Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Nye Mayel Kyong – the first animated folktale from Sikkim

Many would be unable to locate it easily on a map; with an almost mythical, mystical aura, Sikkim inspires imaginings of the Himalayas:  Of sharp, snowy peaks - of Thangka art perhaps, dragons, lotuses and prayer flags –perhaps even stories of the fabled yeti.  You may also have heard legendary fairytales of a Shangri-la paradise, of a place that is said to exist somewhere behind the mighty peaks, and it was in Sikkim that I first heard that exotic name - Nye Mayel Kyong- and could confirm its sublime existence.  The question was how to bring all this magic and mystery together and express it through the animation medium – which, by the way, is a perfect medium for manifesting the extraordinary imagination.

I come from a background in animation: A graduate from West Surrey College of Art and Design, I went on to teach myself a rather complicated 3D animation software as I freelanced in Delhi for several years.  By 2002 I was involved in an interesting, innovative project produced by West Highland Animation (Scotland) called the “Tallest Story Competition”, in which five Adivasi tribal stories were adapted for a collection of short films that was completed in 2006.
It was in 2008 that I first met Karma Palzor Bhutia, a young, talented Sikkimese artist and animation practitioner who had studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.  Palzor convinced me that an Animation Workshop would go down well if it was organised in his home town of Gangtok, and he assured me that he would be able to arrange the local logistics, including a venue for the activity and participants from the indigenous communities.  So with timely support from the Commonwealth Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, we forged ahead, and the proposed workshop took place in 2010 at the Nyamgyal Institute of Tibetology – a renowned and hallowed place and the perfect sanction for what we wanted to do: This would not  be any old animation workshop to impress the local community with displays of technical wizardry, it would engage young artistic people from the local community in the exploration of  the folk culture, with the aim of choosing and developing a story for a short film – and it would be a special film, because it would be the first animation film to emerge from Sikkim and it would also showcase the indigenous style of Himalayan Thangka art in its design.

On a serene hilltop and surrounded by a force of bright prayer flags that fluttered in the wind, the team gathered for the work in hand:   There were participants from the three communities of Sikkim – Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali.  Our television advertisement had attracted some fashionable youths with laptop computers and varying degrees of technical experience, and a team of young students of Thangka painting joined us from the Government Directorate of Handloom and Handicraft.  Storytelling sessions and discussions with various cultural experts led to the choice of the tale of a hunter who stumbles upon Nye Mayel Kyong whilst he is out in hot pursuit of a wild boar.

But wait – let us rewind the story a little –by the time we watch the film we must have all the important details in hand: After all, this is no ordinary animation film; it is representative of a culture – the Lepcha culture at that.  So who are these Lepchas?  They call themselves the Rong and they are acknowledged as the indigenous people of Sikkim.  Divided into clans and sub-tribes, they have long had their own Lepcha script and Foning (1987) observes an egalitarian society that has no class, creed and ranking amongst themselves, where only seniority in age is observed and according to tradition, property belonged to the community.    “Our very life on earth...is linked inextricably with the mighty cluster and range of mountains of the Kanchenjunga group.  Each of these innumerable peaks is a god to us”, writes Foning (1987:111). 

It is now apparent that Mayel is the ancient name for Sikkim.  The Lepchas have an unusually detailed understanding of their history and the pacts they made, first with the incoming Bhutias and then with the Nepali migrants that now constitute the majority population of the state and have brought their language as the lingua franca of the people.  The Tibetans converted most of them to Mahayana Buddhism, and it was Ringu Tulku Rinpoche who advised the workshop team as to how they could incorporate Buddhist elements into the story to best represent the sentiment of Sikkim:   The wild boar would transform into the four magical creatures of Buddhism during the chase – the Tiger, Dragon, Snow-lion and Garuda.   Lepcha traditions are animist, as Foning writes, “Here in our Mayel country, although we do not come face to face with them, we feel and have unshakable belief in...divine creatures in forests, big precipitous rocks, streams, ponds and lakes” (1887:118).

The animation film opens with a Lepcha ritual performed by a traditional shaman known as the Bongthing, who is the interlocutor with spirits, consecrates agreements and cures illnesses.  The workshop saw the adaptation of the oral tale for a film script, followed by visualization as a storyboard. With each scene sketched out, the storyboard frames were placed on a timeline in the computer by the animators in the group to create the animatic, which provides the blueprint for the labour intensive animation work.    Meanwhile, the young Thangka artists gravitated towards their strength to bring an artistic style for the characters and backgrounds for the film inspired by their distinctive style of Thangka art: This brought them into unfamiliar territory.   They were accustomed to composing intricate paintings and now they had to extract the individual elements so that they could be scanned and animated with software.
This short film is part of a collection of five animated folktales that focus on the Northeast region of India.  The series, called “Tales of the Tribes”, is in production by the UK based charity the Adivasi Arts Trust, in collaboration with Indian organisations and institutions, indigenous artists and young Indian animators, and it is a pioneering project that explores sensitive ways of adapting indigenous content for the animation medium, with the aim of re-engaging young people with their culture through a medium that they find entertaining.  “At present we are getting hopelessly confused, diffused and diversified, morally, culturally and otherwise” writes Foning (1987: 295).  This will be the first animation film to be produced in Lepcha language as well as Hindi and English for regional and international distribution, and Nepali for local audiences.  That way it can also be used as a language learning tool, to help preserve the endangered language of the Lepcha community.

The project was unable to secure funding in Sikkim, and suggestions are that the situation may have been different had the film been able to demonstrate future tangible profits to the state through tourism.  Two years later, a grant was awarded by National Geographic, and as the original team had dissipated, the animation production moved to Pune, where a team of animation graduates from the National Institute of Design had established Girgit Studios and were interested in bringing the unique story to life and establishing their reputation as a competent team.

The short film “Nye Mayel Kyong” is now nearing completion.  It has taken nine months of hard work for the animation team to reach this stage and create the several thousand individual pictures needed for the short film.   They have continued to involve young Thangka artists from Sikkim: Tashi Lepcha and Palzor Sherpa were ready to take a chance and leave Sikkim for the first time alone, to visit the animation studio for a month to create the remaining artwork. 

From Maharashtra, Avinash Medhe is one of the animators working on the project, and he believes that people will love the visuals and the content because it is different from what is usually shown on Indian television.   Swarup Deb from Bengal is also on the team, and he volunteers his interpretation of the basic message of the film:  To live in harmony with nature.  Commenting on the animation scenario in India he remarks that “This, being a folktale is very unique and culture specific... Producers who are investing want to play safe.   They just want to do an equivalent of what is successful outside”.  The animators are keen to develop animation that will make them stand out and achieve an identity, and they are committed to quality in their representation. Anuj Kumar from Uttar Pradesh has a background in Fine Art, and it has been his task to figure out the best way of adapting the Thangka art for animation.  “As animators we could have copied... but these guys they have the exact colour sense... because they have been watching this style of art for so many years”.  It is hoped that this experiment with the Thangka style of art will encourage more collaboration by the Sikkimese to develop a style that best represents their culture and storytelling traditions. 

The animation film “Nye Mayel Kyong” (Paradise) will be premiered in Pune by the Maharatta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture with the Hon'ble Governor of Sikkim
, Mr. Shriniwas Patil, gracing the occasion as the Chief Guest.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

In a far away place called Sikkim, beneath Mount Kangchendzonga there is a legend of a magical place called Nye Mayel Kyong, that no one has ever seen.  This is a story a hunter who stumbles upon Nye Mayel Kyong while he is hunting a wild boar in the forest.  The boar is no ordinary animal and Nye Mayel Kyong is no ordinary place…. 

The hero of the film is the young hunter chasing a wild boar through the forest.  The boar reveals itself to be a magical creature from a mythical land and as he tries to escape  he transforms into four magical creatures.  The hunter himself undergoes a transformation when he realizes that he cannot hunt any more, but must return to the world to help those in need.

The film will be animated using 2D and 3D techniques with a combination of hand  drawn cel animation and computer technology, as tested by animators at the workshop held at the Nyamgyal Institute of Tibetology in 2010 to develop this film. 

The  hand painted backgrounds depict the lush, verdant landscape and mountains of Sikkim and the four magical creatures evoke the four seasons.  As the hunter enters Nye Mayel Kyong, the art style of the film is inspired by  the intricate Thangka paintings of the region.   

The Lepcha people have a rich tradition of music and songs, and the film has a musical soundtrack composed by Lepcha musicians and played on indigenous instruments for this first animation film from SikkimThe cartoon characters designed by comic book artist Pankaj Thapa are appealing to children in their simplistic style. 

The film will be made by artists, animators and media professionals from Sikkim.  The film will be in English, and it will also be dubbed into Lepcha and Nepali for the local audience.  There will also be a Hindi language version for national screenings. Nye Mayel Kyong  is part of the Tales of the Tribes, a half hour series of animated folk stories from North East India.  

The series will be available for screenings in cultural centres and schools and it will  be available for regional and national broadcast.  

The film has received support from the Commonwealth Foundation, INTACH, the Nyamgyal Institute of Tibetology, Echostream, the Directorate of Handloom and Handicraft (Sikkim) and the National Geographic All Roads Seed Grant.
The film will be completed in 2013. 

See this link here to view the animatic (filmed storyboard) for the film.

See this link 
here to view the trailer.