to each of her works — Tanko Bole Chhe (2009) and Mukand and Riaz (2005) experiment with Kutch handicraft, while Bemata (2012) and Baat Wahi Hai (2011) adopted Rajasthan’s Kaavad art of storytelling. For her latest film, Hum Chitra Banate Hai, which will be screened during the Mumbai Film Festival 2016 under the Half Ticket segment, she has employed Bhil art of Madhya Pradesh. Sabnani — who taught animation at National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, for two decades, and is a professor at Industrial Design Centre (IDC), IIT Bombay — calls herself “an artist and storyteller who uses film, illustration and writing to narrate her tales”. Excerpts from an interview:
What drew you towards Bhil art?
During a holiday in Odisha, I came across Bhil art at a fair and met Sher Singh Bhil, the artist I have collaborated with for the book, A Bhil Story (2015) and Hum Chitra Banate Hai. When I got the funding, we developed the narrative together over two years. We first did an illustrated book and then thought of the film since it is a good way to conserve an art form that is on the margins. I was drawn to the art for its sheer vibrancy and lucidity. As an animator, I play the role of a facilitator and am not fixated with having a personal style.
You weave mythology, folktales and traditional art forms together.
One of the uses of animation, as I see it, is to represent ethnography, not just for entertainment but as a way of doing research. I became conscious of this while pursuing my PhD in 2006 at IDC and when I started working with Kutch artists. This resulted in Tanko Bole Chhe, an animated documentary which celebrates the Kutch artisans. The idea of making this film came from Kala Raksha Trust in Kutch, and they generated the funds. I spent some time interviewing the artisans and they walked me through their narrative pieces on cloth, spoke of their lives and their aspirations.
For instance, they talked about not knowing why India and Pakistan fought a war that forced them to immigrate to India. They also talked about thinking of their designs in the solitude of night. The narrative evolved from the conversations I had with them.
What kind of training in animation did you receive at NID?
After graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda, I joined NID in 1980. Our introduction to animation at NID was Disney-like images because our first teacher was Clair Weeks, who had been with Disney for 20 years. After him, we were introduced to more experimental work by Roger Noake, a teacher at University of the Creative Arts, and Ishu Patel, an animation film director-producer. After my training, in 1985, I started teaching animation and developed a curriculum along with two classmates, Vinita Desai and Chitra Sarathi, when NID offered formal courses in animation.
You have done a lot of work with Kaavad artists of Rajasthan.
My engagement with the Kaavad practitioners has been a long one and I have learned quite a bit about storytelling from them. I spent a lot of time trying to find the community and the storytellers and recording their travels. Two of my children books, If All The Same and Home, as well as animation films Bemata and Baat Wahi Hai are inspired by their art. I have also made a documentary on them, Makers of Tales.
You have worked with the art of Mithila, Kaavad, Bhil and Kutch. How do you see your work taking forward these traditional art forms?
I try to tell the stories they want to narrate in their own visual language, by using animation. I don’t have any
style because I am only trying to say what these artists want to say with my work. I don’t use their art for anything other than with them. Animation is a good way to conserve art forms, since we retain the voice and the story along with the artefacts.
Mukand and Riaz is the story of your father, who was separated from his friend when your family left in Karachi during Partition. Given the current scenario, do you think Mukand and Riaz would ever meet?
A book based on this, Mukand and Riaz, was published and released in Pakistan. I don’t know how they would ever meet —my father, Mukand Sabnani, passed away in 2006 and we have no information about his friend Riaz Ahmad, other than his name. They were so young when they were separated. The current scenario is not permanent, I am sure. Things could change.