Features / Illustration

A Digital Cross-country Collaboration With A Difference – Saptan Stories

We spoke to the seven participating artists of Saptan Stories, a unique mass storytelling project where storytelling meets visual arts in the boundary-less space that is the Internet.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 12 September, 2017

  • Priyesh Week6

"These are your memories" whispered the apparition, now a shimmering silhouette "for your love to renew, you must begin anew. If you don't wish your heart to rust, you must choose to forget the past!" Artwork by Priyesh Trivedi

Henri Matisse once said: “Look at life with the eyes of a child”. The Internet has allowed these words to find new layers of meanings, with the virtual world enabling all kinds of creative collaborations that connect people across the world. One of the most engaging, boundary-defying project in recent times has been Saptan Stories, facilitated by British Council and Oscar award-winning studio Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep). The ongoing 7-week collaboration is part of British Council’s UK/India 2017 - a year-long celebration of modern-day India and its 70-year relationship with the UK.

As part of Saptan Stories (Saptan being the number seven in Sanskrit), seven brilliant artists/illustrators from India and UK have been roped in, each with their unique style, to interpret the growing storyline of "India's first ever crowdsourced digital arts project”.

Saptan Stories has a unique flowchart like no other crowdsourced campaign. The first line of the story was written by Aardman Animations and opened up to the audience to determine its direction. Following this, the participants (open to Indians only) sent in a few sentences to take the story ahead, which were shortlisted by a panel and selected through online voting. The new line of the growing storyline is announced midweek, giving each artist two days to create the week’s artwork and kickstart the cycle for the next week’s line. By the end of week seven, each line of Saptan Stories will have been interpreted and illustrated by seven artists, creating one unique storyline and 49 artworks!

While the project is by default a way for the artists, storytellers and the virtual community at large to come together, it has also been an interesting playground to experiment for the artists.

According to Gavin Strange, a Bristol-based artist and senior designer at Aardman, the process is easier on some weeks than others. “I start by reading the line over and over, and then sketching in my sketchbook. I try and pick out a single theme or moment which I can turn into a symbol or a motif. I approach each piece from a graphic design angle, elaborating on the line by using just a single icon, something that symbolises the whole concept,” he explains.

Artwork by Gavin Strange

Adrita Das, a Mumbai-based artist, breaks down her process of interpreting week five’s lines, which were “I was falling through what seemed like a long tunnel, blinded by lights. I somehow landed on my two feet and found myself in a large hall. Walls covered in photographs. Photographs of my entire life.”

“This week's line was one of the two lines so far that established some kind of space and not just emotion. The previous weeks were revolving around the same fictional space of the riverside and ghost. This week, all of us could establish that world a little more using our visual styles and in a way, the story took a big leap,” explains Adrita, adding, “I also realised that the colour scheme I had chosen was almost the identical gradient as the new Instagram logo! My artwork this week subtly hides the logo in that space.”

Artwork by Adrita Das

Adrita admits that her style has also been shifting from the initial gloomy backdrop to a more “bubble-gummy and fantastical world”. “I've been binge-watching Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, so that played some part too!”

There are also those who see each week as different panels, with the narrative shaping up almost like a comic book. For instance, Bangalore-based artist Saloni Sinha’s process involves splitting the work into three parts. “As I read the lines, I first start imagining the scenario. Next, I try to make rough pencil scribbles and started composing in a frame, adding more elements along the way. Finally, I render the art using Apple Pencil on my iPad for inking and colour on Photoshop”

Artwork by Saloni Sinha

Gemma Correll, a Norwich-born, Oakland-based illustrator, informs that she too works on panels and sees the story as a comic strip. This, she says, stems from her approach of writing and illustrating her own stories, which are narrative-driven.

The process of illustrating someone else’s story instead of my own has also been a useful lesson as an artist for Gemma. “The project has helped me be flexible and consider different narratives and forms of storytelling. The biggest challenge has been not knowing what comes next. Usually, I plan everything out before I start drawing and know where the story is going. So it has been interesting to work in this way,” she notes.

Artwork by Gemma Correll

Of course, a time-intensive and creatively-charged project like this is an interesting yet demanding mindspace to immerse oneself into. While all the artists agree that the timelines and tight deadlines are challenging, the process also starts becoming more instinctive. Mumbai-born, London-based illustrator Janine Shroff admits that although she’d sketch out different ideas for each line, it was usually the first idea that she eventually executed.

“If the illustration exactly follows the writing, there is no point having it there. It needs to add to the story. So I’ve tried to make sure that the panel is visually appealing and interesting for me to draw. It's rewarding to focus on one panel at a time and then see how the public respond to the unfolding story,” shares Janine.

Artwork by Janine Shroff

The project has also been a way for the artists from both participating countries to reach out to an entirely new follower base. Bristol-based artist Tom Mead aka Mr Mead, who has been creating the darkest artworks in his signature style, says, “It’s really fantastic to be part of such a diverse project. I have been gaining followers from India that may have never seen my work before, which is always nice!” he says.

Asked about the most rewarding part of the project, Tom says, “The payoff once a piece goes well, especially since you have no clue where the story is going! Also, Aardman have been very clear that they want us to interpret however we see fit, which for artists is exactly what you want to hear!”

Artwork by Mr Mead

Mumbai-based artist Priyesh Trivedi aka Adarsh Balak was a part of a residency at Gasworks in London last year as part of the UK/India 2017 program. With this being the second project, Priyesh feels that his ability to interpret someone else's idea in a concise way is getting better with the project.

“Storytelling is always a two-way street. The challenging aspect is to visually condense a story that you don't necessarily know where it's going in a very tight time frame while making sure there is a visual and conceptual common thread between all the illustrations. But this was also something I was used to before coming from my experience working as a storyboard artist for animation films, so that has helped me even for my personal works,” says Priyesh.

Artwork by Priyesh Trivedi

Gavin summarises that the whole journey as an artist has been one of growth and enrichment. “It's like anything - the more you do it, the better you become. With each week, we're forced to try and summarise and tell the same story but with images - that makes you think more like a storyteller. Hopefully, when all 7 images are next to each other, you'll be able to follow the story even without the lines!” he wraps up.

Follow the last week of Saptan Stories here.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.

Image source: British Council

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