Tribal Art Comes to Life
(published in Swagat Indian Airlines magazine Nov 2004)
Far, far away from Tribal India a plan began to unfold.
West Highland Animation belongs in a remote place by the side of a lake,
five miles from a village called Balquhidder in Scotland.
Leslie MacKenzie has been producing animation for children from the Gaelic minority population of Scotland for nearly two decades. Support from Scottish cultural organizations makes it possible, and in time, all the traditional stories from Scottish mythology have became animated.
Leslie felt it would be helpful for minority cultures to know about each other as the world moves towards globalization. She wanted to explore the tribal stories and art forms of the subcontinent. She noticed that there were more Asians living in Scotland than Gaelic speakers, and all of a sudden the plan had a name: In “The Tallest Story Competition”, the Scots would host a competition, and tribal communities from India would be invited to tell the most fantastic story. Their traditional art styles would be adapted for animation.
Five tribal art forms would be selected: Warli stick figure paintings
are done in white, upon a mud background, a style that would be good for
It was decided that a small team would make a research trip to find out
more about the tribals whose art styles they were proposing to adapt for
Mike brought his video equipment, intending to film the trip for a possible documentary that would be of interest to Doordarshan. He also brought a camera for taking photographs of tribal art to use as references for the animation. Leslie carried a second video camera, which could be connected to her laptop in order to capture single frames and give demonstrations of how the animation process happens.
Tara is from England, but was born in India and lives in Delhi, where
she struggles to find work in 3D animation. “The Tallest Story Competition”
was important to her because of her connection with both cultures, and
she could see the potential for an Indo-Scottish co production. She knew
of a company called Angles Audio Visual Studio in New Delhi and the director,
Nitin Donde, wanted to be involved. For several months they had been trying
to raise the shortfall in the budget for the production from Indian sources,
but no one was willing to support a cultural animation project in India
that seemed to have little commercial potential.
On 15 February the team left Delhi on the Rajdhani Express to Mumbai. From there they would go to the Warli tribal area, near Dahanu in Maharastra.
Dahanu is about two hours drive from Mumbai. We almost stumble upon the Warli Magical Mountain, a single pointed peak in the landscape. There is a Mahalaxmi temple near the top, and behind the usual display of marble Hindu deities, there is a cave, and a deity with tribal origins.
Although Nitin is from Maharastra, none of us have been to this district before, and we are happy to discover it. The terrain is gentle, and the air is warm; Life is relaxed beneath the palm trees that blow in the sea breeze, and tourism has not reached the area yet. The beaches are long and empty but for the fishing villages. Accommodation can be found at the Pearl Line Guest House on the sea front; It is a reasonably priced and unpretentious. Away from the sea, the tribal villages are a gift to the watercolour artist. Mud huts, red earth textures, colours that glow in the golden hour: Mike is running around with his camera trying to capture it all.
Warli tribals are a non-aggressive community; they are a society that is deeply embedded in nature, and they believe that death comes as a result of harming nature. Mr. Jivya Mashe has been recognised as a Master Craftsman in his art form by the Government of India. He explains that the stick-figure art form of the Warlis was started by women, who would create a painting on the wall for a wedding, to ensure good fortune for the newly weds. Thirty years ago, the male population adapted the art, transferring it to paper and canvas in order to commercialise it.
I am attracted by the simplicity and uniformity of style. Coming from a competitive urban existence, I am relieved to find that amongst rural artists, the expression of the ego of the artist is unimportant. The paintings are full of identical characters busy with rustic activities, and I feel certain that this reflects a philosophy of community, where individual differences fall away.
Jivya Mashe’s eldest son runs the Adivasi Painting School in Ganjad village, and West Highland Animation conducts a one-day animation workshop with the students of the painting school.
The stick figure characters are drawn on white card, cut out and turned into 2D puppets by the students. Several short scenarios are animated using these characters, and the students come to understand the basic process of animation. A certificate of participation is designed, printed and given to the school.
After a week in the Warli
area, we return to Mumbai, and from there we take the night train to Bhopal.
We spend three days in Bhopal visiting various institutes and tribal experts. Bharat Bhawan is well maintained and there is a gallery of tribal art and a library. The Museum of Man, on Shamla Hills is also interesting. Tribal dwellings from all over India have been rebuilt on the hill, and the grounds are extensive. By chance, as we are leaving through the back gate, we come across an artist who is painting a mural in the Gond painting style that we are researching. We have a list of Gond artists that we have compiled in Delhi, and Mr. Venkat Shyam is one of those names. Several other Gond artists get news that we are interested in seeing Gond paintings, so they come with their paintings, rolled up. We discover that all the artists who paint in this style come from a village called Patangarh in the Mandla District of Madhya Pradesh. Unable to make a living through their art in the village, many of them have come to Bhopal, where they receive some support from the tribal institutes.
Anand Shyam is one of these artists. He is lucky to have a regular job as an art teacher in a school, and when we explain that we want to adapt his art style for animation, he is excited, and he tells us that he would love to travel to Scotland to create artwork for the series. His wife, Kala Devi, is also an accomplished artist, and we discover that she has painted the characters that were found Delhi, and used in the proposal for Scottish Screen.
We also hear of the tragedy of Jangad Shyam. Recognised as a Master Craftsman, he was invited to teach and exhibit in Japan. Unable to communicate with the Japanese, he finally committed suicide. This is a warning for Leslie, who says that she would only invite tribals to the animation studio in Scotland if she finds an Indian Production Manager to look after them.
The next destination on the tribal animation research trip is Raipur, in the tribal state of Chattisgarh. As soon as we have settled into the Hotel Satkar, near the train station, we head off to an exhibition and demonstration of tribal art in the grounds of the Museum. Tribal artists from various parts of India have been invited to show their work, and the exhibition is clearly an important link in our research. We see characters modelled in wax, the first stage of the lost wax brass casting of Bastar; we also meet an accomplished lady artist from the Warli tradition, and several Gond artists. Raj Kumar is a young man who paints in the Gond style, and he invites us to stay with him when we reach Patangarh.
We have heard about a collector of tribal art, Mr. Niranjan Mahawar, who also runs the Chattisgarh Art Foundation. A group of lady artists are sitting on the floor, preparing artwork for an exhibition Niranjan has organised at the Rotary Club.
Niranjan is passionate about tribal art. He tells us that visiting tribal villages is how he gets refreshed from city life.
The climate is hot, and Raipur is a very busy city, dusty and dry. The further we go from Raipur the more pleasant the countryside becomes, but when we arrive in Kondagaon, we are disappointed. I had expected to find a pretty village, but instead we find Kondagaon to be a non-descript roadside town like so many in India.
Kondagaon is famous for its brass sculptures, but it is clear that Kondagaon is not a tourist destination. The choice of hotels is very limited, and we find two rooms at a roadside lodge with a view of the petrol station. Still entertaining visions of attractive tribal villages, we are quite determined to move out of this place at the first opportunity.
Mr. Jaidev Baghel is well known in the area, having received the Master
Craftsman award in his art style. A big sign indicates that we have arrived
at his workshop.
We are interested in seeing as many brass sculptures as possible. Jaidev’s work is very elaborate, for he is in the privileged position of being able to spend time making masterpieces; many of them are bought by hotels. I can see how difficult it would be to adapt them for animation. While each piece may take several months to complete in brass, it would take equally long to build them in 3D in the computer, as they have so many fine details.
|The main road is left behind.
Our desire see a picturesque tribal village is fulfilled when we arrive
at the mud huts with tiled roofs, linked by paths of red earth and fences
made of logs from the forest. The huts are all painted bright blue. Mike
is sure that this is a modern development, I think that blue huts will be
an interesting feature in the three dimensional sets.
At each hut we receive a warm welcome. A string cot is brought out, and Leslie and I oblige by sitting on it. We are offered tea, though it is without milk, and the whole village gathers around in excitement to observe us.
We are disappointed to find that the artists do not keep a supply of
finished work, and instead of making deities for the tribals, they have
adapted to the market and are now making door handles and coat hangers
in the Bastar style.
At Jaidev’s workshop we discover that Thursday is a popular day for casting. Mike is eager to film the casting process and we spend the whole day in the workshop.
It is a pleasant atmosphere, to sit with this group of artists who are peacefully modelling the prototype figures out of wax. Detailing is added with strands of wax.
When the figure is ready, a mould is made around it from various layers of clay.
The moulds are heated, and all the wax is burnt out. Molten brass is poured into the moulds, which will then be left to cool for several hours before they are broken, to reveal the new brass sculptures. Both the wax prototype and the carefully made moulds are lost, and approximately 25% of all the sculptures are lost in the casting process. The conditions in which the casting is done are very simple and primitive, without the use of modern technology. The skill has been learnt through experience, and it is passed down through the generations.
|In Kondagaon, we arrange for
a tribal band to perform, so that we can record music for the films. The
band is a three-member group, consisting of two drummers and a local shennai
player (wind instrument). We visit two separate storytellers, in the search
for stories for the films. The stories take a long time to tell, because
they usually begin in Halbi, which is the local tribal language. First translated
into Hindi, Nitin then translates it into English, before Tara and Leslie
can write it down. They are usually long winded and the thread of the story
is lost amongst all the brothers and villages of the tale. Other stories
are versions of popular tales such as the Panchatantra. The best story that
I have found so far is from a collection gathered by Verrier Elwin.
Verrier Elwin was an Englishman; the son of a bishop, he came to India about a hundred years ago, on missionary business. He stayed in India for the rest of his life, where he associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the movement for Independence. In danger of expulsion, tribal welfare was an alternative to politics. He married a tribal girl and settled in Patangarh for twenty-seven years, where he wrote many ethnographic books about the tribals and collected their stories.
Our road finally brings us to Patangarh, and the way we found it was quite by chance.
A desire to reach a peaceful place for the notoriously rowdy festival
of Holi brought us to Amarkantak, where we hoped to find little lamps
floating on the Narmada. But it was dry season, so there was no river
to bathe in.
A rough track brought our vehicle to the crest of the ridge, and all
of a sudden we were in the middle of the most perfect tribal village imaginable,
consisting entirely of mud huts. The whole village came out to meet us,
and once again Nitin takes out his list of artists, and starts reeling
off the names given in Bhopal and Raipur. We were given a tour of the
village and taken to Raj Kumar’s house. From the front it looked
like a small mud hut, but behind the door was a courtyard, the heart of
family life in the village.
Raj Kumar holds a Gond painting group in his house. After Holi, a few
art students turn up and we encourage them to start painting. Raj Kumar
usually draws an outline, which the students then fill in with block colour.
Once this is dry, elaborate patterning is painted on top, giving the designs
their distinctive, almost three-dimensional quality. The patterning process
is very time consuming and precise.
The team conducts an animation workshop with the Gond painting group.
The characters that they have been painting are cut out; body parts are
separated, and 2d puppets are made by fixing the parts together with blue
tack. Several short scenarios are devised to use the puppets and the students
are shown how to animate by moving the puppets in small increments, captured
frame by frame with the video camera. They are very happy to discover
how their characters are seen to be moving when played back in real time,
and several of them pick up the technique quite well.
In the afternoon, a Gond dancing troupe is organised and performs for us under the big tree in the village, with the Gond sacred mountain, Lingo in the distance. Nitin records the dancing with the video camera, and the twenty dancers each receive a fee. The whole village enjoys the event and everyone is very happy to have their culture appreciated and supported by us in this manner.
I can recommend travelling in India for a project. It gives a purpose and a direction, taking one from the mainstream tourist trail, into the homes and hearts of the people you meet, for a more enriching experience.
Our journey takes us from Patangarh to Mandla, along a track through dense forest: From Mandla to Berighat, where the Narmada flows between spectacular cliffs of white marble. The night train from Jabalpur brings us back to Delhi, where we discover that we have all developed a fondness for tribal India, and an appreciation of tribal art.
Soon the first three films of the series will go into production. The Warli film will be made by Angles Audio Visual Studio, with the help of tribal artists and further workshops in Dahanu. Meanwhile Tara will be busy building 3D models of Bastar sculptures in the computer and animating them for her story about elephants with wings. Leslie has returned to Scotland, where she will assemble a team to animate the Gond painted characters. It remains to be seen whether any tribals will be able to go and help her.
The whole team is looking forward
to the second research trip, planned for November, to study the tribal
art forms of Orissa and Bihar. We are still hoping to find some funding
in India to help us bring these unique art forms to the children of the