Digital Materials for Baha’i Storytelling Performances

Ravi Purushotma has created a unique artistic resource for communities producing dramas or plays about Baha’i history — particularly in the days and weeks leading up to, during and after celebrations for the bicentenary anniversary of the Birth of the Bab, Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. It’s unlike any other creative project I’ve heard of, so I was excited to hear from Ravi about what it is, how it works, and how others can use it. Here’s our conversation:

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about this initiative?

Sure, we’re creating downloadable materials that people can use to put on professional-looking Baha’i plays, without having to sink time into all the logistics that are normally required for performance arts. Essentially, someone would go to www.bahai.studio and browse through a set of plays they could perform. After selecting one, they’d download it and put it on a digital projector, which would then create all the scenes/backgrounds, props and anything else needed to support that play. Actors would then stand in-front of the screen and perform the play, optionally receiving their lines to say via bluetooth headphones. By carefully coordinating the timing of the projected content with the movements of the actors, we can create the illusion of interacting with projected objects. There’s the potential with that technique to create some innovative and breathtaking experiences. Here’s an example of this technique from YouTube.

Baha’i Blog: What was the main idea behind the initiative, and why was it important for you to make it?

There were probably a number of little ideas behind it that all came together that made it feel important to create. One was watching the extreme amounts of sacrifices communities currently require in order to put on artistic performances. Behind even a simple kids play at a Holy Day celebration, there’s often countless hours of sweat and tears put in by parents to actually make that performance happen. Then, after that performance, all that work just kind of evaporates. And communities all over the world are duplicating a lot of the same efforts over and over again. If technology can make some of the behind-the-scenes grunt work smarter across communities, that suddenly frees up a lot of time to focus on less on the logistical and more on the human needs.

Another was seeing how much interest and re-shares non-Baha’i digital projection performances get on platforms like Facebook. I’d think about how if we had similar materials telling the Baha’i stories, it would enable communities anywhere to tap into that same natural interest and intrigue these plays generate. Also thinking about how with movies like The Matrix, the visual effects help captivate kids’ imaginations about what kinds of super heroic powers they could have if they recognize the illusion of the material world and learn to supplicate souls beyond in the next. I know if I could have had the chance as a kid to not just watch, but embody and perform similar real historical examples of that same phenomenon, with Matrix-style effects, it would have sent my imagination into overdrive and created more of a sense of awe with the history of the Faith.

So those and really lots of other little ideas kinda culminated together to make it feel important to create this project.

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your technical background in making something like this?

Ravi Purushotma

My academic background is in Educational Video Game Design/Development and my professional background is in Web Programming. Unfortunately neither of those are particularly helpful for the art and 3D-modelling skills needed for this project, but I’ve been learning fast. Once the first set of plays are ready, I have ideas of how my programming background can be useful in developing more supporting materials and companion apps to further enhance the plays and simplify the distribution.

Baha’i Blog: What sort of effect do you hope this product will have on others?

I’m hoping it can help to break down some of the dilemmas and dichotomies we currently experience:

* Do we put on Holy Day performances intended primarily for Baha’is with explicitly Baha’i content or do we focus on putting on a celebration we can easily invite people who aren’t Baha’i to and know they’ll find it fun and compelling?

* Do we just accept that kids will always have the allure of television, video games and other modern media, but they must put that all aside for the Faith and learn to sit patiently instead?

* Do we focus all our time and resources on putting on great artistic performances, or do we dedicate our energy elsewhere and Feast/Holy Days/etc can only afford more basic programs?

My hope is that as we take the technologies used in popular culture and utilize them for the Faith, we’ll be able to remove some of these dichotomies. I hope we’ll be able to regularly and easily put on performances of Baha’i history, at a caliber that even people who aren’t Baha’i will love to watch.

Baha’i Blog: Have people or communities been using it, and if so, what has the response been like so far?

We’ve done some performances locally at feasts, holy day celebrations and the arts portion of a regional conference. People are definitely surprised and blown away when they see for the first time all the digital and physical elements coming together in front of them. It definitely helps give the stories much more of an emotional impact and allows them to come to life. At this point, we’d really love to move beyond local performances and perfect the infrastructure so anyone anywhere can use the materials and put on a great play.

Baha’i Blog: What’s something about the project or the journey in making this, that you can share which has touched you personally?

Really the most encouraging thing for me is just how supportive my wife has been of the project. At first, I was just playing around with digital video editing to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. At some point, it started to evolve into something that communities anywhere could potentially benefit from, but could also turn into a lot of work if they ended up needing help and support. At that point, my wife essentially said “If you believe communities can benefit, go for it! Whatever balls you end up needing to drop while juggling this, don’t worry, I’ll pick them up. Just, go go go!” Knowing that if there’s any sudden surge of interest in performing these plays ahead of the bicentenary, that I can have the bandwidth available to provide the necessary support, is hugely liberating. For me, being able to really delve into The Dawn-Breakers and create cool video art is hardly a sacrifice. But for someone to be willing to take on all the boring stuff in life to needed to make sure all this can actually happen, is truly noble service in my mind!

Baha’i Blog: How can people find out more about it?

There’s information at www.bahai.studio or our facebook page. But, really I’d encourage people to just write me at [email protected] with any questions or support they could use in putting on their own performances!

Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Ravi! And thank you for creating this awesome resource!

Check out the demonstration below of the story of Mulla Ali, the second Letter of the Living.

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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