Epic tale

Raavan Chhaya is iPad myth lit ♦

A panel from Vishal K Dar’s Ramayana iPad app

Indian epics cast a long shadow into popular culture, but it’s safe to say they could never have been described as “trending” before now. Every other day, a new fantasy series, comic or film inspired by the Rama-yana or the Mahabharata finds space on a the shelf or screen – for Indian epics have crossed cheerfully from spoken word to scroll to TV to tablet.

iPad apps related to the Ramayana are numerous – from downloads that allow you to watch Ramanand Sagar’s entire miniseries, to ebooks for adults and children, sometimes slightly animated, with puzzles or “colouring pages”. The latest app comes from an unlikely source – new media artist Vishal K Dar. Dar started thinking about a Ramayana-related project six years ago, but settled on the iPad format about a year and a half back; he found it freed him from the demands of print. His Raavan Chhaya includes 75 static “scrolls” featuring some animation, music and sound effects. These will be released in three parts: Book of Pain, Book of Hope and Book of Loss.

This is Dar’s first iPad app, but the intersection of technology and art isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Delhi artist. Dar, who studied architecture and fine art, has a fondness for grand ideas and technical execution (he’s also project-managed shows for people like Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor). Dar’s projects include “NAAG”, a snake-like sculpture in Mehrauli with patterns projected on it to make it look like it was squeezing and slithering; and “Praja-Pati”, a searchlight revolving in the dug out foundation for a Gurgaon mall.

Dar borrowed the project’s name from an Odishan shadow theatre form. “The two words ‘Raavan Chhaya’ put together indicate a strange relationship between ‘sound’ and ‘shadow’,” he said, explaining that “‘Raavan’ means ‘he of the terrifying roar.’” The title isn’t this retelling’s only departure from convention, however. “I’m attracted to certain themes within the text,” Dar said. “One of them, which forms the core of my version, is that the text presents itself as a cautionary tale. ‘A woman should never fall in love with a warrior’ is an emotion voiced by three woman-characters. First by Tara at Vali’s deathbed in Book of Pain; Mandodari prior to the war call; and Sita as she enters the fire in Book of Loss. Meenakshi, aka Surpanakha, never acknow-ledges this emotion. These are the women that feature in this version.” Besides the emphasis on these female characters, there “was a conscious choice of emphasizing certain episodes,” Dar said. “For example, I am against the idea of ‘Laxman rekha’, therefore this becomes one of the reasons for Laxman’s exclusion from my text.”

Dar also chose to release Book of Hope, which “references the ‘Sundara Kand’ of  the original Ramayana”, first. “The story of Hanuman is a magical tale, which is most linear in terms of narration and therefore presents itself as the perfect introduction,” he said. “It’s widely known and sung, and the story represents the rise of an individual against all odds.”

Hanuman is a popular protagonist in recent Ramayana retellings – and while the anthropomorphic monkey Dar’s team designed certainly looks leaner and meaner than his cartoon movie counterpart, Raavan Chhaya’s art familiarly approximates Western animation aesthetics rather than drawing from India’s visual traditions. We haven’t seen the app in motion but Dar described “a dreamlike movement within the scrolls”, calling the project “an elaborate visual poem that embodies what remains an ageless, tragic story of loss and love.” The digital format, he said, “can become a new way of exploring storytelling”. Dar is a concept-driven artist whose ambition can sometimes outstrip his means. But if Raavan Chhaya is, as he said, “an experiment to connect with a larger audience,” there’s no doubt he’ll find one – what with interest in the epics so eternally unfailing.

Raavan Chhaya: Book of Hope, visit www.raavanchhaya.com.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.