How a Papa Elephant Sold His Baby for Bananas: Tales of Rural Children and Indigenous Art

Animation filmmaker and entrepreneur Debjani Mukherjee is using indigenous art to empower communities, generate employment and heal children.

By Neha Kirpal

A Bengali born in Pune, animation filmmaker and entrepreneur Debjani Mukherjee says she was lucky to have lived in around 15 beautiful cities of India due to her father’s job. Her exposure to India’s rich cultural heritage and the need to educate and help children using art and art therapy led to the launch of BOL — The Language of Children in 2013, an NGO she founded along with her husband, Shayok Banerjee, a musician and music educator.

After studying economics-stats-maths from Lady Brabourne College, Debjani had completed her post graduation in animation film studies from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. The 36-year-old is currently pursuing her PhD in indigenous art pedagogy from the IDC School of Design, IIT Bombay.

We spoke to her about how her work is helping indigenous art in India and how she is using art as an effective tool for self-discovery and social change.

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Debjani during a storyboarding and narrative session

What is the focus of your PhD and what compelled you to do this?
BOL is a not-for-profit with a vision to engage community children and the youth in and with art, training them to create animation filmmaking and thus, empowering them to share their stories through the powerful medium of art.

Since we often worked with indigenous communities and children, I felt the need to develop a structure or pedagogy of art education that is rooted in our indigenous ways of life. Hence, my research topic was ‘indigenous art pedagogy’.

Please share a memorable instance from your filmmaking workshops for BOL that left you inspired and convinced about your chosen path.
In one of the art therapy workshops with children of sex workers, a six-year-old narrated a story of how a papa elephant had sold the baby elephant for a bunch of bananas. That day, I realised the power of storytelling and the impact of art therapy.

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Debjani (in red skirt) with the participants at Yangon Film School, Myanmar

How is your work helping indigenous art in India?
There are two important aspects and responsibilities of working with indigenous artists that I keep in mind — creating awareness about the art and the practitioners; and
more importantly, giving a holistic picture of the purpose, belief and practices of the community art to those unaware of it.

An indigenous art piece is much more than a wall painting. It has a narrative that is intrinsically linked to one’s life and one’s beliefs. For community artists, art practice elevates the status of art, making it a way of life. This belief in their artwork is therapeutic and meditative.

As authors and researchers, we share the important responsibility of transferring this simple understanding, yet complex knowledge, to our young readers, parents and teachers.

Another aspect is appropriation of indigenous art. It is so common in our highly industrialised and globalised society that we carelessly ‘copy’ these images out of context in designing our umbrellas, shoes and clothes.

However, this is our shared heritage. Hence, we need to be aware of it, identify the bigger picture so that we don’t lose our ancestral knowledge altogether and also recognise artists who are deeply involved with it as their way of life, so that we can support and nurture them.

I choose to work with indigenous artists through collaborations. Bhuri Bai, a Bhil artist, and I have recently worked on a book called Dotted Lines, published by Katha. The book intends to throw some invaluable insight into the unique lifestyle and struggles of indigenous artists and how their children carry this art form to the future.

Children from the urban environment would learn more about the indigenous art, the festivals and rituals of the Bhil community. This would also help in bridging the gap between two worlds. This was Bhuri Bai’s first published book, and it would help her define her role as an artist and teacher, both within the community and in the modern world.

Another collaboration in process is an animated documentary film by the same name, which will be completed next year. I am also working on an animated documentary film on gender-based violence called The Red Dot to be released this year.

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During certificate distribution in Yangon Film School, Myanmar

Explain how you are using art as an effective tool for self-discovery and social change.
I conduct art therapy workshops with children and the youth, where indigenous art plays an important role. Indigenous art therapy is based on our traditional knowledge and wisdom of indigenous art practices.

In this workshop, we introduce simple and effective painting styles and methods that engage students unselfconsciously with traditional meditative art practices. I will be conducting this workshop and presenting my work at the Madurai Literature Festival next week.

Another project I have been working on is using animated documentary as a social tool. Here, the challenge is that these true stories have to be portrayed maintaining the anonymity of contributors and yet expected to speak of the injustice and violence under the present rule.

Last year, I conducted workshops at the Yangon Film School, Myanmar to mentor the community youth to make animated documentary films on war and peace. What made the project stand out for me was that the films had to be made through a community engagement workshop by the youth of Myanmar, making it a powerful tool of social engagement and protest.

How can consumers and urban entrepreneurs help rural art communities?
By encouraging the local produce — be it for food, clothing, utility items or gifts, by not using plastic, and most importantly, by not bargaining with them.

Lead image: Debjani Mukherjee and a Bhil artwork by Bhuri Bai

Syndicated to CNBCTV18

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