Saptan Stories: Creating a collaborative arts project for UK-India Year of Culture

Neil Pymer, Interactive Creative Director

Saptan Stories is a unique collaborative arts project happening in India over seven weeks as a part of the UK-India Year of Culture 2017, and has been developed for the British Council by Aardman, the makers of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Neil Pymer, the Creative Director of the project, tells us about the concept behind Saptan Stories…

Saptan Stories is a project that invites the Indian public to generate a unique story, which will then be interpreted and illustrated by seven standout artists from both India and the UK over seven weeks. At the heart of the project is a website where people can submit their storyline ideas, vote on the next line of the story and see how each artist’s story evolves. It’s a dynamic concept where from the seed of one line, seven unique visual stories will emerge.

When we receive a brief at Aardman we go through a brainstorm process where we begin to think of all the possible ways that a project could unfold, whittling it down to a core idea. For this brief, it was the simplest of these ideas that really stood out, which was to base it around the game consequences, where the previous line of a story influences the next.

During this creation process it was important for us to root the project thematically; the number seven started to become a recurring symbol and inform elements of the project, why we chose to have seven artists, telling seven visual stories, over seven weeks. It’s a number that has significance in Western cultures, Eastern cultures, and religions the world over. In Western theology we see it in the seven deadly sins – the root causes of human suffering. In Hinduism, Saptan traditionally represents the earthly plain inhabited by mortals, and also has significance in being the number of chakras – representational of the seven core facets of human spiritual growth. As such, Saptan to us represents the complex human condition – the good and the bad – shared by all regardless of nationality.

The next, and rather exciting part of the project, was for us to find our artists. Choosing the right artists was incredibly important to me to get right, and a great deal of deliberation and consideration went into the process. We literally went through hundreds of artists to find the right balance and it was very hard to shortlist just seven. In the end, the main criteria we made our final choice on was the fact that the artists were storytellers; through a single image, each artist can create imagery which sparks the imagination.

The shortlisted artists are Gemma Correll (UK), Adrita Das (India), Tom Mead (UK), Janine Shroff (India/UK), Saloni Sinha (India), Gavin Strange (UK) and Priyesh Trivedi (India)

I couldn’t be more honoured to have our final selection of artists on board – their breadth, range and visual uniqueness is truly stunning and I can’t wait to see how they react to an evolving story. It’s a real challenge, as they don’t know what’s coming next and have a very short time to respond.

This really intrigues me about the process; how the artist’s representations of the line might in turn affect how people choose to write the following line, creating a cyclical process of words inspiring art and then art inspiring words.

Collective storytelling isn’t anything new. As human beings we’ve been sharing knowledge and stories around campfires since before the written word, but to write one collaboratively is quite unusual and appeals to me a great deal. It enables the views of different people to shape and change the direction of the story taking it in new, unseen and unexpected ways. We went through a similar crowdsourcing process with the Tate Movie Project where thousands of children nationwide contributed their ideas to an animated movie, which resulted in more than 190,000 creations submitted, an active community of over 26,000 children, country-wide roadshows and BAFTA® and Royal Television Society awards. It was a ground-breaking project and fascinating to see how it unfolded with so many creative contributions appearing in the final movie.

Storytelling is at the heart of everything we do here at Aardman and we’re very proud that creative writing is at the heart of Saptan Stories. Creating a collaborative, unique, crowd-sourced story on this scale, over the entire country of India is awe-inspiring as much as it’s daunting! However I think this is what makes it invigorating, unique and relevant; a rare opportunity to do something far-reaching, and I truly hope, rather special.

I’ve always been obsessed with comics, graphic novels and films since early childhood, and spent hours and hours every day drawing and writing my own, trying to emulate the amazing work in UK comics like 2000AD. It’s interesting thinking that in general, writing and design is a very personal endeavour and often created in a solitary environment. Designing collaboratively in response to other people’s storylines is probably a little out of the comfort zone of some artists. This reactive response I think also creates a rare dynamic that’s also challenging and exciting not just for the artists, but for the audience too; watching this story unfold from the creative conscious of so many people.

I must at this point also credit Jake Manion of Aardman, who conceived this project and who entrusted it to me to take forward and make a reality. Although it has developed over time, it was his initial idea that brought it to life. We’re both incredibly excited to see how it pans out and see what wonders the public will share and how the artists will respond.

That’s what Saptan Stories is also trying to achieve in its small way; capturing surprising glimpses of real Indian life, directly from the people that live it.

Take part in the live project until mid-September and take a look at the artwork to date on the Saptan Stories site



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