Nina retells stories of indigenous art

A filmmaker and ethnographer at IIT, Bombay
By | Published on Dec 6, 2016
WHO? Nina Sabnani
WHAT? Filmmaker and Ethnographer
WHERE? IIT, Bombay

Reported by Aashima Dogra

So how do stories stay alive? Because they are constantly retold.

Passing through the many corridors of IIT Bombay, I finally arrived at Industrial Design Center, IIT’s Design school. IDC might have started off very ‘industrial’ but it is now brimming with creative expression and campaigns to acknowledge traditional indigenous Indian art. A prototype of the next Indian post box was on the right and a schema defining best product design practices on the left and in front of me, several glass doors, beyond which sat Nina Sabnani, filmmaker, illustrator and researcher in ethnography of numerous indigenous artist communities across India.

Nina, in spirit, is a storyteller. She tells real stories through her short documentary animation films. “I was always interested in animating other people’s art – not my own. If I look back, two things have really guided me in some sense. One is working with communities and the other is retelling of stories in a current context,” said the 60-year-old as we started the conversation in her neat office spotted with Rajasthani Kaavad shrines, Bhil paintings from Madhya Pradesh and stacks of all the films she has made in her long journey.

Her own story started in Baroda at a fine-arts college, where she trained to be an artist. After this, she spent twenty-six years studying and teaching at National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad – India’s premier design school.

“I did not do my masters immediately after my college. I felt like learning was being presented like going through the rut…I wanted learning to be a more fun thing so I did my masters only when I was 41-42.”

“In between [her NID phase] I got the Fulbright fellowship, I went to Syracuse, USA, to do my masters. That opened my mind to new technologies. I was introduced to new media and things like that.”

“It was very exciting but I did not know quite what to do with it,” she said reflecting on the time when she was introduced to the new world of computer animation whilst still enamoured by hand-done stitches, patchwork and embroidery in Gujarat. The fascination of vibrant art created with painstaking hours of handiwork by artist communities in India pushed forward by strong culture and traditions, never left Nina.

“But still if I look at it through the rearview mirror, then I think my time abroad liberated me from this dichotomy of hand versus machine. I use them both. In my work, they really come together. I see technology as a very positive thing for my work.”

“With the kind of software we have now, I’m able to animate with traditional crafts and still retain the aesthetic and the tactile…sensorial part of the crafts that I like very much.”

Retelling stories through animation

“How do stories stay alive? Because they are constantly retold,” Nina declared her central philosophy mid-interview. Later she handed me four CDs from a huge stack. When I watched her films, one by one, I began to really understand her work. These films are the equivalent of a research paper for Nina, much more accessible and a lot more colourful.

The first film Nina made was based on a series of four Madhubani paintings she bought at an exhibition in 1981. The fact that the art was themed on an anti-dowry sentiment struck her. This film and all the other ones that came after have been a channel for such an indigenous voice coming out of traditional art.

Her second film titled Mukand and Riaz was an ode to her father. “He had come to India as a refugee during the partition but he had never ever talked about his story. This was a story I decided to tell with my father.”

“When he was very ill, he felt that he had to share his story with somebody and I was a good listener I think. I wrote down the story of how his friend (Riaz) who was a Pakistani Muslim helped him (Mukand) escape with his family.”

Mukand and Riaz is set against the bloody massacre over religion during the 1947 partition. The timely film came out in 2006 when the country was reeling from the gruesome communal riots in Gujarat. “In a riot-torn Gujarat (where her father had always lived), he had never done anything proactively to bridge these communal gaps. So it was for him.”

The film was crafted in cloth with applique work and embroidery by artists from Gujarat. “I did not want my father to look like a cartoon character. And it was appropriate since he worked in the textile mills there.”

“One week before my father died, I had finished the film to show him,” she said, still showing signs of the giant relief.

Non-linear stories with the Kaavad

After her father passed away, Nina felt she needed a major shift in her life. “I just did not want to go on making one film after another. I wanted to do something more reflective.”

She had heard about the research opportunities at IDC and decided to apply. But the question lingered – research what?

Nina was coming from a background where new media and non-linearity was an emerging field of study. “I started looking at old traditions, storytelling traditions as non-linear kind of modes. If you look at the Phad of Rajasthan, nothing is connected to anything, they never tell the whole narrative. And it is also multimedia because they sing, they dance, they light it up. I attempted to connect my excitement for new media with my passion for older traditions.”

Phad art introduced her to the tradition of Kaavad – a portable shrine that opens up it’s many layers to retell old legends, carried forward by a community of artists and storytellers from Rajasthan.


Kaavad telling in progress. Image via Nina Sabhnani

Inspired by the Kaavad, Nina organised a storytelling conference to showcase her own creation – an interactive Kaavad.  One of the people who had come to the conference remarked: “This is appropriation!” This sent Nina deeper into reflection over her work: “Like a typical designer, I had appropriated what I liked in the craft and made it into whatever [suited me]. Then I thought haaan, she’s right…this is appropriation, I cannot do this. I don’t even know what it is all about.” Another conference attendant said: iska toh PhD ho sakta hai. (this topic is extensive enough for a PhD)”

These two comments stayed in Nina’s mind forever and inspired her PhD topic. “I decided, I must find out more about Kaavad tradition and the community.”

Accepted at IIT as a 50-year-old PhD student, she spent the next 5-6 years with Kaavad artists and storytellers in the eastern part of Rajasthan, in a village called Bassi.

The film It’s the Same Story encapsulates the reasons the Kaavad is carried in the first place and dwells deeper into how different versions of the same story are told by different storytellers. “In our research, there were two Kaaavad storytellers telling the same story in different ways.I decided to tell both in my film, to understand that there are so many ways to look at the same thing.”

Nina believes that summarising what one has learnt from their research is a challenge for her. She has explored through her films, different methods of enveloping the findings of her ethnographic research.


Book cover of Nina’s book based on her PhD research

Her aim has been to bring the true context and inspiration behind traditional art into her films so that without saying this is research, it reaches people and makes them think about a new way of looking at something. “Ultimately, research is a new kind of knowledge, isn’t it?”

Research that empowers communities

“I have studied animation and practised animation, but I also use animation as a way to research,” Nina said.

Since working with the Kaavad storytellers, she has been more interested in working with communities and seeing animation as a way of learning about them. She explained her uneasiness with the distance brought on with the camera pointed at a community by an outsider as if it was a wildlife documentary: “When you do live action filming, you are always operating with this invasive eye, looking at them with a camera.”

“Whereas, in this kind of research, the communities end up producing their own art, the film and their own representation of their reality. And we are animating that with their voice.”

“Now all my work is more research-oriented rather than just making films.”

Her most recent film We Make Images retells a myth of the Bhil people of Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh. It examines the artist community with the question: Why do the Bhil paint? With moving and pulsating Bhil paintings by Bhil artists themselves, the film unravels the community’s fixation with painting trees on walls, pots and pretty much everything so that the rains don’t stop pouring down and the prophecy laid down by their Badvaji (shaman) continues to be fulfilled.

“If I want to to learn about this community, one way to do it is by sitting down and filming them, talking to them and learn, interviews them, watch them and write down everything.”

Leaving this method behind, Nina is able to take Participant Observation method of ethnography to the next level. The medium of her work (animation) allows for a clear tangible outcome (a film) to be produced in collaboration between the researcher and the subject.

“We usually start with a workshop where they are painting, they are showing us how to paint. I learn everything about what goes into the making of the painting, the subjects and what is he/she is doing.”

“Further, when the film is being made, the artist can say “oh not this way”, the element will not move like this, this won’t happen like this…all of these things that he is unable to tell me [if he doesn’t participate in the making], because he doesn’t know what I don’t know,” she laughed.

“In this way, animation becomes a way of doing research with the participants, in collaboration and it also a way of representing the ethnography. What you have observed becomes a part of the film, it becomes tangible and accessible.”

As she talked about bringing research methodology closer to the subject, I couldn’t help drawing the connections to scientific research conducted in most labs. She then brought up the question: who is research for?  “It tends to be [presented] as if you are speaking to other researchers, and it speaks a language which people find very hard to understand, mostly it stays in libraries or it is presented in some conferences.”

“The participants are outside of it – they don’t get anything. In this way, they get something, at the end of the research process, they have a film, which has their voices, their art, their life stories which make them feel empowered in some sense. So one looks at animation as a way of empowering communities also.”

As one of the subjects of her research on Kutch artists said after watching the film The Stitches Speak that Nina made with them: “This is not our story, it is our history.”

Today as the Professor of Visual Ethnography at IIT, Nina continues nurturing her own research process and that of her students. Some of the topics she is involved in through her PhD students include the notion of domesticity in hindi cinema, using images as prompts instead of words in the classroom to elicit essay writing and the non-formal art training that children of Bhil artists get in their lifetime.

Learning is now one of Nina’s special interests. As her own journey has professed, learning is not a time-bound activity, restricted to one period of a student’s life; it is instead a lifelong journey. From her rich experience, stems mentorship (she has put together this online course) and of course all of IIT.

“We made a pitch for an open design school at the [HR and Education] ministry recently and we have been given a year to work on two courses, which will be online. They are based on blended learning so partly you come to a place of study and partly you learn on your own, at your own pace.”

About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded in 2016.

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