A R T M A T T E R S
An Animated Life
By Sushma Joshi Illustrations by Ajanav Mohan Ranjit
ECS Magazine, March 2008
When Ajanav Mohan Ranjit told me that he’d created the animation filled with Nepali dancers and farmers that heralds the Kantipur news-hour, I said spontaneously: “I always wanted to meet the person who made that!” And it was true. There is a magical touch to that particular digital art that no other Nepali animation has been able to match.
I ask Ajanav what the secret is—is it 2D? Or 3D? He laughs at my confusion. “It’s a mixture of 2D, 3D and life action footage. We took a Kantipur van and went to Thimi. We started to take footage of everything. An old man came, carrying a basket. We asked him if we could shoot him. He said yes. As we started to set up the shot, he wandered away. ‘Money, money,’ he said, so we had to offer him some.” Also in Thimi, they found out traditional potters no longer use wooden wheels, but tires to make their pots. So they made a special request for a wooden wheel—one unused for fifteen years was found. The dancers came from a dance academy. The final image, composited out of three techniques, is the one we see daily on television. The animation continues to be shown after Ajanav left the station—Kantipur hasn’t replaced it partly because there is no artist with the same skillset in town.
Ajanav’s life is full of dynamic action, rather like his art. Despite the obstacles, he has forged his own path in a culture hostile to creative thinking.
Ajanav’s philosophy, like his animation, is striking. He wants, in his own words, “to do something different.” This may not appear striking until we remember that to veer off from the doctor-engineer career paths of Nepal is to court contempt, misunderstanding and ostracization. Which is what Ajanav got. “My friends would laugh when I told them. Fine arts? Why? They would ask. They even told me that fine arts was just for Third Division students—why was I, a First Division student, studying it?”
Despite these reactions, Ajanav joined Lalit Kala College of Fine Arts. In the broken down and dilapidated environment of the college he felt a second level of frustration. The students were still doing still life illustration after the first year. On the first day, a professor announced that their education was limited, and they’d have to go abroad if they wanted to study for a MA degree. This was not the art school he’d seen in Hollywood films.
In an attempt to keep his options open, Ajanav joined commerce classes. During basketball sessions, he listened to conversations about future careers. Young students studying commerce aimed to go on to steady salaried management jobs at Rs 10,000. “I can do better with fine arts, I felt,” Ajanav says. And this is when his journey to self-learning began.
Ajanav took a course with Hariram Jojo, an Indian artist who taught him the importance of field trips. He started to wake up at dawn to sit in temples to sketch. During this time, Ajanav observed that the art world of Nepal was predetermined in many ways. “It was already decided who’d win the prizes at the exhibitions. The senior artists were all set,” he says. He chose not to participate in any exhibitions for this reason.
Ajanav’s first break came with an offer to illustrate the Himalayan Pavilion in the Expo 2000 in Berlin. The pavilion, a mixture of Swayambhunath and Changu Narayan, was exhibited amongst many other artworks in Berlin. This pavilion won a Gold medal.
His second break came with an offer to do a 2D animation. “It was the first time I’d thought about animation. I didn’t know anything about it,” he admits. Infocom was developing Prince of Persia game for the US market, and they hired him. Other offers followed. Wild Storm DC hired him to do digital paintings. This work experience gave him the opportunity to learn about interactive multimedia graphics, and introduced him to 3D software.
“This is great software, I thought. I can see the top view, side view, bottom view. It really made my work easy.” In order to boost his knowledge, Ajanav took a one month course in 3D software, but the class, conducted with one computer and 15 students, taught him nothing. “I didn’t learn anything there. Then I started to surf the web and read up on web tutorials. I’d stay up all night. My mother’d come down at 5am and scold me for not going to bed.” This passion, Ajanav guesses, may have led to his breakthrough.
Restless to boost his skills further, and understanding that more skills would make him employable in Nepal’s tiny marketplace, Ajanav took a four month course in the now defunct Institute of Film, Television and Performing Arts. The course taught him the skills to become a film director. During this time, he heard a big television station was to start in Nepal, and he wanted to prepare himself to join it. “I’ll be there someday, I thought,” he says.
Sure enough, Kantipur network came to town. Soon, the place buzzed with the best people from Nepal. Ajanav was one of them. The energy was tremendous. “We really believed that change would come out of this. We went to work early and stayed till midnight. Sometimes we worked all weekend—it was so much fun.”
Ajanav, placed in digital broadcasting rather than in production, became inspired watching a showreel done by Belief, a company that made animations for the Indian industry. “We can reach this level, we thought,” he says. And this is what led to the famous news animation.
After two years in television, Ajanav felt his learning curve fall. In addition, he met Suyogya Tuladhar, an animator setting up a 2D animation house. “He had set it up very nicely to do animation. I was impressed.” Ajanav wanted to work with Suyogya and suggested working in 3D, instead of 2D. He’s learnt about a worldwide CGI community and was hooked to the global network through the web.
Ajanav heard an animator from Disney was coming to town. Kiran Joshi was known to have worked on Disney films like the Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Narnia, and others. “To work in Hollywood is a dream for an animator. I really wanted to meet him. Finally, he came to Kantipur for a television interview. He became my idol,” says Ajanav, smiling.
“Lets do something for Nepal,” Ajanav said. Kiran Joshi, who’d taken a look at Ajanav’s impressive work, promised to return and do something. “He said that he would come back to do something. But for me, it was like somebody telling me they’d pick me stars from the sky. He worked in Hollywood. How would he come back to Nepal?”
In 2002 Ajanav quit television and started a commercial advertising company with a small group. They did more than 50 ads, including all of Dabur’s, within two years. “We were doing very well. But the domestic market is so small, and I was competing with my best friends. One night we would drink, the next their project would come to my desk.”
Ajanav decided to take a break and visit Bombay. “My aim was to stay there for a week, get refreshed,” he says. But as usual, Ajanav got lucky. The old friend who he called up worked for Sony TV. Anjan Gajurel, who worked as art director for mainstream Bollywood movies like Murder, took Ajanav to his workplace. “He was doing so well, and noone in Nepal knew about his work,” Ajanav says. “If people knew, they would be inspired to go and do fine arts.”
Through Anjan’s connection, Ajanav visited Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chili Studio, where the visual effects for the movie Don was being created. The supervisor, Puran Gurung, was a Nepali from the Northeast. Puran gave Ajanav a tour, leaving him impressed with the level of development in the Indian film industry.
Ajanav’s next stop was the Prana Animation Studio. Dibesh Maskey, another Nepali who worked there, gave him a tour of the world-class studio and facilities. The studio, based in the ILFS building in Bandra, was gigantic. The grandeur of the architecture, and the scale of the enterprise, struck Ajanav. A large hallway led to a room with a huge dome inside. About 300 animators worked on projects, including Tinkerbell, a Disney film. “It was like going abroad,” says Ajanav. “The place was so nice I could have worked for free.”
Maskey shared news about the latest software. He asked Ajanav what he used. Ajanav recalls saying: “I am a jack of all trades, master of none.” The pressure to know a little bit of everything, crucial to survive in Nepal’s tiny market, was useless in India, where a particular skillset was emphasized. He got himself an interview and an examination in the studio, and got a glimpse of their management methods. “That’s when I learnt about how an animation studio is run,” he says.
The Bombay trip inspired Ajanav to do something in Nepal. Now he had a clearer idea. “If Indian animation companies are doing Hollywood movies, we can do it, too,” he thought. “They’ve built up their manpower. Lets do something similar in Nepal.”
In December 2007, after months of preparation, Kiran Joshi, Suyogya Tuladhar and Ajanav Ranjit’s destinies came together with the opening of Incessant Rain production company. The company develops international animations for the global market. Today, Ajanav works in this spacious studio on projects for both Nepal and abroad. He hopes that young people from Nepal will not have to migrate because there are no options inside the country. “We’re trying to create a new platform for youngsters here,” he says. “We’re creating hope even in this difficult time when everybody wants to go abroad.”
So what made Ajanav, a fine art student who could have ended up making temple paintings for tourists, to lead such an interesting and successful life at a young age? What led him to pursue course after course of creative skills? What led him to break a path into a new and unknown world? “Some friends ended up in huge industries. Some still make traditional paintings of temples,” he says. “It all depended upon how they thought. If I had not thought differently, I would not be here today.”
Ajanav hopes that people who think of fine arts as an “optional subject” will rethink their views when they learn about the work done by artists in film, digital art and animation. “I want people to rethink their view of fine arts,” he says. “I want it to lose its stigma.” Next time we turn on the television to see the news and see that dancer come on, lets hope for a slight shift in that perception.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org