This is the story of a creative collaboration between tribal artists from central India and young animators from Scotland: ‘The Tallest Story Competition’ consists of the first collection of tribal stories to have come to life through animation.
Leslie Mackenzie, director of Scotland-based West Highland Animation, wanted to tell stories about unknown places to children in her country. She rallied support from Gaelic cultural organizations, on condition that the first version would be in Gaelic. The half-hour animation series has now been dubbed into English, Hindi and five Indian languages—Halbi, Santhal, Marathi, Gond, Soara—of the communities represented in the films.
The children were told that they were going to participate in the competition, by choosing the most fantastic story in the collection. A cartoon character dressed in a kilt introduces each film and promises a trophy for the favourite story, and the children were told that their votes were going to count. Apart from the children in Scotland, it was also decided to show these films to tribal children in India.
A small organization based in UK, called the Adivasi Arts Trust (www.adivasiartstrust.org), was ready to take ‘The Tallest Story Competition’ on the tribal tour. With support from the Bryan Guinness Charitable Trust and equipped with a projector, a DVD player and speakers, I set out on the long train journey to Bhubaneswar in Orissa.
As an animator living in India and the secretary of the Trust, I have been involved in the competition from the beginning. I animated the first of the short films How the Elephant Lost His Wings that brings the brass sculptures of Bastar to life by recreating them with sophisticated 3D computer software.
When I arrived in Bhubaneswar, the monsoon was in full force. Mahindra Mishra of the department of tribal education, introduced me to Hiro Hembrom, a young Santhal teacher.
In the days that followed, we travelled many kilometres through stunning landscape to reach remote schools. Often there was no electricity, but because everyone wanted to see the animation magic, someone was always called to connect a wire to the main pole.
At the simplest of village schools, we were received with wonderful hospitality. Plastic chairs appeared from nowhere, and bottles of sweet soft drinks were handed out by teachers.
The films received a tremendous response in classrooms packed to maximum capacity. They were enraptured by cartoons in Santhali, and their happiness was infectious.
The films celebrated tribal culture and storytelling, and Hiro proudly translated my short introductions into Santhali. At the end of each screening, I counted the votes—hundreds of hands were raised in response to the films.
The tribal tour continued in Chhattisgarh. From Raipur, I continued on to Kondagaon, a further six-hour journey into the interior. Harihar Vaishnav works for the forest department, he also has a passion for tribal folklore, and he was my translator and coordinator for the next stretch of the tour. He had already identified 23 schools in the district where we could screen the films in the Halbi language.
Kondagaon is a moffusil town like so many in India, dominated by the highway that runs straight through its heart and onto Jagdalpur. The unique art form of this region owes to the brass sculptors of the Gadwaa community from Bhelvapada. Many of them have received national awards and have travelled extensively abroad, and yet they remainsimple and unaffected folk. These Gadwaa artists of Kondagaon inspired the film How The Elephant Lost His Wings, and were thrilled to see their art form brought to life in animation, and they all wanted copies of the DVD in Halbi language. It was definitely the favourite film in Bastar, where the children recognized the familiar brass sculptures.
In Raipur, a screening was organized by the Art Home Institute, at the Freemasons Hall. The hall at the venue was packed twice over: first with local dignitaries and media representatives, and for the second time, with children.
At Bhopal, the screening was arranged by Meera Das, from the Bhopal chapter of Intach. At the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, we re-established contact with the talented Gond tribal artists who had worked on another film in the series The Best of the Best.
It was interesting to see how children in general liked to support the story from their own area with the most votes. The Best of the Best got many votes in Bhopal and almost surpassed How the Elephant Lost His Wings as the most popular film.
With ten thousand votes gathered from the tribal tour of central India, there was still the promise of a trophy somewhere in the future, and it remains to be seen how the tribal artists would experience the Scottish finale to the project.
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