Is it Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a space shuttle? Which of these things will enable Ramanujan to go past the stratosphere and into the great beyond? As the protagonist of Antariksha Sanchar, India’s first multimedia Bharatanatyam fantasy drama, the young man need not look to the West; he will soon discover that the answers lie much closer to home.
“Loosely translated as ‘transmissions to space’, Antariksha Sanchar is an experiment in creating Indian cultural experiences for modern audiences through ‘transmedia storytelling’ — the technique of telling a story across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies. We chose S Ramanujan as the protagonist because he used to famously say that the family goddess shared mathematical secrets with him in his dreams. We wanted to create that link between science and faith,” says Avinash Kumar, media artist, creative director and curator, who is better known as one of the co-founders of BLOT!, an audio-visual collective based in Delhi. Kumar also runs a design studio, Quicksand, which specialises in creating immersive experiences for a diverse range of productions.
One of these was for his mother, Bharatanatyam dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar. After performing for over four decades around the world, she began to collaborate with her son, to explore ways in which her ancient dance form can connect with new forms of media and technology. She conceived and choreographed the first version of Antariksha Sanchar in 2010. The next year, Kumar joined her team as the production embraced visual storytelling that ran parallel on a screen. “The narrative explores man’s age-old fascination with flight, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. It dives into Hindu mythology, with references to Kamdhenu, Hanuman and the Pushpaka Vimana,” says Kumar.
The narrative also looks at documents such as the Vaimanika Shastra, a controversial early-20th century text attributed to Pandit Subbaraya Shastry, who claimed that aeronautical technologies were written about in the ancient Vedic texts.
The choreography of Antariksha Sanchar is set to a unique Carnatic-electronic take on classic ragas with an ensemble of classical musicians, who are led by Sri Rama Murthy aka Murthovic. The Hyderabad-based DJ and producer employs drum machines and synthesisers to accompany the classical vocals and violin pieces that are peppered through the performance.
But much before this version of the dance opera came about, Kumar had conceived a video game inspired by Antariksha Sanchar. “I began working on the production in 2011, and right around that time, I began developing a video game that would also tell the story. We wanted to develop the visuals we were using further, and make them interactive in a different way. We were still working on it when Red Bull Music entered the picture,” says Kumar.
The idea of a full-blown multi-sensory production took hold and last year, the three elements that make Antariksha Sanchar were brought together: Eshwar and her dance troupe would perform the story of Ramanujan’s quest to fly, accompanied by visuals inspired by Indian mythology, a desi steampunk take on the technology used by Kumar, and an eclectic background score that would bring together the old and the new sounds of India.The ambitious project premiered last month in Mumbai, at the Royal Opera House, with a run time of two hours, without an interval. Future productions will be 75 minutes long, says Kumar, who acknowledges that the project is yet to achieve the kind of seamless cohesion it strives for.
The video game is likely to be released in late 2019, but Kumar, Eshwar, Murthovic and their troupes will first travel to Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore next year. “I’m excited to travel to the south because the level of engagement is bound to be different. This is where the stories have come from,” says Kumar. Antariksha Sanchar will be performed at Kamani auditorium, Delhi, on December 5