A game, a social art project
Pepper is suddenly lonely. Tejpatti, the beloved; Jeera, the buddy; Elaichitai, the Clove, the Diva; Ginger, the wise man; Hingoo, the sentimental hunk all have been chased away from Bombay. And for being foreigners in this land. Food had lost colour and so has life in general. Who will bring the colour and the aroma back into life, and for the palate?
THE ETHOS OF MULTI-CULTURALISM: The mission is fraught with danger and checkered with fun.
"TIME is running out": a comic strip bubble explodes, setting two kids off on a spin around the global tourist hotspots in the game animation CD, "Spice Adventures". Speed is the new ethic among children. They are always going somewhere at the click of a button: the destination doesn't matter; it's about escaping the here-ness of objects andspaces. The fantasy of shopping for virtual elsewheres is insatiable. It involves either instant gratification, stockpiling rewards, or military-style mop-ups: shoot and chase; kill and win. Since they have been reared as mouse potatoes, it is difficult to wean today's children away from such combat zones, such pornographic violence.
Is there then even a faint possibility of sensitising kids to the utopian ideals of freedom, justice and equality? A difficult proposition in virtual narratives where dead bodies disintegrate into pixels and disappear without a trace. But not an impossible one. At least, that is what the Spice Adventures team seems to convey through its game animation project, the first of its kind produced as a non-commercial venture in India. Sponsored by HIVOS and produced by Majlis (A Centre for Alternative Culture and Rights Discourse), it is a collaboration between activists, filmmakers and researchers (Madhusree Dutta and her colleagues), animators (Thatz It Productions) and a visual artist (Shilpa Gupta).
They have visualised a persuasive metaphor, that of migrant spices being driven out of their country by force to be brought back, after many trials and tribulations, by the two kids who were giddily speeding nowhere in the prelude, but find a purpose worth dedicating themselves to. This CD represents a conjunction of various impulses: a sophisticated game animation, it is also a politically conscious art project and a medium of social awareness. It adopts an inventive approach to discuss complex issues related to violence against migrants, identitarian politics, and the colonisation of local resources.
The CD plays with older forms like the treasure hunt, a game with embedded clues, shadow puppetry silhouettes and traditional folklore. It unfolds as a frame-within-a-frame narrative, embellished with kathas and upakathas, side stories that loop into nested narratives. But the look, in keeping with the game CD format, is very contemporary it has a Walt Disney feel, familiar to 9 to 12 year olds from English-speaking, middle and upper middle class families. The English dialogues are peppered with Bambaiyya Hindi via Bollywood: words like `tapori', `kantala' and `chulbuli' are savoured for their funtoosh sounds. And while rap is belted out in an Arabian scenario, the theme tune of "The Sound of Music" is borrowed from Hollywood to signal the safe passage of the spices.
The CD's accessible comic-strip format encourages dialogue between characters, interspersed with games that make the player an active participant rather than a passive recipient of the narrative. The games act as obstacles and interrupt the story, but also entertain the player. The conventional memory joggers and puzzles are accompanied by more elaborate devices: raining daggers, swishing arrows and sinister crocodiles which double as rocks to drown the players or squash them in their scissor-sharp mouths. Unlike dry-as-dust activist documentaries, where entertainment is seen in opposition to knowledge, this game animation CD entertains the player even while helping her/him to participate in the crises of our times. And while the games are by no means sanitised, they are intense and engrossing; they never resort to mindless violence as in a commercial game CD. As the artist Shilpa Gupta says, "We have to find a balance between propaganda and restraint."
The employment of a familiar game format makes "Spice Adventures" interactive in the best sense of the term, creating a synergy between characters and players. A simple memory game constructed around the finding of local names for the spices leads to a discovery of the spice routes: maps track the ancestries of cumin (jeera), asafoetida (heeng) and clove (laung). Click, and you unlock more spice ancestries: the history of the spice crusades undertaken by the Portuguese, British, French and Dutch. This narrative thread finds its culmination in the patenting of spices by the Americans in their high-tech lab in Sri Lanka.
Through "Spice Adventures", children would travel the globe not to shop for consumable goodies, but to forge relationships with forgotten histories and reveal the invisible links between old and new colonialisms. Above all, what connects the epic sweeps and the little histories is the reiteration of the slogan, `India Sabka,' (India belongs to everybody), a bow in the direction of pluralism, a celebration of difference, while not being suspicious of sameness.
If distributed and marketed properly, this CD could be a small, but significant, attempt at prompting children to think before they click. Its glitches are minor: a text-heavy script in some places, the overly melodramatic character of Kali Mirch (pepper), and the elocutionary delivery of the characters which sometimes lacks tonal nuance. But these fade when you think of the major leap made by the trans-disciplinary "Spice Adventures" team: it is no mean achievement for activism, filmmaking, art and animation to join forces to forge a common language, to improvise a tactical ethic that could marry political commitment with sensuous communication.
Usually, secular artists and intellectuals only rally together in moments of crisis, when pushed by circumstances: a riot, an act of censorship, a genocide. "Spice Adventures" proves, by contrast, that affirmative pro-action rather than reactive outburst is the key to reclaim the public imagination.
"Spice Adventures", A Majlis production -- Beta version; Age: Nine to 12 years; Requirements: Windows compatible PC enabled with Multimedia.
Send this article to Friends by