Times of India Article on Reviving Gyan Chaupar and Golok Dham

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It was a whim that I pursued about finding storytelling elements in ancient games - just to prove that the point I was making in my book was vindicated by aeons of human history. It was Jesper Juul who put me on to it - he asked me at a conference (where I was presenting on Karma in videogames) what ancient Indian games and game theory had to say about play cultures. Jesper knew about the khel / lila concepts and I wasn't surprised given the thorough scholar that he is. However, what he set me thinking about was Pacheesi or Chaupar and Chaturanga. Now, as many know, I'm a Deleuzian at heart and although my attempts to connect Deleuze with Indian philosophy have been resisted by some, I couldn't help connecting the Deleuzian notion of the 'Divine Game' (see Difference and Repetition) to Indian philosophy. Somewhere from my childhood, I remembered tales of Shiva and Parvati playing a divine game of dice.  As I was writing my book (Videogames and Storytelling to be published by Palgrave Macmillan this year), I thought I simply had to find out. With my research, I stumbled on Gyan Chaupar. I also found scholars who had already worked on it. Typically, videogame studies does not seem to have connected with them.

Gyan Chaupar board in the National Museum, New Delhi

My friend, Subhayu Mazumder, of Times of India said he liked the idea. And off I went to do more research. The first fruits of this has appeared in an article in ToI and I have plans to do more with this. Here's an excerpt of the article:

Imagine being told that whatever happens in your life is the result of a game that you have been playing. This is not the plot of a Hollywood thriller but rather the now much-neglected wisdom of ancient India. As you try to contain your incredulity, what if I tell you that this is no rare artefact that has been unearthed by archaeologists but that you probably even have it at home as you read this.  The game being referred to here is Snakes and Ladders, commonly translated as ‘Shap Ludo’ or Snake-Ludo in Bengali. Unknown to many of us, Snakes and Ladders is not a game that Indians learnt from the West; in fact, it is quite the other way round. Known variously as Gyan Chaupar, Gyan Bazi or Moksha Pat, the game with snakes and stairs (rather than ladders) was popular all over ancient India and even survives in various forms in Nepal and Tibet. Exported into England first in 1892, this complex and intricate game of moral teaching ended up as a childishly simple racing game that removed the element of learning and introduced competition. More research into this game revealed articles by a handful of scholars from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia and references to game-boards scattered across the world, only a few of them in different parts of India. Even Reverend Lal Behari De’s 1851 article on Bengali games and pastimes had nothing to say about games such as Gyan Chaupar. Strangely though, there is now much more hope for the revival of this ancient Indian tradition of play than one could ever expect and the story begins with an industrialist in Calcutta who quite accidentally stumbled upon this lost gem and since then, has been working non-stop to bring back Gyan Chaupar to our homes and our minds. 

Aman Gopal Sureka, one of the city’s information technology entrepreneurs, came upon Gyan Chaupar while looking for interesting Diwali gifts for his clients. In the process, he fell in love with the game and this has taken him around the world in his quest for Gyan Chaupar. 

For the rest of the article, click here: http://epaperbeta.timesofindia.com/Article.aspx?eid=31812...

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As the Indian summer raged at its worst in Calcutta and the monsoons were somewhere down South still and tantalisingly close but not yet there, I received a more than welcome invitation that was to take me to Bombay to participate in a discussion on the scope of fiction. As I stepped out of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport and climbed into the waiting taxi, the driver told me that I was in luck. The rains came pouring down soon enough and shortly afterwards, I met my hosts Jyothi and Rajat in their flat. I was here to be part of Syntalk, a weekly talk show based on themes and notions of all kinds where speakers with very disparate perspectives to offer on a topic are brought together to participate in an unrehearsed discussion. What you say (then and there) is what you get. To give you an idea as to the diversity of the topics, the one prior to ours was on poison and the next week, we were told would be the episode on water. Just water. Well, water fascinates me (as readers of an earlier post on Fallout 3 might remember) and I must listen to that episode soon. All the episodes are available for free as podcasts on Soundcloud; the aim that the couple have is ambitious - they wish to record as many aspects of human thought as they can, for the future. 

Ask me to speak on the scope of fiction and I can go on for weeks on end. Fortunately, the other speakers were the eminent authority on narrative theory, Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Anjum Rajabali, Bollywood scriptwriter of Rajneeti and Satyagraha fame and they had their unique takes on fiction. I have worked under Professor Nair at IIT Delhi and there is much that I agree with in her book, Narrative Gravity. She started the conversation with Daniel Dennett’s comment that human beings build stories as birds build nests and then raised the question of narrative versus fiction as well as how the individual related to narratives. Anjum is the first film scriptwriter whom I have met and it was indeed very interesting to hear him speak about how he constructs his stories and to compare in my head the storyboards for games with the scripts that he writes for films. 

The SynTalk organisers have already summarised our discussion so I shall content myself with a copy-paste from their web space. The talk itself is on SoundCloud and is a free podcast.  Do have a listen. I am sure you will have as much fun as I had in being a part of it. As the reader, are you also not the writer … and the player? Well, here’s what the three of us had to say:

And here's a fun summary from the hosts:

SynTalk thinks about narratives & stories, while constantly wondering whether it is the stories that ‘make us up’ and give us our self-hood. We delve into the worlds of literature, film making, video games, philosophy, cognitive sciences, and linguistics to explore why & how we tell & understand stories. The concepts are derived off / from Aristotle, Coleridge, Diderot, Georges Polti, Hitchcock, Labov, E M Forster, Lumière brothers, de Beauvoir, Augusto Boal, Chomsky, Salim-Javed, David Lodge, & Dennett, among others. How identity, time, memory, & emotions are knotted together by fiction. Is story telling like a flight simulator, with most of the rewards but none of the risk? How narratives however, are not synonymous with fiction and, cover both fact & fiction. Do we remember narratively, & create causal links (with mnemonic durability) between the past, present and the possible futures? The difference of a story from a (film) script, & the importance of the dramatic centre? Is narrative experience a (playful) exploration of the space of possibilities – i.e., is all fiction a game? How incompleteness is also a valid possibility in narratives. Why are morals so critical in any satisfying story? How important is it to have a sense of the ending, & how can one return the narrative time to the present? And, in the face of the crisis of our death, is our life more like episodic TV serials, rather than a Greek tragedy? Is lying or cheating a related ability to telling stories? Are stories (video games) more about tying (dying) and untying (undying)? Are there cultures without stories? How there are real physiological reactions and a willing suspension of disbelief on seeing (say) a film in a dark theatre. How can a screenwriter be moved to tears by her own story? Why can’t there be stories without characters or emotions? Are there only a finite number of plots or narratives? What do you see when you look into the mirror in a first-person shooter game? Is there a serial killer inside you? The links between ‘queen died’, 36, spect-actor, chaos, Gilgamesh, Spiderman, Flower, Lagaan, Alzheimer’s, Max Payne, jumping over the chair, alienation, Psycho Mantis, & cheat codes. How are we able to create stories, but are not able to count the number of words in our head? Is social reality the most fictionalized, & is monologue always secondary to collaborative dialogue in story telling? Why aren’t video games laugh-out-aloud funny, & does it have anything to do with the fact that you can’t tickle yourself? Is the future of fiction likely to involve a range of affects & small scale emotions? Can the story strike back at the player (or the reader)? The SynTalkrs are: Dr. Souvik Mukherjee (game studies, literature, Presidency University, Kolkata), Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair (linguistics, narrative theory, IIT Delhi, New Delhi), & Anjum Rajabali (screenwriting, Mumbai).

So what do you think? In case you are interested, here's SynTalk's channel: https://soundcloud.com/syntalk. I'm about to listen to the latest episode on 'The Meanings of Information'.

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