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Taking the Mahabharata into the digital age

July 07, 2011 22:15 IST

Dr Bulbul Tiwari, a postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at Stanford University, has taken on the onerous task of creating an online, digital, audio-visual encyclopedia of the Mahabharata.

On May 24, at Stanford's South Asian Center, she quoted Indian scholar AK Ramanujan, "No one in India reads the Mahabharata for the first time." But in Western academia, Tiwari pointed out, most scholars study just the text.

She said she hoped to change this imbalance by creating a multimedia website that showcases the performance traditions of the epic, and also documents its life in television and the big screen.

So, the Maha Multipedia website will include Indian filmmaker BR Chopra's iconic television serial, Amar Chitra Katha comic books and more traditional Mahabharata performances by Kathakali or Yakshagana troupes.

The project began as Tiwari's PhD dissertation in 2008. It was the first entirely digital dissertation at the University of Chicago, and the third of its kind in the United States. 

Tiwari is reworking the project for a larger, public release.

Maha Multipedia will go live September 18. The online launch will be accompanied by an exhibit and colloquium at Stanford.

"I wanted to show that the Mahabharata is not just a dead story written on pages but is a living creature, found in different Indian public spaces," Tiwari explained.

For her doctoral research, she visited performing arts institutes in Karnataka and Kerala, and studied the epic in other forms such as ritual, sculpture, paintings and comics.

Her project also includes a play contemporizing the Mahabharata.

It has actors, live music, dance drama, and projected clips. Goddesses such as  Lakshmi, Kali and Saraswati are dressed like everyday people. They speak English, Hindi and Hinglish and reflect contemporary society.

First Published In India Abroad A Rediff Publication

For example, Goddess Lakshmi is visualised as a rich, upper-class, society woman who wears the latest fashions. Kali is visualised as an athletic superwoman. There are also original characters created by Tiwari, including that of a 9-year-old girl called Pragya.

"At some level, this story is a deep one," Tiwari said. "I am a character in this story in the same way as Ved Vyasa (who wrote The Mahabharata) is a character in the epic."

She said the focus of her research is the clash between two kinds of cultures, the pre-modern and the modern. In this confrontation in India today, Tiwari explained, the traditional arts are dying out.

She said this massive, undocumented loss troubles her.

When the Maha Multipedia website goes live, Tiwari will be teaching an undergraduate course at the Religious Studies and Comparative Literature department using it. She also hopes to take the project to Indian schools and universities.

And if the response is strong, she hopes to raise money to turn the website into a collective archive for India's epic traditions and traditional performing arts.

Ritu Jha