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  • Writer's pictureAnkitha

Retelling hidden stories within craft communities to explore traditions of interconnectivity in India


Ankitha Kini is a visual artist specializing in comics, illustration, and animation. Her core interests lie in exploring tactile and historical storytelling media, be it motifs and construction of textiles or paintings in rock-cut cave temples. She likes to find ways to understand and retell the stories hidden within. Her journey started with her Diploma Project while studying Animation Film Design at NID, Ahmedabad.


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Ankitha Kini at work in her home studio

While working with Outreach Programmes in NID to create a children’s book on traditional crafts, Ankitha discovered the rich world of crafts in Kutch, Gujarat. She chose the intricate craft of Rabari embroidery to write the book about. When she started her field research, Ankitha was already in awe of the aesthetics of this traditional craft. But what surprised her were the stories hidden within the motifs and techniques of each community and the age-old interconnectedness of these craft communities as a whole.


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Design process for 'Trails of Threads'

With guidance from Judy Frater who was then running the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya in Tunda

Vandh, Ankitha had the opportunity to interact with different craft communities in the region. She also observed how craft traditions, motifs, colours, and materials transform over time, influenced by various people, ideas, and technology encountered by the craftspeople. The stylistic journey of the craft itself often forms a living story tracing the community’s journey through time.


This makes today’s people as much contributors to the tradition and aesthetics of their craft as their ancestors.


With insight collected from her research, Ankitha wrote and illustrated her children’s book, ‘The Trail of Threads’ in 2013. The book follows the journey of a Rabari girl, Lacchu who sets out on a quest around the village to find out the true identity of her community. The question, ‘Who is a Rabari?’ leads her to learn about her community’s unique journey from her mother, her grandmother, the village headman, and even her camel, all while finding these stories embedded in her embroidered motifs.


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Line Drawing for 'The Trail of Threads'

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Ankitha wrote and illustrated her children’s book, ‘The Trail of Threads’ in 2013

After graduation, Ankitha took on various roles in the visual design industry including designing for Samsung R&D, animating for Netflix and Amazon Prime productions through Submarine Studio in Amsterdam, and illustrating for Little Bee Books, in New York. However, there was always a pull towards the joy of research and understanding the diverse Indian cultural identities that seem so rigid on the outside only to be found to be in constant motion on a deeper glance.


After a decade of working as an artist on games, animated films, series, and children’s books, Ankitha is now back in India completing work on her self-initiated comic book, ‘Sisters of Ajanta’ which allows her to once again dive into the kind of research and storytelling she loves so much.


Sisters of Ajanta, a slice-of-life historical fiction comic, follows three sisters as they explore a

rock-cut Buddhist Vihara in 479 CE. The sisters, accompanying their father on the busy trade

route passing by the area, decide to sneak away from the caravan one morning to explore these famous caves. They have one particular cave in mind; the vihara which is said to have a female patron. As the sisters explore, observe, and appreciate the Vihara painted exquisitely with tales from the Jatakas, we are exposed to each of their perspectives on matters of religion, art, love, and society. Through the people that the young women encounter in the cave, we see how the economics and politics of this Buddhist Vihara and the land itself may have been unfolding during the time.


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The sisters, accompanying their father on the busy trade route passing by the area, decide to sneak away from the caravan one morning to explore rock-cut Buddhist Vihara in 479 CE

“Sisters of Ajanta was born out of a desire to view a historical setting through the eyes of a person in Ancient India who wasn’t considered special enough to have their name etched into inscriptions or their bravado celebrated in hymns. Humour, whimsy, and joy are as much part of the story as historical research. This comic is an exercise to see if such a story can be told in visual form. And to see if I can tell it.”- Ankitha Kini


This project introduced Ankitha to parts of Indian history beyond what she had seen in her

school textbooks. While seeking information and everyday stories from Indian History, Ankitha found herself mesmerized by the scenes described in the podcast, Echoes of India by Anirudh Kanisetti. To her pleasant surprise, Ankitha found an encouraging friend in Anirudh Kanisetti who guided her further on her journey. She set out on her path of discovering the work of historians and art historians like Walter Spink, Monika Zin, Deepak Kannal, Benoy K Behl and many others on the matters of rock-cut cave temples of western India, especially Ajanta.


During the pandemic, Ankitha attended an online course on the Buddhist Rock-cut Monasteries of Maharashtra conducted by PTVA's Sathaye College and Pradaya Heritage Management Services. This course provided Ankitha with a much better grasp of the monuments and religious practices that flourished on the Western Indian trade routes. She learned about the historical Indo-Roman maritime trade aided by the monsoon winds. This trade, in turn, provided a fertile environment for art, architecture, literature, and religion to flourish and reach new heights.


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The 'Sisters of Ajanta' explores bold and individualistic viewpoints of her female characters who speak candidly

“So much of human nature revealed itself to me from the Ancient Deccan. There was a

constant exchange of material goods, ideas, art and iconography with many parts of the

globe. There were guilds of brilliant painters and sculptors who were not given the liberty

of signing their names onto their work. Rich non-Buddhist patrons were funding

exquisite Buddhist temples to earn punya (religious merit) as well as political influence.

The monastic system and the deities were designed to accommodate the worldly desires

of the merchants on the trade routes, be it for healthy progeny or the safe passage of

their goods. The laity, while witnessing the fall of an empire and its elites, were adding

intrusive paintings on the walls of the caves to earn a bit of punya for themselves. When

we observe the economics, the politics and the changing of rules to suit certain groups,

we see people no different from us in their hopes, dreams, fears and ambition”


To explain the bold and individualistic viewpoints of her female characters, Ankitha points to

Gahasattasai, a compilation of folk poems from around this time which is abundant with female voices speaking candidly about everything from their innermost desires, marital problems, inner turmoils, rendezvous with the forbidden lover, and even their jealousies towards other women.


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Walls of Ajanta adorned in ikat textiles and intricate jewellery, playing out scenes from the Jatakas provide a mesmerizing glimpse

“In these voices emanating from Gahasattasai, we find women with as much complexity

of thought and capacity for questioning the status quo as we find in Indian women today.

Of course, they were bound by the confines of their time but they were also perfectly

capable of having their individual views on all matters.”


The exquisite humans and magical beings painted on the walls of Ajanta adorned in ikat textiles and intricate jewellery, playing out scenes from the Jatakas provide a mesmerizing glimpse into a world that is so far away in time, yet so familiar in its humanity. Ankitha hopes that her comic book will be another step in bringing this world closer to ours.


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Ankitha is currently working on the final artwork of the comic book and plans to complete it by April 2024.


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