ReArk, a digital platform offers heritage enthusiasts a tool to view, record, document, and preserve ancient monuments, artefacts and heritage objects in a new dimension.
It could be a potential helping hand to government initiatives, museums, activists and even the deities themselves, in protecting heritage.
Earlier last year in Jaipur, I came across Govardhan Baloch, who is an Indian citizen since 2004, engrossed in a passionate discussion on rituals and the temple of Hinglaj Mata in Balochistan.
Talking to him were several other Hindus from Pakistan, who, like him, are now living in India. Their conversation seemed like an exercise in nostalgia. The very mention of the Hinglaj Mata temple lit up their faces. Moments later, I requested Baloch to describe the temple and the deity to me. He tried, reviving its form and colours, from his brilliant memory, in words.
Men surrounding him threw in bits from their memory — mostly from their sight and description of the goddess’s depiction, seen and unseen. Not all of them have been to the temple. Yet, they have helped me conjure up an image of the goddess and her form, which, thoroughly, is based on their vigorous and tearful description.
Despite some temptation for over a year, I have not looked up photographs of Hinglaj Mata on the Internet. Memory of a sacred depiction passed on verbally is a potential form of oral tradition, after all. Is it sufficient?
It is not, enough, not. Her form I have imagined could be incomplete or even wrong, or completely different. Finally, appetite for photographic evidence of that particular depiction of Hinglaj Mata at the revered shakteepeeth, has set in.
There are recurrent motifs I have found in traces of daily lives and roots that Hindu migrants from Pakistan have carried with them to India. The painted patakas (flags), thread work women do, verbal descriptions of their rituals at their current abodes and lives in Rajasthan and Delhi are some of them.
I have found these motifs uncannily lingering in Indian objects, depictions and sculptures over different collections homed and shown at New Delhi museums. Sometimes, even within the frames of Kangra drawings and paintings on museum walls. Recently, at an exhibition of art on cloth, paper, and depictions in bronze and iron celebrating Hanuman.
Pataka was a recurrent medium and motif in objects, drawings and painting works at this exhibition bringing depictions of Hanuman from Rajasthan, Kashmir, Kangra, Karnataka, and Nepal. And that was a bit beautifully unsettling. It popped up the urge to roll out the vast canvas of motifs — spread between Hingol and Ganga; stretch it further, between Hingol and Brahamaputra — to study the familiar, the similar, the recurrent, the common and own, the grabbed, plundered, stolen, devastated or destroyed.
The image of Hinglanj Mata could work as a catalyst in the reluctant exploration of the larger Hindu discourse in the Indian subcontinent.
What’s the quickest and the easiest way to make a beginning? Collecting photographic evidence, may be. Better still, collecting, documenting, assimilating, digitally archiving and storing their photographic evidence in dimensions more than two.
Even better, reconstructing an intangible form — aided by memory, imagination, emotion and recollection. Hinglaj, Kunjapuri and Kamamkhya — the devis meet on your computer screen in three dimensions. Possible? Certainly.
Seeing the unseen
How do you connect with the inaccessible and unseen? How do you connect with the accessible yet unseen — in your own country?
By putting together photographic evidence. Camera phone. Everybody has that. That DSLR. Many have that. Pictures taken by one visitor, two, forty, even a thousand, may be. That's brilliant documentation of the seen and unseen cultural capital, bordering part recording and part mapping; part tracing and part investigating; part celebrating and part preserving.
Isn't it also how, when Twitter handles such as @ReclaimTemples and related hashtags came up, did you and I see part of the unseen Indian cultural assets and capital? Take it a step ahead. Towards recording and using the act and outcome of recording — to visualise and to even reassemble and recreate.
Here is a scenario. Four photographing drones fly at dawn. One, rising from the rock bed behind the Kedarnath temple, over the Jyotirling nestled in the Himalayas; the second, over the Kandariya Mahadev temple, Khajuraho; the third, steering towards the clouds circling the Brihadeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. The drones hover over the temple complexes. After some rest, they take off at dusk — returning with their eagle-view of the great living abodes of Kailash, Mahadev, Shiv.
The drone dips and groans. Then, the images captured by it are gathered; the recording of the magnificent architecture is sliced into staccato stills, and pushed under a magic tool, which, after some work gone into processing from two dimensional images to three dimensional versions done automatically and manually, lays out three dimensional (3D) models of the view and temple plan. Sounds like a dream.
It's an idea. All you need is love for heritage and three dimensions.
Next scenario. Step out of the ancient architecture. Now, move towards the dais. Noted Indian classical dancer Alarmel Valli, may be, one day, a year from now, wants to share her ideas on the influence of Indian sculptures on Indian classical dance forms with two thousand students spread across India.
She brings together the two expressions - visual and performing arts, to explain the nuances on rasa, posture, body, gender, mudras, etc, on a common ground - temple art and sculpture.
As her audience, you get to view a performance in Bharatanatyam unfolding next to 3D models of ancient sculptures. A screen mounted on the dais could show three dimensional models of the sculptures the gurus have chosen to intensify her lecture demonstration. These models could be flashed one by one, as the guru speaks, explaining how Indian classical dances derive life and material from great human imagination frozen in stone. Sounds like a dream. It’s another idea.
It is an achievable task. A cultural must. All you would need to see it happening, is an understanding of the arts, oodles of love for heritage, the gurus to turn things around with their performance, and three dimensions.
The canvas of exploring several disciplines of art together by using 3D models of our cultural capital is vast. Such an ambitious collaboration could even be a mammoth lec-dem, connecting students across India, and around the globe. It could give eyes, ears and legs to not just aspiring dancers and learns of art, but explorers, towards Bharat. All this could be done and dispatched on a single dais.
Next scenario. Now, imagine, if every image and view of Hampi, as seen from photographer and researcher John Gollings's eyes and camera, some 10,000, was passed through a tool, which would convert them into three dimensional models.
Imagine the same documentation and treatment given to the use of the next batch of 10,000 pictures taken by Gollings. With his permission and willingness, of course. Would that not be a virtual and parallel Hampi preserved for posterity? Would that not give students around the globe a solid introduction to Hampi, India and Indian soft power?
Not everything is restricted to imagination and wishful thinking. Sometimes, a game changing move springs from a combination of these two. Not everyone can be a John Gollings or a George Michell against the splendour of Hampi. But you could be you. A heritage enthusiast. One among the million such, or more.
A picture taken out of curiosity could dig up the unknown, the lesser known and the unexplored. It could even conjure up professional expertise, a confluence of talents, brilliant ideas towards a futuristic action plan.
Something similar happened at Parali village Near Satara in Maharashtra. The inspiration came on Twitter and the real work happened on ground — with some help from technology.
When Satara based Rohit Pramod Badde, a freelance professional in design, recently uploaded a batch of 50 pictures of a sculpture depicting the Nandi bull on Reark, a website offering three dimensional conversion of pictures as one its several features, he was stunned by, the result. Three dimensional model of the images of the Nandi bull depiction he had submitted and uploaded, appeared on his computer screen — in the form of a 3D model.
The images Badde captured are from a temple — “one of the three temples” situated in Parali village, 20 kilometres away from his home Satara. “No one knows much about these temples, expect that”, Badde says, “they are ‘ancient’ and locals attribute them to the Pandav (Mahabharat) era.”
He adds, “One among these temples is famous as Mahadev Temple.” This could be owing to, perhaps, the powerful presence of what Badde calls “a rare panchmukhi Shivling.”
As I write, I am moving the 3D model obtained and published under Badde's name, around with a hand tool provided on the ReArk website, between sentences. My mail inbox has the image of a damaged sculpture and of the original Nandi sculpture, which has been captured by Badde in his Canon DSLR.
Broken sculpture is a painful sight. So, am hopping over to ReArk, observing a (complete) Nandi depiction, hoping that a broken depiction is soon recreated with the help of a 3D depiction - showing Shiva's vehicle in its intangible happy, complete, well fed and stoic form - packed in ReArk's three dimensional processing.
Badde tells Swarajya about what he has seen at the three temples in the village so far. He says, "There is also a Ganpati idol in the temple. I was told by the villagers that it was during the construction of the dam near Urmudi river when people working there found the Shivling Nandi and Ganpati from the site."
How did he get to know about ReArk?
“On Twitter, through one of the interactions initiated by the Reclaim Temples handle. I thought it would be a good idea to upload pictures of the Nandi sculpture. The website published a 3D model of the sculpture. I had to do nothing except provide the pictures. It was a positive point."
The possible original form of the broken sculptures, according to Badde, could be arrived at by obtaining three dimensional models from images taken. The three idols are not all among the wonders in Parali, he tells. There are erotic sculptures in one of the temples.
He adds, "I was told by villagers that the temple did not receive visitors owing to the presence of erotic sculptures in one of the three temples. These are spread on a single horizontal panel." He is yet to take 360 pictures of the panchmukhi Shivling for uploading on ReArk to derive a 3D model.
ReArk — The Gamechanger
In the years that have followed the widening use of technology to explore the arts and heritage, independent initiatives have prompted a leap in ideas and work towards awareness and exploration of heritage.
ReArk, one such platform aimed towards recording and documenting art, heritage and ancient objects, besides offering to share and discuss contemporary works and objects, has made small beginnings that may very soon into a giant leap. ReArk website mentions that it is a platform meant to "empower everyone to record and preserve all things as 3D content and share it with the world."
Founder Harish Pawaskar opens up on its motive and the process that connects a powerful tool with users. First thing. His target is to document “all” heritage sites in India.
He says, "We first tried using the 3D tool in 2008. We undertook some work with Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Earlier, we used not just pictures, but also laser scanning. 3D is a medium. What we can do with that medium is important. We have simplified the process on ReArk. Registered users just have to upload images into their profile and they get a 3D model which can be visualised using our innovative 3D model viewer. They can also use the 3D model for research and 3D printing.”
ReArk has been roving at several heritage sites and has worked on images from them. Some of them are Belur and Halebidu, Hampi, Badami Caves, Elephanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Ajanta Caves, Konark Sun Temple, Goa - Gajah cave, Bali, Indonesia; Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Rani Ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat; Modhera Sun Temple, Gujarat; Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tamilnadu; Kumbakonam, and the Kanheri caves in Mumbai.
Pawaskar understands that reaching all heritage sites and monuments is not easy. Hence, they thought of the move to empower users with a tool they can use, without having to worry about much regarding the process. ReArk could also serve as repository.
“Additionally using ReArk as a repository for documented 3D models of heritage data is that all the data will be stored on Indian servers.”The three member team is looking at input-based quick action.
He adds, "We wanted to provide. We wanted to be the facilitators. We knew we can do a lot of service providing to where ever this service may be required. But that was not our goal. We wanted to be enablers. We have helped ASI in the past and we are open for more collaborations with other agencies and museums ."
The shape of bigger possibilities and collaborations
ReArk, according to Pawaskar, has been invited by Apple to be a part of an app accelerator program based in Bangalore. This will help ReArk create augmented reality tourism app. This and the website's expansion makes him expect a revolution of sorts.
He says, "It will be a game changing move. Secondly, it will allow us to showcase the use cases of our platform, how the content that is uploaded on the platform can be used to create an output. It can be used for not only tourism, but other areas as well, like research etc. Also, we want to contribute towards keeping such data on Indian heritage within India.”
Museums are registered on ReArk and have 3D content sourced from it. Some of them are Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore and Angkor National Museum, Siam Reap, Cambodia. In India: National Museum, New Delhi; Government Museum Bangalore, Konark Museum, Odisha; Shivamogga Museum, Shivamogga, Halebidu Archaeological Museum and Goa State Museum.
It is open for all. Pawaskar adds, "If we have to create data for such a large number and do it quickly, there are only two ways, one is reduce the cost of the process and secondly, coming up with a process that can be used by others. We can't be doing everything. It is impossible. First, because of the logistics and secondly because of manpower needed and infrastructure needed.”
The thought and vision behind the platform go beyond helping and padding up work for organisations such as ASI, tourism departments and related government initiatives.
Trapping energies between governmental wings and limited resources of ambitions initiatives like ReArk would be restricting the reach and momentum of a noble idea. With the entry of a platform like ReArk comes diversity.
May be one day, Swarajya, under its flowering Heritage programme, requests, cajoles and chases noted Saraswati Veena legend Jayanti Kumaresh - to explore the structure, life, the making and evolution of the Saraswati Veena and the Indian Veena through the ages. There again. Three dimensional models of sculptures from India's temple architecture and art, appearing slide after slide, as Kumaresh walks through history and sound, explaining science, art and shastras in her precious voice and mastery.
Here's how inspiration works. Those who would be moved to tears witnessing such a presentation, perhaps fetch fifty photographs more, from lesser known and non-ticketed monuments north south east west, from walls and murals within, say, during the next six months.
More depictions of the veena are found. More interpretation of design. Use of that interpretation opens up. More information on the playing styles and stances. More on strings and sound. Makers of the veena happen to chance upon this presentation when Kumaresh next travels to her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu and experiment with shruti to discover a new treasure. Sounds, this, a dream.
All you need to make it possible is understanding of and love for music, the belief - that physics and visual arts have the most natural confluence in Indian classical music. And three dimensions.
Such a collaboration is a possibility that classical music, India's music history, instrument design, sound and artistes, really deserve. And this can be achieved by studying sculptures in an added dimension. The third dimension. Instead of just two.
Vision — the weapon for virtual experience
ReArk, to help realise such possibilities, is hoping to walk the miles with million legs and eyes. Pawaskar adds, "We want to be enablers where anybody can use the tool. Imagine you are somewhere at a very remote area. You are at some ancient temple, looking at a sculpture. If you are pursuing just that one sculpture of temple, the cost goes so high. Why not train someone around that place and make them a part of this whole process?"
He adds, referring to Badde's work and contribution. "From a remote part of Satara, he took pictures taken from an ancient temple. It is in a very bad state. It needs to be cleaned up. He was quite happy with the results he got and now he wants to cover another object in that area."
Here is how the process works. Let's look at Badde's involvement as a case. The material sent by him: around fifty pictures of Nandi.
Pawaskar says, "He uploaded them on the ReArk 3D creating tool and as soon as the 3D model is ready, we get notified, we process it. He has the right to download the image."
According to Pawaskar, a 60 per cent over lap in the pictures is ideal. Why is it needed? "So that the object is identified in both pictures and so that there are more number of points that match. Depending on the object you need the photos. For recording of inscription stones in Bangalore, one would need 40 to 50 pictures. In my documentation of Cambodia, there are instances where I have taken 500 and even a 1000 pictures."
This helps in arriving at the best completion of the model and a well-rounded view required for digital preservation and attractive viewing.
All you need is curiosity, persistence, patience, a camera, walking shoes, and a smart phone or computer. A little more, if you go by Badde's advice: "preferably, a digital SLR. Because it solves all issues regarding the auto focus, which, in my experience does not always gets best results when you are aiming for smooth and sharp conversion from 2D to 3D," he says.
It doesn’t have a cost. It will.
The tool is free currently. It will have a cost soon. Pawaskar adds, "Right now, we are in the Beta stage. We have kept it open. It is free. We want to popularise it. This will also help the team in testing all the features thoroughly.”
Will charging affect the input (of picture data from users)? "If there is something that is free, it will be widely used. We will see how we can balance it out. So that the impact is not high. It also overall serves the purpose, the objective is to enable everyone to record objects."
Social networking of ReArk would add speed to its work. "We were planning to do ReArk groups. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have helped us and pushed our content. Traction has grown."
Flood gates and impact
It would not be wrong to say that once ReArk opens its gates and pictures start flooding in, considering the rising enthusiasm for ancient Indic architecture on social media platforms, it would be sitting on a data time bomb. Pawaskar agrees.
He adds, "It is going to be huge. We should have been much ahead, considering the prospects of 3D models not only in the cultural aspect. It is expected to be a game changer in the industry. Imagine a scenario where an architect wants to use the art work; imagine a scenario where the architect wants to collaborate with the user - the person who has obtained and published a 3D model from the picture of an architectural work or object he uploaded on ReArk. He might want to use it in his work or design. Imagine a scenario where a game artist or a 3D modelling expert or a student learning animation wants to showcase his work."
Though there are other commercial possibilities related to objects that ReArk would want to explore for revenue, its vision for the use of 3D modelling towards recording, exploring and documenting architectural heritage, is motivational. In the process, it would also help in mapping temples, objects and works, reconstructing and preserving.
There is another dimension to commercial success of the feature, which solely belongs with the users who may like to put the 3D models to use for generating revenue and expanding their own creative ventures.
"There are people who would like to share the 3D models of pictures taken by them for likes on Facebook and Instagram, but at at the same time, there are many who may want to take the time invested in this entire process beyond these platforms - to business and ventures.”
“We need to give them something from which probably they earn something out of the 3D models. They can sell the 3D model to someone who wants it for gaming, or design, or a research app. They can make revenue out if that. The person who is putting his time and energy into this can make some revenue. A recognition, at least, is a must, and every contributor would deserve that."
The crux of the matter remains that when money starts flowing in from pictures uploaded and the resources invested towards 3D models from ReArk, the documentation of art and architectural heritage would remain a multiplying constant.
Once the preservation exercise through this medium becomes a habit, and culture, ReArk could face an enthusiastic bombardment of input, and a flurry of expected output. The impact of ReArk's features and models, seemingly, would be vaulting into different directions, arenas and user profiles, then.
Will ReArk prioritise pictures the content it receives in such a scenario? Will lesser known monuments/works/heritage sites/objects be taken first, instead of a well-known/ popular one?
"It will be on first come first serve basis. We will also be working on subscription plans. There will be a higher data availability for more number of objects. We will have a pro plan."
He adds, "Most monuments we have captured so far fall into the ticketed monument category. There are two reasons for this: it is easy to travel and they are more known (and popular). From these you would get the maximum data in a day's time. When we put this content out, people relate to it much more and much faster."
Competition in any sphere is inevitable. What would be ReArk's unique feature if it faces competition from another platform, which, let's assume, offers the same/similar features that aim at obtaining 3D models and claim to preserve heritage?
"One is, we are as of now the only publishing platform which allows users to create a 3D model. There are a few other companies providing it but they are not publishing platforms. We are the only yet in the world.”
“You pay a subscription, pay for using 2D to 3D conversion tool, there are no free services, there you have no ability to publish, share, comment, like, create a reference, create collections and so on. That is the unique proposition we have as of now. Secondly, we believe that the kind of community we are going to build would be our key competitive advantage. Our sensibility towards culture, our research, what we understand of it, is unique," Pawaskar adds.
Users will be allowed to tag the content they are putting. Then, there is also a possibility a collection - pertaining to temples, the style of architecture, region, etc. One collection category could be Belur, another, Chennakeshava temple and so on.
"Algorithms will be decided in such a way that you will be given results as per your likes, it will be moving in that direction. We need to provide user experience where lovers and followers of Hoysala architecture would be able to connect with and will be directed to their likes and experience those contents. Otherwise they will get lost. There will be uniform visibility."
It is only natural to get blown away by the romance in possibilities that ReArk and its tools and features throw. Why the enthusiasm does not pinch much, currently, is because none of it is crackling ice or figment of wishful thinking riding on data and content. It is real. It is warm and flowing.
The figures and figurines, motifs and carvings will walk out of the walls and pillars, facades and plaques, in three dimension, as they walk out when you observe them in all tear-blurred focus. Replace, sometimes, the eyes with a camera lens, and definitely, replace a selfie with a picture of a heritage object. And with a 3D model obtained on ReArk, you would have contributed directly or indirectly, depending on your capacity, towards documentation.
According to Pawaskar, as of now, 30 per cent of ReArk's visitors are from outside India. "Our traction is huge. We are updating important features in the coming weeks towards a larger impact."
Pawaskar's interest in product development and product design using 3D technology drove him towards "putting thoughts into something like this (ReArk)".
He wants to strengthen the art of story telling through sculptures. For this, he is working towards connecting the sculptures and cultural objects with the viewers through stories a multiple languages. "Unless people know the story behind the Garuda sculpture in Belur temple, they won't be able to connect with it. The story will be of great interest."
Currently, heritage enthusiasts share pictures in dedicated different groups on social networking sites. Once people start knowing about a powerful ReArk tool in their hands that allows them to upload, retrieve, publish and share three dimensional reproduction of images from them, the pool of pictures will soar.
If all goes well in the practical use of ReArk's features, and in line with its vision, heritage sites could witness exclusive visual documentation, which could be meaningfully used by students, artists, experts and conservationists along their way and work.
The curious eye, a deeper view
More the eyes and cameras, more the awareness and alertness. The power of this tool in the hands of a hero such as S Vijay Kumar, who is instrumental in tracking stolen ancient object or sculptures, is insurmountable. The power of this tool for art conservationists, undoubtedly, immense.
If heritage conservationist Prasad Pawar obtained three dimensional versions of Ajanta works he has restored, without touching them, and shared them with architects, students of art, aesthetics and architecture the world over, for a cost, of course, viewers would perhaps be blinded by the brilliance of dimensions tucked away in the dark hollows of our ancient caves.
The power of this tool at humanities, science and art colleges, architecture schools, fashion schools and houses, schools of arts and aesthetics, dance and music gurukuls, school morning assembles, libraries, classrooms, can be best realised when you think of the ways Indian art is not taught to Indian children and youth at Indian institutions.
Absence of an aspect in education is sometimes the best realisation of its presence — a scroll down ReArk's growing website would give you a fair idea of how it can add spark to lessons and visual experience and understanding of India’s history.
There are things that would or could spurt along simultaneously once such a platform goes full swing.
Here is a short list of some I can quickly think of. Documentation of India's rock cut temples, a revolution in storytelling by studying the panoramic panels in Indian ancient temple walls; conservation of broken sculptures, objects, temples and temple walls in a systematic and scientific manner; understanding civilisational cradles; in excavations and discoveries; exhaustive study of India's devi temples, their sculptural heritage, expressions and gender discourses; for deeper probing of different lineages and dynasties - their expression and styles; their expanse outside the Indian shores; the unraveling of the insides and outsides of the sun temples of Uttarakhand and of those beyond the Vindhyas. For knowing traditional techniques for formulating conservation policies and plans towards restoration of dilapidated heritage; revisiting some destroyed and some dilapidated temples in Kashmir's continuous and systematic cultural deterioration, through the reconstructed models for awareness, research, documentation and perhaps restoration and recreation. For strengthening the viewing at museums and their archival wings, research wings, education wings and security.
The last four years have seen a revival of dialogue and display of heritage related to Ramayana, Ram and Hanuman. Their stories and reminders are living in stone and metal of ancient creation and rich human imagination across India.
I, for one, would aspire to dedicate contributions to ReArk on the king of Ayodhya, starting this month. You never know, once contribution from users trickles into some thousands, Ram would perhaps himself send inspiration shooting towards procrastinators in the form of a 3D depiction. All, for the distant Ram Temple in Ayodhya, one day.
Hinglaj Temple, in its emotional distance, and rough political terrain, does exist. Ram Temple in the land of Ram does not. Until it remains at the dawn-lit horizon of imagination, let us hope that digital preservation of existing heritage through a three dimension-empowering tool ensures one thing. That, for the future generations, viewing of the sacred does not eventually fade into an oral tradition of sorts, but remain as the intangible trace, image and proof of the tangible.