Two sentences about heartbreak. That’s what it took to kickstart a seven-week collaborative story-telling project between artists from two countries. Since the Saptan Stories project was launched on August 4 by the British animation studio Aardman, seven artists from India and the UK have been illustrating an evolving story that began with these lines: “I found it hard to get over my broken heart, I thought I never would. Then one night, by the moonlit river, something happened that changed everything.”

The project, by the British animation studio Aardman in association with the British Council in India as part of the UK-India Year of Culture 2017, is an attempt to make art less elitist. Since the launch, the seven artists have created three illustrations each for Saptan. After Aardman provided the opening sentences, each additional line has been selected from hundreds of entries submitted by an audience online. This process will continue till September 16, when the conclusion of the crowd-sourced story and the accompanying illustrations will be published.

“We felt that for this project to be worthwhile, it should be accessible for all,” said Neil Pymer, interactive creative director at Aardman Animations. “Anyone can write a line and have an instrumental effect on how the story develops. The collaborative aspect of the project will be intrinsic to its success and means that it can be enjoyed by millions through social media.”

“We are delighted to be working with Oscar-winning British animation studio Aardman Animations as part of the UK India Year of Culture,” added Alan Gemmell, Director of the British Council in India. “The project invites people to create and share a story together – celebrating the long tradition of storytelling in India and, we hope, connecting and inspiring people in the UK and India to make something unique together.”

Fifty shades of heartbreak

Illustration by Priyesh Trivedi.
Illustration by Priyesh Trivedi.

The project was inspired by a story-building game called Consequences, in which a group of people take turns writing a word or a phrase to create a story together.

Each selected line is interpreted by the artists in their own unique style. For instance, the line about the broken heart is depicted by artist Priyesh Trivedi through the character from Trivedi’s wildly popular Adarsh Balak series, which parodies the ideal Indian son. With his perfectly groomed 1980s hair, the ideal boy sits broken-hearted making paper boats on a river bank.

Another interpretation by UK cartoonist Gemma Correll, features the cat familiar to anyone that follows Correll’s work on Instagram.

Illustration by Gemma Correll.
Illustration by Gemma Correll.

British artist Gavin Strange drew the broken-hearted reflection of the moon on water.

The other artists involved in the project are India’s Adrita Das and Saloni Sinha and UK’s Tom Mead, Gavin Strange and Janine Shroff.

The first line of the story was written by Pymer himself. “I wrote seven very different lines in terms of tone and content and had colleagues write seven stories collaboratively,” he said. “We wanted it to be universally encompassing, visually inspiring and open enough to motivate the next line of the story.”

To Sinha, a Chennai-based artist and designer, the line about heartbreak sounded profound and like something that could include an element of fantasy and surprise. “I tend to mix reality with imagination in my art to create images with a surreal quality so it sounded like it was right up my alley,” said the 29-year-old. “I can already see the works on Saptan Stories in a graphic novel format in my head.”

In Sinha’s interpretation, a long-haired woman looks into the distance as she contemplates heartbreak.

Illustration by Saloni Sinha.
Illustration by Saloni Sinha.

Trivedi said he found the real-time interactive nature of the project both daunting and exciting. “We never know what the next line is going to be, but each illustration has to be linked to tell one cohesive story at the end of the seven weeks,” he said. “We get about two to three days for each illustration and it does put a lot of pressure on you but also lets you push your boundaries.”

Pymer noted that the project’s success lay in finding the right balance of artists who would compliment each other, while also being entirely individual.

“This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the project for me; seeing how the different creative visions of each artist are realised,” he said. “What will be the similarities in theme, symbolism and imagery that begin to materialise and reoccur… and just as important, the differences!”

Illustration by Janine Shroff.
Illustration by Janine Shroff.