A dancer sits in a demi-plié, her geometrical pose embodying a 2,000 year-old dance tradition kept alive by generations of temple priests across South India.
A few feet away, a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor captures her elegant form for an upcoming video game entitled Antariksha Sanchar or “Transmissions in Space”.
This is a collaboration between creator Avinash Kumar, his audio-visual collective BLOT!, and the Indian Quicksand GamesLab. In just a few months, this interactive transmedia project will make its long awaited debut.
The creators of Antariksha Sanchar hope to spotlight South India’s complex, multilayered cultural identity, which is often less visible on the global stage. By drawing inspiration from traditional Southern dance and renowned mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, Antariksha Sanchar is one of the first games to pay homage to the Southern region’s unsung heroes.
“South Indian culture is quite varied, deep and unexplored,” explained Poornima Seetharaman, a South Indian game designer. “Its traditions aren’t as well known as the North Indian variants.”
Antariksha Sanchar joins games like Never Alone, a platform game which highlights the stories of the Inupiaq and other indigenous Alaskan tribes, and Mulaka, which unravels the traditions of the Raramuri native Mexican tribe. These are colourful yet underrepresented stories which provide a rich canvas for designers to craft a storyline for gamers.
The “South Indian” Blend
Antariksha Sanchar celebrates South Indian culture as a unique blend of spirituality and science, art and reason, dance and mathematics. A point-and-click adventure with light puzzles, it also takes cues from interactive cinema.
To convey the full complexity of Bharatanatyam, a classical South Indian dance, Kumar used an affordable but time-consuming setup with a Microsoft Kinect and motion-capture body suit. The process was divided into three stages: capturing the face for expression, the body for bone movement, then finally individual fingers for important hand gestures.
Kumar’s mother, who worked alongside the famous dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar, even lent her and her students’ talents. Their motion-captured movements animate many of the game’s characters. Clothed in a red cotton sari during rehearsals, her hands communicate through mudras, a religious gesture, which the player must translate in one of the game’s puzzles.
Kumar also needed a compelling space for players to move in. Set in a temple town in South India, his team chose a 3D style that uses the ZBrush to capture the region’s tradition of rich visual ornamentation.
Antariksha Sanchar also allows players to download free models of the temples that can be 3D printed at home. By providing direct digital access to its ancient worlds, he gives South Indian youth a tangible way to interact with their storied past.
The game also invites players to inhabit the life of one of the region’s most influential luminaries, Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Ramanujan: Mathematician and Game protagonist
Ramanujan is a self-taught mathematician known for formulating theorems way ahead of his time. “His ideas have powered things like the internet, cryptography—along with the world’s leading mathematicians today,” said Ken Ono, math professor at Emory University.
As a deeply religious man, Ramanujan also exemplifies the South’s unique blend of modernity and ancient traditions. Ono traces Ramanujan’s propensity for abstract, predictive thinking to the South Indian traditions he participated in while growing up in the temples of Kumbakonom.
“The search for patterns in the religious music and chants—mathematics probably came quite naturally to Ramanujan,“ he said.
Ramanujan also claimed to receive many of his ideas through mythical dreams, sometimes going as far as to accuse the Goddess Namagiri of giving him incomplete formulas.
One of the main narrative tools in the game is a journal the protagonist uses to record discoveries from his dreams. This is derived from real life journals containing all of Ramanujan’s life’s work. According to Ono, mathematicians and scientists are still unraveling the many mysteries found in those three shabby notebooks.
To Kumar, Ramanujan shows that journeying into the future often requires one to look back into the past. The protagonist still embodies Ramanujan’s complex “relationship to the natural world, the spirituality of his community, and his mechanical inventions.”
The Possibilities Are Endless
As a digital artist, Kumar believes that India’s culture and creators can contribute a wealth of compelling, underexplored stories to the world. With the plethora of local, regional, and national sub-identities across India’s landscape, the possibilities for fresh stories are endless.
“Indian culture is such a huge universe, so imposing,” Kumar said. “With our five years of work, we’ve only barely scratched the surface.”