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Animated twist to the tale

Samples of the artwork.

Samples of the artwork.  

In a faraway place called Sikkim, beneath Mount Kangchendzonga, is the legend of a magical place called Nye Mayel Kyong. A hunter stumbled upon it while hunting a wild boar in the forest. The boar is no ordinary animal and Nye Mayel Kyong is no ordinary place… Many would be unable to locate it on a map. With an almost mystical aura, Sikkim inspires imaginings of the Himalayas: Of sharp, snowy peaks, of thangka art perhaps, dragons, lotuses and prayer flags, even stories of the fabled yeti. 

Nye Mayel Kyong is a Lepcha folk tale from Sikkim that has been adapted for a short animation film produced by West Highland Animation — a company based in Scotland that uses animation to encourage Scottish children to keep in touch with the Gaelic language — and a U.K.-based charity and The Adivasi Arts Trust. The film is a part of Tales of the Tribes, a project aimed to preserve the minority cultures in India using animation as a tool. This pioneering project explores ways to adapt indigenous content for the animation medium, with the aim of re-engaging young people with their culture through a medium that they find entertaining.

The project is a collaboration between young thangka artists of Sikkim, NID graduates and Pune-based animators. The film has been dubbed in Hindi, English and Gaelic and screenings have been held in the Northeast, as well as in other parts of India through schools, cultural centres, and film festivals. Schoolchildren in the U.K. too have become familiar with the folktales of the Lepchas as the Adivasi Arts Trust screens it in the U.K. Tara Douglas, secretary of the Trust and the person behind the project, says she will try to broadcast it on television channels in Scotland as well, through links with West Highland Animation. For their projects, the team tries to choose stories suitable for children that can translate across cultures.

“You may have also heard legendary fairytales of a Shangri-la, of a place that is said to exist somewhere behind the mighty peaks. It was in Sikkim that I first heard that exotic name — Nye Mayel Kyong. The question was how we could bring this magic and mystery together and express it through animation, which is a perfect medium for manifesting the extraordinary imagination,” says Douglas, who is British, but was born in India in the Himalayas. “My connection with Himalayan art goes back to my earliest memories. My father was a collector and dealer. This is how I was first exposed to thangka art.” A graduate of West Surrey College of Art and Design, she taught herself 3D animation while freelancing in Delhi for several years. “As a child I used to love reading folktales and that probably led to my interest in animation, as I could easily visualise the stories.”

Major preparatory work went into the project.  For the audio, Douglas recorded cultural stories from llamas at the Nyamgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok. The Lepchas have a rich tradition of music and songs, and the film has a musical soundtrack composed by folk musicians and played on indigenous instruments. The visuals were created by artists from the local Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali communities. They had to attend a preparatory animation workshop in Gangtok. Young people with laptops and technical experience, as well as young students of thangka art from the Government Directorate of Handloom and Handicraft, explored their folk culture to choose and develop a story. Storytelling sessions and discussions with various cultural experts led to the choice of the tale of the hunter who stumbles upon Nye Mayel Kyong. (Mayel, incidentally, is the ancient name for Sikkim.)

It was a learning process for the whole team. “This was the first short animation film using thangka art, so the process was new to everyone,” she says. “ Thangka paintings are very detailed and intricate, and the animators needed to maintain the integrity of the artworks and find a way to animate the original work.” The thangka artists, on their part, were accustomed to composing intricate paintings but, for the project, they had to extract individual elements so that they could be scanned and animated with software. “The animators showed them how to break down the characters into separate parts, so that 2D puppets could be created to enable movement. The artists also found it a challenge to create new designs that are not commonly depicted in thangkas — the boar for example. It took months of hard work for the team to create the several thousand individual pictures needed for the short film.

Though it has been a highly rewarding effort, Douglas found it difficult working with young artists from tribal communities. “Their families do not consider animation as a viable career option. They have a hard time pursuing their art due to the pressure to secure jobs. Adding to that is the feeling among the youth that traditional cultures and art forms like thangka are outdated and not worth pursuing. I hope projects like these succeed in bringing ancient artistic traditions into a contemporary context and keeps them alive.”

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 6:26:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/sikkimese-folktale-and-thangka-art-reaches-the-uk/article7407003.ece

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