This is an animation film about a pious cow and a hungry tiger. It’s entirely in Sanskrit – and the first of its kind. You’d be surprised to know that Sanskrit films have been made before.
Kannada filmmaker GV Iyer made two feature films in Sanskrit: Adi Shankaracharya (1983) and Bhagavad Gita (1993), and both won National Awards. But this, some may even call it a ‘Sanskrit cartoon film’ – still a project in the pipeline – seems more accessible, and well, more fun. It’s smaller in scale, perhaps less complex in literary weight, but equally big as the others in ambition and scope. And it’s set to create much intrigue in the months to come.
Animated about the past: A still from Ravi Shankar’s (below) animated Sanskrit project Punyakoti. The story of a cow who always speaks the truth, the film draws its influence from an old Kannada folk song.
Punyakoti, touted to be the world’s first-ever animation film in Sanskrit, is being helmed by 43-year-old Ravi Shankar, whose day job is heading the HR function at Infosys’ Bengaluru BPO.
It’s a simple yet moving parable: a hungry tiger comes across a cow called Punyakoti and decides to make a meal of her. Punyakoti convinces the tiger that she’ll return to sacrifice herself, once she’s fed her young calf waiting at home. True to her word, she returns to be the tiger’s meal – classic old school throwback to the days of Panchatantra.
The story is drawn from a popular Kannada folk song called Govina Haadu (The Cow’s Song), which is actually based on an episode in the Mahabharata (from the section of the Shanti Parva or "Chapter of Peace"). "I heard it for the first time three years ago on a bus when my colleague started singing it... that made me think of a way to recreate it," says Shankar.
What Shankar thought would be intriguing was the tiger’s reason for coming out of its natural forest habitat to attack a cow grazing much further away. He wanted to talk about ecological imbalance while retaining the story’s original sensibility. He ended up writing a book by the same name [Punyakoti published by Partridge Publishing in July 2014].
“After the book came out, I went to share the story with [celebrated music director] Ilaiyaraaja, who I knew through a filmmaker friend. He really liked it and said it’ll make for a good film.” So impressed was Ilaiyaraaja with the idea that he decided to compose the music for free.
Shankar doesn’t really have a background in Sanskrit, per se. He studied English literature in college and has an MBA in Human Resources. He began his career as a copywriter – "I was an interactive multimedia writer, and I wrote a lot for children. I see myself as a storyteller in that sense." – but it was while working with Infosys, that he learnt the language: he got into the company’s Sanskrit Appreciation club in 2013, where volunteers taught the language to non-speakers.
Within two years, he had picked up the language enough to speak it – and understand literary texts. "I read the Bhagavad Gita, and other Sanskrit literature. I realised the vast body of work we have in the language, and how it’s dying out. I wanted to do something for a language which encompasses about 5,000 years of knowledge," he explains.
And so the film, he decided, had to be in Sanskrit. Interestingly, way back in 1995, Shankar had also conceived the first ever interactive animated CD Rom for children – "I was always drawn to animation as an art form and learned it for some time."
It’s a pity, he says, that the decline of Sanskrit is related to middle-class aspirations: "We aren’t inclined to learn a lot of languages. I guess years of the industrial revolution meant that most people wanted to learn the sciences more than languages."
Punyakoti has managed to gather a fair amount (Rs 21 lakh) from contributors online but is yet to meet the Rs 40 lakh target. Crowdfunding aside, it’s also being crowdsourced. "I put the whole idea of the film online and asked people to come on board if they were interested," says Shankar. Though initially the response was weak, soon a lot of eager animation artists wanted to be part of the film, which has been divided into 31 scenes – each to be done by a different artist.
Despite the odd effort to revive Sanskrit, is Shankar hopeful about the language’s future? He says he is: "Anything useful to humanity always finds a way to survive, irrespective of its popularity or lack of it. Look at Ayurveda. It’s still around, no? Sanskrit will remain alive."
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From HT Brunch, August 16
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