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IN CONVERSATION

Animate magic

HARSH KABRA

Manik Sorcar talks about laser art and how he uses it in animation.



Rare spectacle: A scene from "The Enlightenment of Buddha".

AS curtains draw up at a packed Denver auditorium, the whir of the audience fades into an expectant hush. Over the next half-hour, they watch mesmerised as a meditating Gautama attains enlightenment to become the Buddha in defiance of the demonic tempter Mara's attempts to distract him with force and enticement. But this enactment of Shakyamuni's ultimate awakening is far from the West's all-too-familiar sight of an Indian ballet.

Instead, it is a rare spectacle, where technology isn't merely supporting the cast; it has itself become a part of the cast. Mara in this case has been created using a strong laser beam, which plays its role in stunning tandem with a dozen live actors on the stage. The medium, as it turns out, has made the message more special.

This entire visual feast — the narrative, the technology, even the background score — is the labour of love of Manick Sorcar, a rare artist whose oeuvre straddles three generations of paintbrushes. "I use the traditional paintbrush on paper for background scenes, the electronic brush on digital canvas for animated characters; and the brush of a thin ray of light on the canvas of space to animate characters for laser shows." At the International Laser Display Association's annual convention held in March in Italy, "The Enlightenment of Buddha" outdid entries from the world over to win the top award for the best use of lasers in a live performance.

Art with laser

These focused beams of intense light have long been standalone wonders of hi-tech entertainment. But Sorcar has earned them the pride of place in an artist's repertoire. For this veteran of thematic laser animations, every production is an ever more breathtaking blend of live action with life-size laser characters.

To bring the ensemble alive, he uses his own proprietary technique called Sorcarscope, which involves a rich computer-controlled array of laser beams, intelligent stage illumination that can be programmed and automated to assume myriad personalities, special lamps that prompt fluorescence and self-illumination in the surfaces they irradiate, and semiconductor diodes that convert applied voltage to light, like in digital displays.

With his next production "Call of the Deep Ocean", the story of a young girl's pursuit of a water fairy in her dream, he is readying to forge further ahead. "While all underwater creatures would be created with laser," he informs, "I'm also creating three-dimensional visual effects in the space above the audience to give them a feel of being under water."

Sorcar, son of celebrated magician P.C. Sorcar (Senior), is an artist of many parts. When he is not recreating a slice of India for his hugely successful stage shows (he even composes music for them), he can be found animating Sukumar Ray's "Abol Tabol" or fables from the "Panchtantra" and "Thakurmaar Jhooli" for his award-winning films.



ANIMATING INDIA: Manik Sorcar

But beyond them too, the medium seems only incidental to Sorcar's artistic sensibility: acrylic dot-matrix paintings of ancient Indian icons on tiles such that they simulate the relief of stone sculptures; Indian spices and seeds used to create traditional Indian portraits; industrial-grade Styrofoam (light, resilient polystyrene plastic) modelled into life-size sculptures; real clippings of newspaper articles about famous personalities pieced together to form their portraits.

Sorcar is known to turn everything from peanuts and rice grains to chicken wires and fibre optics into novel artworks. His current passion is laser art, "done with metallic sculptures, glass blocks and mirror pieces in combination with colour lasers and state-of-the-art lighting to give a three-dimensional illuminated abstract art in space". Also an acclaimed cartoonist, Sorcar has to his credit two volumes of cartoons capturing diasporal lifestyle. His 8,000-square-feet Arvada residence in suburban Denver can easily give art galleries a run for their money.

Magic of lighting

Once there, it isn't unusual to find him burning the midnight oil. That's because by day, as the president of Sorcar Engineering, a Denver-based firm that has been engaged by the likes of airport concourses in the U.S., sport centres in Japan and palaces in Saudi Arabia to invoke the magic of lighting, Sorcar, a qualified electrical engineer and author of several popular lighting design texts prescribed in U.S. and Indian universities, is meeting stringent electrical codes and satisfying demanding customers. So it's only at night that he gets to don the mantle of a one-man creative enterprise in his 2,800-square-feet basement studio. "Retiring to my art world charges my batteries."

Educational experiment

Actively involved in Sorcar's work are wife Shikha and his two U.S.-born daughters — Payal and Piya — the twin spurs for Sorcar's foray into animation. "In the early 1980s, I'd often see them, then five and three, sitting glued to the TV watching Sesame Street," he recalls. "I feared they would forget their cultural roots. So I wrote songs in Bengali (which later became CBS records and cassettes) and made Indian animations where they sang or acted." What thus began as an educational experiment led three years later to Sorcar's first animation production "Deepa and Rupa: A Fairy Tale from India".

And when it beat contenders from Children's Workshop and Hanna Barbera to bag the top honour at the 33rd New York International Film Festival, Sorcar knew a larger role at showcasing the Indian culture to the West beckoned him next. What followed were "The Sage and the Mouse" (gold medal at the 36th New York International Film Festival), "Sniff" (1993 C.I.N.E. Golden Eagle, Washington DC), "Rule of Twenty-one" (bronze plaque, 51st Columbus International Film Festival), and "The Woodcutter's Daughter" (finalist at the 40th Annual New York Festival).

Such is the appeal of Sorcar's animations that they have ruled the Christmas and New Year fare of mid-west America's Public Broadcasting Service for 14 years. "Nothing is more heart-warming to me," he says, "than seeing a smile on a child's face when he is happy watching my animation."

Says Beverly B. Title of St. Vrain Valley School District, Longmont: "It thrills me that Sorcar has selected this vehicle for sharing his native culture with English-speaking children. It's easy for them to see that our cultures aren't so different in the lessons that we teach our children."

Beverly Robbin, a teacher and media specialist at the Cherry Creek School District, says, "Sorcar's videos are extremely entertaining and present a strong moral message without being preachy. We have used it widely with kindergartners through third graders, and the result has always been extreme enthusiasm and provocative discussion."

Says Sorcar, "Living in America, raising two children, and observing the lack of knowledge of the Americans about India and her culture, forced me to learn more about our homeland and do something within my means to present it to the world."

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