Friday, October 11, 2013


The Gond animation film - Manjoor Jhali, the Story of the Peacock.

There is not much to update on this film, as there has been no progress to date.  But all of that is about to change.  The Pardhan Gonds are by now almost veterans in the activity of adapting their folklore for animation; while perhaps this may be stretching the truth a bit, the previous animated Gond folktale "Best of the Best" (produced by West Highland Animation, 2006) was screened to at least 15,000 children in India and in the United Kingdom during 2007-08 and it was voted by most as the best in the series.  This brought Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam to Scotland on behalf of his community of Gond painters who are based in Bhopal.  Venkat was invited to attend the Inverness Film Festival at the end of 2007 to collect the Trophy that the Scots (who had funded the "Tallest Story Competition" production) were offering for the most popular story.

It is that competition that has inspired the "Tales of the Tribes" animation series that is the first collection of animated tribal folktales to be produced in India in collaboration with indigenous artists, musicians and storytellers and with Indian organisations.  As the winner of the last series, the Pardhan Gond artists were interested in bringing another of their stories to life, so during a workshop organised in 2012 at the National Institute of Design they chose the story of the creation of the peacock.  Peacocks are often depicted in their art these days, and Venkat reminded the team at NID that as the peacock is also the national bird of India, he felt the story would have appeal beyond his own community.  The stunning artwork is sure to attract audiences for the film from all over, as the intricate designs developed over the past few decades by the Gond artists have now found popular appeal, giving  them an identity and a way to make a living through their creative talents.   But these paintings are now so elaborate that they take a lot of time to paint, and as each one must be unique, the artists (of which there are about 50 of them based in Bhopal) have had no time to learn animation software.  So to bring their artwork to life for the story of the Peacock, we are now looking for a few dedicated animators who would like to join us for this project.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Manjoor Jhali - the Story of the Peacock.

The gorgeous peacock is the hero in Manjoor Jhali, the name chosen by a small team of three Pardhan Gond artists, Venkat, Rajendra and Dileep Shyam, for the animation film that will represent their community of painters in a new collection of tribal animation films, Tales of the Tribes that is in production by the Adivasi Arts Trust. 
This story of the creation of the peacock is the first story in the series, and it is situated right at the very beginning of time when the mighty Baradev was designing the entire world.  So how did that momentous, primordial event of creation happen, what was the sequence of events?    The story reveals that the time allocated for creation was seven days, but as the whole world and all the other creatures were managed in the first three and a half days, the rest of the time was left to perfect that most beautiful innovation of all – the peacock.  He was composed from the essence of the very best ingredients of nature, and just as the great masterpiece was ready to become animated with life force, the villain – the opportunistic, envious Tithi Bird (lapwing) comes along and he steals the magnificent jeweled legs of the perfect creation.  Does this sound familiar at all?   Haven’t we also encountered such characters as Tithi Bird in our own lives? 

Part of the magic of folktales is that they are available to everyone – which evidently cannot be said for philosophical discourse or the elite language of academia, otherwise why this incessant demand for audio visual distraction?  The purpose of folktales is to entertain, impart knowledge and bind the community together, but nowadays folktales have lost their steam;  oral storytelling practices are outdated, replaced  with mass media television entertainment and to a lesser extent, but surely expanding – the internet, social media, youtube and online gaming.  This kind of entertainment has taken over so that we can all sit in some kind of loneliness, passive in our private worlds with an endless stream of shiny glossy images tempting, promising and bombarding us, vying for our ever decreasing attention span. The saying “different strokes for different folks” comes to mind for now everyone can hope to satisfy their own thirst, taste and choice.

The question is whether this powerful medium of communication – the audio visual one - can be used to preserve some of those folktales that once held us captive in the human interactive situation.  Experiments have begun  with adapting Indian tribal folktales for animation, first in the Tallest Story Competition series (produced by West Highland Animation in Scotland in 2006), and now by Indians through the Tales of the Tribes project, facilitated by the spirited little Adivasi Arts Trust. 

When Nina Sabnani (2005) referred to Indian animation as a sleeping giant, I wonder about this, deciding that the Indian animation industry is indeed huge - and somnambulant because its single track focus is on profit - at the expense of introspection to see what might be suited for the young people here. 
Indian animation of Gond folktales began in 2008, at a Tribal Animation Workshop organised at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi.  Indigenous participants from three separate regions of the country were invited to attend, and as one should have expected, they all wanted to animate their own folktale, rather than collaborate on a single project.  Roma Chatterji has taken the case study of the Gond animation team and contrasted it to a parallel initiative of adapting pata scroll paintings for graphic novels, in her book Speaking with Pictures: Folk Art and the Narrative Tradition in India (Routledge, 2012).  This book is well researched, and it provides an in depth blow by blow breakdown of how an oral story was adapted for an animation film script and storyboard with assistance from British animator Tara Douglas and six animation students from the National Institute of Design - obliging those interested in the subject of adaptation: Yes, adaptation is the key issue of this venture, and it reveals how the prospect of mining traditional content for animation films is caught between tradition, form and the dominant ideology of the animation industry – that animation is targeted for juveniles, that it is for entertainment and that its primary motivation is to bring in profit. 

Indian tribal animation is unknown at present, and a pertinent question is how it will fare when faced with the demands of the industry.  At this stage it exists in an experimental space - why, it is a similar team of animation students at the National Institute of Design that are working out how to bring Manjoor Jhali to life, frame by meticulous frame, juggling the need for film language - specifically narrative structure and characterization - with the integrity of the tribal themes and artwork. 

Confidence is required that the smallness of the independent animation production scenario can deliver – and what of the character of the product?  Should it be judged in terms of special effects and technical wizardry that wows the average animation viewer, or can we afford to spend more time on it to make it an original outcome which also gives a voice to the traditional artists who own this culture?
Commenting on the Gond animation film  in the Tallest Story Competition  programme, Chatterji compares the characters of the film to those produced by Disney (talking animals and birds) - although the way that the films are produced is different, with commercially produced animation manipulating conventions of animation such as exaggerated movement and expressions – which are missing from the Best of the Best, made according to the cut out 2D puppet style of animation that shares characteristics of the techniques used by animators such as Yuri Norstein and Lotte Reiniger for pre-computer renditions of folktales through the animation medium.
Chatterji has certainly identified some contentious issues of adapting traditional culture for the audio visual medium, namely the cliché that sees folktales as children’s stories that must be ‘simple and didactic’, as well as pinpointing the clichéd experience of the animation medium.  It might be possible for us to stretch the imagination and see that folktales worked on different levels which made them interesting to people of various ages and cultures and that although animation is now a babysitter, it has also been used in the past as a hybrid medium by artists. 

And now back to Manjoor Jhali, the story of the peacock.  With art direction from accomplished Pardhan Gond artists equipped with their rich visual vocabulary and storytelling traditions, and some select storytelling practices of the audio visual medium, a synergy can be accomplished between artists with complementary skills.  Just as a painting works on different levels according to the viewer, so can an animation film, not forgetting that it is also about the film making process:  The method for tribal animation film production must be considered very carefully so that it becomes a holistic interactive experience and a forum for discussion on culture, rather than simply meeting animation deadlines for profit.

Inadvertently Chatterji might be right when she writes “Perhaps these images are not meant to move” (2012, p170), because it is a slow process to make animation films of this type - the workshop to develop the Gond animation film Manjoor Jhali  took place in September 2012, and the animation students have yet to take the plunge and commit to completing the film so that it can be assessed in relation to other films and art forms.  Only those initiated into the animation production process know quite what it takes to create the brief magic that is witnessed on the screen, and the logistics stacked against independent experimental animation in the face of the commercial giant are tremendous at a time when we are promised instant gratification through everything that money can buy (as long as we have the money to buy it).   For this genre of tribal animation to develop and mature, time and confidence is required from the digital artists involved who will have to create at least twelve separate images for every second of film.

In the meantime as Gond art becomes more fashionable in middle class front rooms, Gond animation is also attracting some attention. The Indian Gond animation film project was presented recently at the Gond Legacy Conference organised by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and it may provide a chance for young urban Indian animators to explore indigenous heritage and collaborate with tribal artists to come up with something entirely original in the animation scenario.   

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gond Animation

The Pardhan Gonds are a clan of the large Gond tribe inhabiting Central India. They traditionally served the larger tribal community as musicians, bardic priests and keepers of genealogies and sacred myths. In Painted Songs and Stories(2009), John H. Bowles writes, “these oral histories included accounts of the origins of the earth and cosmos, regional flora, fauna and sacred geography as well as the heroic deeds of great Gond rulers of the past (some historical, others mythological), all topics central to Gond cosmology and identity.”

Pardhan Gonds sometimes created terracotta reliefs on the walls of their huts, but it was not until 1981, when a young man called Jangarh Singh Shyam was discovered in his home village, Patangarh, by a team of visiting talent scouts from Bhopal, that Gond art began translate onto paper and canvas. Over the course of two decades Jangarh evolved various styles in different media, ranging from simple pen and ink drawings to small terracotta figures, acrylic paintings on canvas, silkscreen prints and large scale murals. By this point he had moved to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, and with so many commissions he started taking help from his community, and young assistants would come from the village and stay with him. Jangarh committed suicide in 2001 but he left behind an enduring legacy and there are now at least 50 successors from his community.

Producer/Director Leslie Mackenzie established West Highland Animation in 1988 in Scotland with the aim of promoting Gaelic language and culture to a wider audience through the medium of animation and interactivity. By 2002 she had converted most of the Gaelic folktales into animation films in workshops with Scottish schoolchildren and she was interested in finding out more about minority cultures in other parts of the world. She hadseensome small Pardhan Gond paintings in a craft fair on a visit to India, she had done some initial research on the internet, and she felt that their art would translate well for the animation medium. In 2003 she made a visit to Patangarh and to Bhopal with a small research team and made contact with the Pardhan Gond artists. She identified a Gond folktale, “Best of the Best” in “Myths of Middle India”, a collection made by Dr. Verrier Elwin, and she engaged a script writer, Peter Hynes to help adapt the story for a short animation film for a collection of animated folktales from Central India, “The Tallest Story Competition”. In 2004 she returned to Bhopal with a vast amount of artwork for the film prepared by young animators at her studio in Scotland, and she organised a ten day workshop for a group of the Gond artists to paint the designs onto acetate sheets using their signature styles of patterning.

When she returned to Scotland this artwork was scanned and animated by her team of art college graduates using 2D animation software. “The Tallest Story Competition” animation series was completed in 2006, with short films from Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, as well as the Gond story from Madhya Pradesh. The films were dubbed into five tribal languages in addition to the original Gaelic, English and Hindi, and they were screened to 15,000 school children in India and in the United Kingdom, who voted to choose “Best of the Best” as their favorite story in the series.

In 2007 two tribal artists were invited to visit Scotland to receive a Trophy at the Inverness Film Festival on behalf of the winning film. Since then, several Gond artists have travelled abroad for exhibitions and Pardhan Gond painting has gained popularity in the mainstream art market.

Tara Douglas was one of the team involved in the production of “The Tallest Story Competition” films. In 2007 she established the Adivasi Arts Trust to distribute the tribal animation films and inspired by the terrific response received, she is now working on a new series, “Tales of the Tribes” that focuses on tribal folktales and art styles of the northeast region of India, while also providing the Pardhan Gond artists an opportunity to be more involved in animating their next film.

Preproduction for the next Gond animation film will take place in September at a three week workshop at the National Institute of Design. Tara will be coordinating a team of 14 Post Graduate animation students and a group of Pardhan Gond artists to begin work on the animation film. It will be the first Gond animation film to be produced in India, and this time the artists will also have directorial inputs in the film. Senior Pardhan Gond artists Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and Rajendra Shyam, who were part of the artistic team for the first Gond animation film, will be leading several younger Gond artists in the artistic requirements for the animation film. The artwork will then be brought to life by the talented team of young Indian animators. This innovative project explores a new way of producing animation in India, where production is currently dominated by the commercial industry.