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and bind the community together, but nowadays folktales have lost their steam;  oral storytelling practices are outdated, replaced  with mass media television entertainment and to a lesser extent, but surely expanding – the internet, social media, youtube and online gaming.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.   

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