Friday, October 25, 2013

Meet Nina Sabnani

Image source
Mukand and Riaz
By Nina Sabnani
Tulika Publishers
Ages 5+
Available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali

How would a picture book for 5-8 year-old children address a subject as complex as the partition of India? Would it be too much for a young child to handle? I picked up the book with trepidation. In a few minutes, my misgivings vanished.

The narrative begins by introducing the two friends, Mukand and Riaz. And Mukand’s cap, which is an integral part of the story. It is Mukand’s favourite cap; one that he doesn’t want to part with. How he parts with it eventually and the deep tie of friendship between the boys is what the story is about. The theme of partition is woven into the plot subtly and presented in a way that every child can relate to. Touching and poignant.

The book is based on a real life story. The illustrations using appliqué and embroidery are beautifully done. The style also works to make the theme more palatable to young children.

The book brings out our shared history and experiences. Everyday incidents give us a peek into life in undivided India where people of different faiths co-existed peacefully.
Until news of the partition disturbs the harmony, news that takes Mukand on a journey to a place he would have to call home for the rest of his life. The book is important; it is a story that will remain relevant until we put aside our differences. Hopefully, the next generation will see that the thread that binds us is much stronger than the differences.

Nina Sabnani
It was a treat to interact with the creator of 'Mukand and Riaz' and get insight into some well-loved books.

Nina Sabnani is an artist, animation director and illustrator. Her animated documentaries have won awards at film festivals across the world. She has been teaching for more than two decades - at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and now at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Mumbai. She has written and illustrated several books for Tulika Publishers. 

ST - Displacement and issues surrounding identity seem to be a recurring theme in your work. Can you share your thoughts on migration and identity?
Identity is usually connected to community or place, region or country. Every individual must have a name and an address to exist.  A loss of that address through displacement or migration can be traumatic as it threatens identity. At the same time migration allows individuals to reinvent themselves. Both these aspects are fascinating to me as someone who has experienced this indirectly through my family.

To handle a subject as complex as the partition and present it to young readers is hugely challenging. You’ve done it extremely sensitively in ‘Mukand and Riaz’. Can you tell us the story behind it?
Mukand and Riaz is a real story about my father Mukand and his memory of his best friend Riaz Ahmad who helped him and his family escape from Karachi during the partition. My father missed his friend whom he never met since 1947. He used to say that most people complained about leaving behind property and wealth. His wealth was his best friend. I hoped that I could bring them together through this story.  The story is based on my late father’s memories of childhood spent in the streets of Karachi and his time with his friend. Before it became an illustrated book it was an animation film from which the book emerged.

What has the response been like? Any experiences you would like to share?
I received some lovely and touching responses. A gentleman wrote me who turned out to be my father’s classmate and could recall the streets and school. A lot of children asked me why the friend did not accompany him, why did Mukand give away his favourite cap, why did the countries fight…

The illustrations use appliqué work, common to both Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India. Not seeing the characters in a lifelike form also seems to help the young reader accept their displacement/separation more easily. What was the thought behind the illustration style?
I had no images from my father’s childhood. He had no photographs. He came from Sind and worked in the textile mills for 25 years. His attachment to textiles and the Sind textiles prompted the style of the illustration. The embroideries and appliqué of Kutch, the region closest to Sind, also inspired me.

In ‘Stitching Stories’ you explore the theme of migration again. Can you tell us how this book came about?
After I made Mukand and Riaz I sent the film to Kala Raksha in Kutch because I was inspired by their work. They came back to me with a request to make a film about their art. When I went to interview the artists I felt their migration from Sind had a deep impact on their work and identity. So I included that in the narrative although the objective was to celebrate their art. Here again the film led to the book.

It must have been inspiring to work with Kutchi women artists. Any interesting incidents while you collaborated with Kala Raksha?
Many wonderful moments come to mind, some joyous, some sad and reflective. Their passion for their work was inspiring and invigorating. One said I think about my work at night, another said I get so much pleasure from my work that I can’t think of anything else more pleasurable. Rani ben could not understand why India and Pakistan fought and Prakashbhai did not want to visit Jurra village as it brought back sad memories. 

'Home', a book packaged as a kaavad, inspires discussions around ideas of home, family, identity and belonging. An ingenious concept. Please tell us more.
Home is designed to elicit stories from children and the images act as prompts to talk about issues concerning the family, home etc. Families can be as varied as a joint family, a nuclear family with father, mother and children, a gay couple with a child, or a single parent, or an adopted child etc. Most illustrated books show a family that has a father, mother, child, which could exclude others that did not have a similar composition, making them feel as if something was missing.. I wanted each child to be able to find its own family in the book and have a sense of belonging. Similarly with the house/home a child does not feel unrepresented.. All kinds of homes are possible. They may learn to be tolerant of differences. Each image can represent multiple stories so every child can make up her own story with any image and particularize it. A parent or teacher may learn about a child’s worldview through the story the child constructs. Each story then is a window to the child’s world. The book can be used by children as well as adults to initiate discussions. The book is inspired by the Kaavad of Rajasthan where the storyteller uses the same image to represent multiple patrons.

The kaavadiyas make an appearance again in 'It's all the same', with a subtle message. Can you tell our readers about it?
From the storytellers of the Kaavad tradition I learnt that a story is born afresh each time someone narrates it; that there is never an original story with versions, rather all stories are original or all are versions. This invokes the notion of inclusiveness, accepting multiple voices, the need to embrace diversity. This is important in today’s context where the world is getting too homogenized and there is a tendency to be conforming.

All About Nothing’, another interesting book that you’d originally made as an animation film, is a fictional take on the origin of zero and how shunya may have travelled. Where did the inspiration for this one stem from? How did you research for the project?
The inspiration came from the many stories one had read about Archimedes’ Eureka and the bath tub, Newton and the apple; surely there was a story behind the invention of zero? Since no legend could be found one had to conjecture one based on historical evidences of its first use etc. We found the reference from a Bakshali manuscript and a historian’s suggestion that such an invention was possible in a region where there was a confluence of cultures. So we researched life in India in 2nd century AD and in specific in he area of the Hindu Kush. The film was made for the Discovery of India Exposition at Nehru Centre and is still shown today.

Can you recommend some children’s films for our young audience?
Children's Film Society does fund some nice projects; you could go to their site. As far as animated films for children are concerned, there is a new one by Shilpa Ranade called 'Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa' which is fantastic.

[Photo credit Nina Sabnani]


sathish said...


Interesting interview. I liked what Nina said - "At the same time migration allows individuals to reinvent themselves."

Praba Ram said...

What a beautiful conversation! Thanks Arundhati for bringing this lively, eye-opener of an interview.

Nina, we've enjoyed every single book of yours. The first book we reviewed on Saffrontree was My Mother's Sari - quite a masterpiece!

Stitching Stories is one amazing book. I had sourced some bags and accessories from Kala-raksha earlier in 2004, for a small fair-trade project I did. I have been dreaming of the place ever since.

I use your books all the time for my kiddie book club program. I love how your books address diversity, inclusiveness, with a strong focus on arts and crafts.

It's an honor to have you in our midst this CROCUS. All your books are gems and must-reads!

Thanks again!


sandhya said...

"Identity is usually connected to community or place, region or country."

Enjoyed this interview, Arundhati . Thank you, Nina Sabnani.

Arundhati said...

Thanks Sathish, Praba and Sandhya. It was a pleasure to interact with Nina and get the inside scoop on some of our favourite books. Mukand and Riaz, It's all the same and All About Nothing ('The Cap book', 'The Ganesha book'and 'The Zero/Muchu book' in these parts) have been read and re-read so many times! Had to leave out The boy who loved colour, Best Friends, My mother's sari (illustrations) and Sameer's House though!

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