‘Dance of images’: Meet the animator who makes Indian experiences come to life through matchbox art
An interview with animator Aithihya Ashok Kumar, whose short animated films are imagined around vintage matchboxes.
Aithihya Ashok Kumar is an animator based in Chennai, India. She is the lead animator and art director of ChitraKoothu (or “Dance of Images”) Studio – a collective of artists, writers, and directors, and a production house that produces animation and live-action films collaborating with artists across the country. Jagannath Radhakrishnan, a screenwriter and director, is the founder of the studio.
The studio’s latest “Matchbox Cover” series is a collection of vivid films that spin stories around the covers of vintage matchboxes. Through local art forms and themes, it briefly captures the essence of growing up and living in India.
Kumar spoke to Scroll.in about what inspired the series. Excerpts from the interview:
What is Studio ChitraKoothu?
We are a production and content development studio that was formed two years ago. I take care of the animation department and am the art director for all the animation films. Our third member, Vivette Kajal, is from Calicut and works with us from Singapore. She and Jagan collaborate on writing screenplays and shooting films whenever. As of now, only the three of us work here on a full-time basis–Jagan and Vivette work on the live-action side, writing screenplays for short films, while I work on the animation films.
How did the idea behind the “Matchbox Cover” series come about?
I witnessed “matchbox covers” as an art for the first time when I saw Gitanjali Rao’s film, Printed Rainbow. I was so moved by it, and that’s when I decided to take up animation seriously. A few years later, I was working at C.ment in Bangalore as an animator. Jagan, the founder of Chitrakoothu, was working on a project there and told me an entire story through the world of matchboxes. He had collected a shoebox full of vintage matchbox covers. I saw one of the covers that he had animated, and, even though it was a test project that didn’t take off, I was immediately inspired again.
There was one particular matchbox cover that I really loved, of a cheetah fight. The cover was of a man with a sickle in his hand in a combat pose, standing next to a cheetah. Over a period of time, I started cooking up stories around it in my head, imagining what the story could have been behind the cheetah fight. I imagined a cheetah about to enter a village, while a man with his sickle inches forward, as the two tread dangerously towards each other at the edge of a forest. They finally meet – and what follows is the cover of the matchbox.
Very recently, I opened up the old shoebox and saw a lot of stories. It was never planned as a project; the series began spontaneously. Even now, I don’t actually plan on what comes next; usually, for an animation, we create a storyboard and have a process for that. But I wanted to really enjoy the process, and I try to do a lot of transitions without cutting the film anywhere, and have a very smooth movement from one instance to another without disturbing the film at all. As an animator, I really enjoy exploring that freedom.
What resonance does matchbox art have in the Indian context?
Most of the covers that I pick are not sober – they have beautiful, strong colours, a lot of reds, yellows, greens. If you see a woman walking down the street, she’s likely to be wearing a sari with bright red flowers, or a white jasmine garland – you won’t see that anywhere else but in India. These are colours that I find very “Indian” – they represent our emotions, the time of day, and our seasons.
In the same way, matchboxes have very intense colours. The characters, settings, designs, and moods are very much our stories. Sometimes they are very elaborate, sometimes they’re linocuts, or they’re full of silhouettes.
Most of the themes I’m drawn to relate to the Indian experience – elements of nature, a woman lighting an evening lamp, two lovers stealing a moment under a tree, a woman swimming in a pond with a swan, a girl climbing the stairs and jumping up to ring a bell–these belong immediately to Indian experiences, and what it feels to me as a person who has grown up in India having done all these things.
I find a lot of people associating with the covers because they remember them. One boy recently wrote to us saying, “This the matchbox that I burned my finger with for the first time!” These kinds of memories are lovely to receive.
And that’s what I hope people also see and enjoy, for that short instance. In Indians’ stories, fables, and fantasies, these all are themes that are somewhere associated with our collective experience. It’s within these rather simple moments that I try to highlight the colour and the joy. That, we hope, is the resonance of this concept.
Are the matchboxes you animate still sold in India?
Some of the covers I work on are very old. Earlier, they used to sell matchboxes with detachable labels – these transparent, thin films that could be stripped off and sold separately for somewhere between 0.06 paise and 30 paise; they’re that old. After watching one of these films, my father-in-law, Munusamy Radhakrishnan (founder Jagannath Radhakrishnan’s father), recalled his school days in the 1950s when one could buy the labels alone for one or two Anna, sold as small bundles of matchbox covers, and kids would stick those labels in their notebooks.
For me to see Indian characters in these graphic settings with such rich histories is very interesting to pick up. I may not have appreciated it a couple of years ago, but after beginning this series, I now see how beautiful and powerful they are – and even though they are from an older time, they are still relevant. I find that they still represent the way India conducts its life – a man sowing in a field, cycling to his factory, visuals like those.
So on the one hand, they are still things we do, but they are also beautiful stories in themselves. In our country where languages run across and meet each other like rivers, these small canvases have very strong connective tissue of memory and association. For me, personally, I have never seen or visited the Taj Mahal, or the Ajanta Caves. But when I see a matchbox with the same imagery, it’s like getting tiny doses of visual information, and it plays on my imagination. That works much more than a virtual tour you can get on Google or somewhere online. I’ve learned that a matchbox is a mini-canvas that you can carry around in your pocket wherever you go.