Nina Sabnani: Linking Craft and Storytelling

It would be fair to say that Nina Sabnani is considered one of the stalwarts of animation in India. With a career spanning four decade, Nina has functioned as an animator, filmmaker, writer, artist, researcher and teacher.

She graduated in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara. From 1980 to 1982 she studied Animation under I. S. Mathur,  R. L. Mistry and Claire Weeks (read more about him in my previous post) at the first such program at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She then went on to teach at NID for two decades.

Animation Training Program 1980-82
Animation Training Program 1980-82 faculty and students. Left to Right: Narendra Patel, Mahendra Patel, Claire Weeks, Akhil Saxena, I.S. Mathur, S.C. Sharma, R.L. Mistry, Benita Desai, Chitra Sarathy and Nina Sabnani.
Nina Sabnani and Claire Weeks using the Oxberry animation camera at NID.
Nina Sabnani and Claire Weeks using the Oxberry animation camera at NID.

In her early films she experimented with 2D and stop-motion animation.

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A Summer Story (1987). Retelling of the old story of the thirsty crow based on K G Subramanyan’s illustrated book by the same name. (click to play)

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All About Nothing (1989-90). A speculative story on how the zero was invented in India. (click to play)

In 2005, Nina made a film about her father. It talks about two friends that are separated by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and how they help each other to safety. The characters and environment are built out of textiles and found material.

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Mukand and Riaz (2005). (click to play)

Talking about colonial rule in the sub-continent and the resulting division that caused the largest mass-migration in human history is still a very difficult thing to talk about for people of the countries that were created.

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Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford making the case for how Indians view colonial rule(click to play)

This is where Nina’s use of animation may have been the most apt medium to approach the subject. This allowed for some amount of distance from the subject matter also told a heart warming story of how people help each other in a crisis.

“I have grown up listening to my grandparents’ stories about ‘the other side’ of the border. But, as a child, this other side didn’t quite register as Pakistan, or not-India, but rather as some mythic land devoid of geographic borders, ethnicity and nationality.”

– Aanchal Malhotra (Remnants of a Separation, 2017)

In 2009, Nina used her knowledge of working with textiles to make Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak). An animated documentary narrated through conversations by Kutch artisans on how they dealt with events in their history. The film traces their history using their appliqué work and embroideries. There has been a concerted effort to revive and adapt arts and crafts in India and Nina Sabnani’s film reflects that.

‘‘To write about Indian handicrafts is almost like writing about the country itself. So vast, complex and colourful, and yet with a simplicity and charm, di cult to attain under comparable conditions’’

– Upadhyay, M.N.
(Design Intervention & Craft Revival, 2014)

At this point I should also mention the distinction between Kathartic and Rasa Theories to storytelling. The Kathartic structure was defined by Aristotle in his work on ‘poetics’ and forms the basis for more most western storytelling we have today.

Greek amphitheater
The Greek amphitheater defines Aristotle’s storytelling structure with the stage on one side and the audience watching in a semi circular pattern.

‘‘Katharsis is the process by which, through emotional identifcation with the tragic sufferer, the spectator rises above himself and becomes an integral part of universal law and divine plan. The resulting emotional excitations resolve themselves into a pleasurable calm and become part of the new order of things.’’

(Bro. Sebastian Vilangiyil, Ph.D., 1983)

The Rasa theory comes from India and was defined by Bharata Muni somewhere between 2 Cen. BCE to 2 Cen. CE in the Nātyashāstra. This structure proposes creating a system of moods and is still early in being adapted to the format of film. You can see elements of this structure in Nina’s work.

The Natak or traditional Indian play structure has the stage in the center with the audience sitting in all directions. This means the utilization of space on the stage is far more three dimensional.
The Natak or traditional Indian play structure has the stage in the center with the audience sitting in all directions. This means the utilization of space on the stage is far more three dimensional and the structure far less dramatic.

‘‘The rasa theory, in brief, states that for a viewing experience to be complete and satisfying, a play must evoke in the viewer a variety of rasas or avors or sentiments (from the following 8: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrifying, odious, marvelous). Of these 8, a play may have one ‘dominant’ sentiment, with several others present in smaller, varying quantities.’’

(Slug the Lines, 2014)

Nina’s doctoral research at the IDC focused on Rajasthan’s Kaavad tradition. The Kaavad is a storytelling box that is read out and interpreted by the Kaavadiya in multiple different ways. Nina compiled the numerous stories she collected into various publications, she also produced two films that are a mixture of live action and animation. These are able to capture the relationship between the storyteller and the audiences in a unique way.

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This year she received the Rajat Kamal National Film Award for her film ‘Hum Chitra Banate Hai’ to add to he long list of accolades.

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Sabnani, N. About. [online] Nina Sabnani: The story is in the telling. Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
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Pepler J. (2016). Gods & Demons – Heritage Arts and Crafts of West Bengal. [online]. House of Gharats. Available at: portfolio/gods-demons-heritage-arts-and-crafts-of-west-bengal/ [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
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