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Epic tale

Raavan Chhaya is iPad myth lit ♦

raavan

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.

Published: April 1, 2013

Bridges, not barriers

Delhi’s new literary festival is an appropriately polyglot affair ♦

If India is, as Mark Twain put it, “the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues”, then Delhi is the place where all  these nations and tongues inevitably meet. This fortnight, a new festival acknowledges the importance of the capital as a literary destination – just as worthy as your Jaipurs, your Thiruvananthapurams and your Hay-on-Wyes. But more importantly, it puts the spotlight squarely on those hundred tongues (well, eight of them, at least) in a way that few stages have before.
The· idea for Samanvay was born out of the India Habitat Centre’s desire to ride the popularity of literary festivals, but to turn the focus inwards – towards Indian languages – rather than outwards. IHC Director Raj Liberhan said “The citizen is usually kind of immune from the beauty of the Indian languages’ writing for various reasons. We wanted to actually let people see for themselves the universality of thought, emotion, and yet the variety of expression.
The festival was designed by Satyanand Nirupam, Associate Editor at Delhi Press’ Sarita magazine, and Giriraj Kiradoo, founder and editor of bilingual journal and publisher Pratilipi. The two decided to invite writers of Assamese, Punjabi, Malyalam, Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and English literature. lf Samanvay does become an annual fixture as planned, the next year’s edition may include more or different languages.
Kiradoo and Satyanand decided to hone in on relatively specific themes for each of the three-day festival’s sessions. They spoke to established and new writers to put a finger on the pulse of each language’s literary scene. So there are sessions with topics as narrow as Punjabi Dalit love poetry, challenges for women writers from Assam, and “women writing the body” in Tamil. Each session will include readings and discussions between a moderator and an author panel. The writers themselves range from famous (Javed Akhtar on “The Death of Mushayara”) to young Sahitya Akademi winners, bloggers and a few fresh faces.
The Malayalam session on “Autobiography from the margins”, for example, is moderated by celebrated poet K Satchitanandan and includes authors Nalini Jameela, a sex worker; Sister Jesme, a nun who left her convent after 33 years; CKJanu, a tribal activist; and Pokkudan, a Dalit who wrote about vanishing mangrove forests. Autobiography has always been a strong genre in Malayalam writing, Satchitanandan told us, “but what has happened recently is that a lot of people who are on the margins of society have come out with their stories. These mark a break from the mainstream autobiographies, mostly written by political leaders, bureaucrats or well-known actors.”
With over 50 such writers from far and wide, the organisers realised that they’d have to push Samanvay’s intended November slot to December. The bigger logistical question though, was deciding which language to use In each session. Each discussion will have oneor two bilingual participants and a bilingual moderator. If a writer speaks in her own language, the moderator will take the conversation forward after quickly briefing the audience. Nirupam explained that “Our whole focus is on expression. There should be a dialogue between people without language acting as a barrier.”
This refusal to spoon-feed the audience underlines Samanvay’s relative lack of interest in selling big names or drawing attention from the international media. “Just as books are being written with a target reader in mind,” Nirupam said, “festival directors also ask who will be attending. We figured that if we talk about things that are important, people will come of their own accord – if not this year, then next year.” Liberhan explained the decision to stop worrying too much about accessibility (read: accessibility to English speakers): “It’s so difficult amongst the generality of audiences to pick and choose. Hopefully, we can get people who can pick for themselves.”
Those who do attend might come to the pleasant realisation that Indian language writing is more approachable than they think. Nirupam pointed out that a person from Delhi “knows quite a bit of Urdu, but he’s not confident of how much he knows. So when he sits In the Urdu session and hears the language, he’ll realise that there’s hardly a difference.”
He also quoted the example of people leaming Hindi to read Devaki Nandan Khatri ‘s novels. More recently, Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Aasi was adapted as a Bengali play, Kashinama, by Usha Ganguli. “When it was staged In Kolkata, lots of Bengalis learned Hindi just to read the original,” Nirupam said. “Sometimes, good books or authors act as a bridge between languages. Hopefully, the festival can remove some of the mental blocks that prevent us from reaching outside our own languages. Our languages are tied together, they have commonalities.”
By letting linguistic plurality reign – in all its glorious cacophony – rather than touting its headliners, Samanvay should provide a diverting complement to the Delhi intelligentsia’s annual exodus to Jaipur. At the least, it will help bring authors whose books grow dusty on the sturdy, but sometimes unreachable, upper shelves of the Sahitya Akademi’s library to a wider audience. At best, Delhi’s own festival could become an important forum for the knitting together of our hundred nations.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2011.

Published: December 2, 2011