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Animated Indian epic screened first at Memorial

By Janet Harron | Dec. 2, 2008

Last week, Memorial University’s Faculty of Arts was the site of a Canadian first. As part of the celebrations heralding the 40th anniversary of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Dr. Brenda Beck of the Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada introduced an audience to her animated version of an Indian epic, The Legend of Ponnivala.

Small advance excerpts taken from this 26-episode series have appeared in various formats at major animation festivals in Tokyo, Taiwan, Mumbai, and Annecy, France but this is the first time any completed episode has been screened in Canada.

"This is an exciting production. It is great entertainment: the animation is gorgeous and the storytelling engaging. The epic itself can serve as a vehicle for introducing Indian culture and Hindu religion. Perhaps most importantly, this production will allow audiences in many parts of the world to hear  voices from village India through their stories, their art, and their music," said Dr. Patricia Dold of the religious studies department, who organized the events for the Shastria 40th anniversary celebrations and was responsible for inviting Dr. Beck to speak at Memorial.

Dr. Beck, who has a D.Phil.  in social anthropology from Oxford and took early retirement from a full professor position at the University of British Columbia in 1986, currently lives near Peterborough, Ontario. She was first introduced to the epic in 1965 while staying in an unelectrified village in the deep south of India. 

“I soon found out that the nights were far more exciting than the days for that was when the storytellers came out,” she said. An elderly and nearly blind folk bard took 18 nights to sing the 44 hour epic.

After years of collecting this huge legend, translating it, publishing it and writing about it, Dr. Beck wanted to communicate the story more widely and share it with the world. A 1983 trip to India as a consultant to Dr. David Suzuki’s television crew inspired her to begin to study film production and ultimately served as the catalyst for the Legend of Ponnivala project.

The 2-D animated series underway is the work of five full time animators  -- one of which, Ravichandiran Arumugam, has a direct family connection to the epic as both his father and grandfather were singers/performers of the song. The animation work is being modeled consciously on the traditional folk art of the Tamil Nadu region and the animators are basing their work on original paintings.

Visiting Memorial along with Dr. Beck was Steafan Hannigan, an Irish ethnomusicologist who is now based in southern Ontario. He is the music and sound effects Director for the project. His passionate interest in folk music was evident at the screening of the film, where audience members were encouraged to play the 20 Indian instruments Mr. Hannigan brought along with him.  In his first trip to Newfoundland, Mr. Hannigan also found time to play at local pubs such as the Ship, Bridie Molloy’s, and Nellie’s, gave two talks to Memorial’s music department on Irish traditional music and Indian classical and folk music, and he also instructed private students in the finer points of the uilleann pipes.

Dr. Beck gave talks in university classes dedicated to Folk Literature, Folklore, Hinduism, and to an ancient Sansksrit epic called The Ramayana while visiting Memorial.  She is expecting the animation project to be completed in two years. At this point she is hoping to pitch it to educational broadcasters in Canada, Europe and India.

For further details about The Legend of Ponnivala project, please visit www.legendofponnivala.com.