It was the re-run of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana on Doordarshan during the COVID-19 lockdown, that made serial entrepreneur from IIT-Delhi Bhuwan Arora and his team realise the potential of Indian epics, and its demand across the country in vernacular media. That was the beginning of TheRamayana app — a virtual museum of the Indian epic, with 350+ short written and audio summarised stories, perspective polls, and quizzes in Hindi and English based on the Tulsidas, Kamban and the Valmiki Ramayana.
“Ramayana is the one epic that binds 1.35 billion Indians together. A culturally vibrant nation as ours boasts of an assortment of around 300 different versions of Ramayana. Such multiplicity of voices and of the accompanying practices lead to immense internal diversity. Ramayana and Mahabharata are together the two central Sanskrit scriptures from ancient Indian literature. These epics have golden lessons and the stories are interspersed with philosophy, ethics, and notes on duty,” says Arora, who developed the app with 25 college students from across India who were a part of an internship program.
Ramayana, a story that revolves around the life of Lord Rama and his 14 years of exile culminating in a long battle with the demon king, Ravana, is a mythological epic that continues to be read and discussed across generations. Considering the “mammoth influence” that Ramayana has on literature, poetry, and culture, the application — launched on Play Store and App Store in July 2020 — positions itself to be a game-changer based on its portability over other mediums like books.
The app contains a collection of comprehensive and illustrative guides and gives the audience multiple filters to select stories, such that along with the seven ‘kaands‘ (books), the app has 90+ characters, 100+ essential landmarks and locations mentioned in the Ramayana.
Instead of a traditional narrative, however, the app allows the user to explore various sub-stories with the help of tags. “The stories in English and Hindi languages appeal to a large audience set; audio stories in both languages appeal to those who remain on-the-move. Perspective polls challenge the existing traditions and norms, and quizzes brush up the knowledge of the scholars of Ramayana,” says the 30-year-old, who soon plans to launch the app in vernacular languages as well.
Developed over a period of 1.5 months, the app has referred to the original texts by Valmiki and Tulsidas for the stories. “The research process had been to attentively read the original versions to extract the significant parts and crystalise them in short stories. Stringent quality checks for verification were implemented after each step. It is ensured that the stories remain factual, unbiased and as it is — without any distortions. We have adhered to selected and verified scientific studies to include details such as the dates for important events (which have been calculated based on the planetary configurations mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana),” Arora tells indianexpress.com.
The app opens with a few introductory screens and a preview of the features of the product including three stories from each section of kaand, characters, locations or featured guides. After the preview of stories, the user has the option to unlock the access to the entire content by making a one-time payment of Rs 249. The quiz and perspective polls are free of charge.
Ask Arora on whether such a technology could also indicate commercialisation of the epic, and he says that it continues to draw its niche audience despite whichever medium it is presented on.
“Unfortunately, a high proportion of ancient scriptures has been destroyed and lost forever. Yet, for the ones that survive, individuals face difficulty in approaching them or lack authentic sources to read them. Utilising the power of technology to build an engaging interface for users, we have the opportunity to create products that this generation can use. The synthesis and presentation of the epic in a short, user-friendly format in the form of an application and even artistic interpretation, cinematic presentation and various view-point and narratives that we are seeing now in literature is not exactly ‘commercialisation’. The beauty of Ramayana lies in the fact that with ever-increasing interpretations in literature, cinema, theatre and arts, the audience seems to retain the interest and wants to know more. This is due to the fact that our culture is steeped in the stories, morals and lessons from Ramayana,” he says.
Within a month of launch, Arora says they have over 1,300 active users across iOS and Android applications. “We further plan to launch bite-sized and easy to understand guides for scriptures such as Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Quran, the Bible, and other ancient texts that appeal to a wider set of audience.”
While applications such as Ramcharitmanas, Sampoorna Ramayan, e-books, and audiobooks about Ramayana are ‘indirect competitors’ for the app, Arora believes it is the “scope of the epic itself” that allows new and engaging stories to be told considering Ramayana is said to contain 24,000 verses. “With some of the best philosophical discourses, dialogues between mercurial sages, conversations about social issues, and other riveting concepts, the epic presents us with an opportunity to keep providing additional new content to existing users while acquiring new users,” Arora concludes.
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