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Meet futuristic cyborg Meenakshi, on a mission to preserve Indian culture

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Cultural cyborg Meenakshi is the protagonist of Elsewhere in India
| Photo Credit: special arrangement

Meenakshi, the cyborg, is out of work. The once-dancer finds herself in the dystopian landscape of 2079 where all culture is in danger of being lost. She is in desperate pursuit of familiarity, holding on to nodes of South Asian heritage, more specifically, the South Indian arts that define her. In a silo devoid of culture, she re-examines her role as an artiste and is joined by two others: Murthovic and Thiruda. Remember these names. 

This narrative is not one straight out of an Indian sci-fi film — rather, it sets context to musician Murthovic (MSR Murthy) and visual artist Thiruda’s (Avinash Kumar) multi-sensory, audio-visual performance that extends to an interactive film/art game. They envision a world much into a future where cyborgs and alternate realities are the norm. This multi-sensory project, though characterised by technology that laymen might not yet be familiar with, has inevitable connections to southern India. While the soundscape sets the mood for curiosity, drenched in dystopia, yet wrapped in a comforter of familiar Carnatic riffs, the interesting visuals take help from objects that define South Indian heritage. 

A still from the live performance at Magnetic Fields

A still from the live performance at Magnetic Fields
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

This is a project that will likely go through many stages of development, as more museums, libraries and a repertoire of fast-growing tech lead to different manifestations. For instance, it is an album; a game; performance art; and an educational tool; all at the same time. Over Zoom, the duo who premiered the soundtrack at the recently-concluded arts and music festival Magnetic Fields, says they will continue to work on it through most of 2023. 

“Meenakshi is a cultural cyborg. In our lore, it refers to the idea that she was part of a line of cyborgs produced to teach culture and preserve ideas around dance and music, and share it with society during the 2050s. Then, a global AI collapse abruptly ends cyborg production. She is left as one of the few relics that has this cultural knowledge,” says Avinash. The narrative goes against the popular belief that culture is an unlimited pool. “It will run out, like any other resource, in the future. It also reflects on the connection between technology and culture, and looks at how technology can be repurposed to create sub cultures.”  

Murthovic in action

Murthovic in action
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The genesis of Elsewhere in India can be partly credited to Antara, a 3D video game that the team had worked on, which follows a Bharatnatyam dancer (inspired by Bharatnatyam exponent Jayalakshmi Eshwar) and her son. It talks of aeronautics through the medium of puzzles.  “We realised we had this thirst to go back to our origins in the Electronic Dance Music scene. And we have been exploring these ideas on heritage, and science fiction set in the past — what if we push this story 150 years into the future,” says Avinash. The questions were many: what would happen to the central character of a dancer in that time? What would happen in a post-apocalyptic India where heritage and culture might be a rare occurrence, where there might not be enough resources or expertise in society?

“We wanted to look at how we can communicate dance and music inside a video game environment. But this time, we wanted to look at it as more of an audio-visual performance,” says Avinash. The inflexion point for this project, that has been in the making for most of the pandemic, was when they received the India/UK Together, A Season of Culture grant from the British Council, that enabled them to record over 40 musicians, the likes of Dilruba Saroja and Dharani (gaana singer), from parts of South India. 

Adds Hyderabad-based electronic musician Murthy, “It was a great opportunity to travel and work with musicians at a rudimentary level. They weren’t established musicians, they were dependent on stage shows, weddings and  funerals. Working with traditional musicians and folklore at this magnitude was a first for us.” Initially, he was not sure whether compositionally, the music was going to be funk, hip hop, disco or folklore-centered. “It’s a mix of different worlds but folk music stands at the centre. Our sarod player is from Kolkata, while our dubki and iktara players are from Shantiniketan,” he adds. 

The same ethos is followed in the visuals as well, adds Avinash. “It’s a respectful nod to all the heritage we have. We have been doing a lot of work to be true to that.” To that end, even some of the traditional objects that are seen in the gameplay are digital sculpts of real objects in museums like DakshinaChitra in Chennai.  “We worked on 3D scanning and 3D modelling of around 50 of their objects like the ratha, furniture, home architecture and ornamental boxes,” says Avinash. The British National Library, British Film Institute and Victoria & Albert Museum are all contributors of archival research.  

One of the digital human avatars in the story

One of the digital human avatars in the story
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

The duo is now preparing for a year of live shows starting with a performance at The International Science Festival in Hyderabad this weekend. They are set to perform at the Adelaide Fringe in February as well, followed by shows in the UK through April.   

Elsewhere in India will be performed in Hyderabad on January 21 at 6.30pm as part of the India Science Festival 2023. ISF 2023 is scheduled to be held at Hyderabad Public School, Begumpet.



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