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A for art: Nina Sabnani’s lifetime of work as an artist and storyteller

“You don’t know what’s Ajrakh?!”

The children of a school in Mumbai couldn’t respond to their guest teacher’s question, but were rather miffed at her indignant tone. “We have never seen one, we doubt if our parents have either!” came the reply after the teacher — author/artist Nina Sabnani explained to them that it was a Sindhi method of block printing. Soon after, in 2017, she wrote A for Ajrakh: the ABCD of Block Printing.

Awakening India’s children to its dying arts is a lasting interest for the 63-year-old. From My Gandhi Story, with a Warli artist, to A Bhil Story, with a pithora artist, Nina (along with Tulika Publishers) brings alive Indian artisans’ legacy in her books and movies. These are her attempts to mainstream these arts and crafts — pushed either to the edges of rural India, or to elite desi stores — by making them accessible to India’s future: its children.

Here in Chennai, at Tulika Publishers’ office, she carefully smoothes over a piece of cloth on a table. Embroidered onto it are colourful men and women, engaged in various chores. “This is the kantha style of stitching from Bengal,” says Nina. Her next project in the works, collaborating with kantha artisans to make an animated movie and a book around the art form, fits perfectly in Nina’s wide tapestry of work.

“If you haven’t had any association with our crafts as children, how will you value it? I have experienced how much richer being close to these art forms makes you, and I want children to share that,” she says.

How to tell a story

It is difficult to label Nina’s profession: she has authored books, made documentaries, animation films, and sketches. But she calls herself a putter-together; a conduit for other people to tell their stories.

A for art: Nina Sabnani’s lifetime of work as an artist and storyteller

For instance, for Stitching Stories, she interviewed Kutch embroiderers. She sketched the illustrations for it on to a page, then transferred them on to a cloth, on which the artists embroidered. “You can’t write artists’ stories and not reference their work,” she feels. The cloth was scanned to make digital copies of the illustrations. The result is a tactile-looking burst of colour. “I narrate stories, I don’t create them. I take their stories, and their art and put everything together in terms of the framing, the composition, the flow…” she explains.

As the yarn spins

“Fabric weaves its way in and out of my life,” says Nina, whose father worked in textile mills. “Ever since my childhood, I’ve seen him examine one piece of cloth or other,” she recalls. Her book Mukand and Riaz, is based on her father’s story.

“Even when I was in NID studying animation, I had a lot of friends who were textile students. There was some sort of affinity: they sat long hours, going thread by thread, and I, frame by frame,” she says. The tactility of cloth appealed to her.

A for art: Nina Sabnani’s lifetime of work as an artist and storyteller

However, she doesn’t understand the boundaries of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, claiming it came only with Western education, and mass production. “Craft is still made by hand… Just because it doesn’t have that individualised signature, it is devalued. But sustaining a tradition is more difficult than creating a new one.”

And it was the admiration for maintaining traditions that drew her to doing a doctorate in kavads, the Rajasthani art of storytelling through wooden panels. “Oral storytelling is not frozen in time, it adapts. The kavad storytellers know how to contextualise stories to best suit their patrons,” she says. The same kavad man who goes to a village and says, ‘There was an aakaashvani (celestial announcement)’ will go to a city, and say, ‘They got a call from God.’

Not only has she done a documentary on the kavad art, that now also plays in Bengaluru’s Indian Music Experience, Home, her foldable book that reveals its story in panels too, is based on them.

Back to the children

Never preachy, Nina’s books and movies still manage to gently nudge children to expand their world view. One example is her attempt to make their perspective less human-centric. Some books have trees as main characters, while some are narrated by birds.

“Children are impressionable, they imbibe what they see adults talk about,” she says, recalling how a student assumed the character of a balloon seller was a thief, simply because he was dark.

Through My Gandhi Story, she talks about Partition. “We think certain topics are not for children, but they too know of loss and separation. We have to give children more credit,” she signs off.

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