To imagine new futures, creators in video games, science fiction, and music are turning to folklore and ancient mythology. Nyshka Chandran delves into the parallel world of Indofuturism.
In 2022, a video depicting an otherworldly India played on screens in New York’s Times Square. In one scene, a warrior dressed in battle armour reminiscent of Lord Ganesha appeared. A tower in the style of a Mughal minaret gleamed with gold and lasers elsewhere. These striking images appeared in a trailer for Indus Battle Royale, a space-based video game based on the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of humanity’s oldest urban societies that arose on the Indian subcontinent around 3000 BCE.
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Indus Battle Royale, which combines Indian mythology and architecture with science fiction, is one of the most recent manifestations of a philosophy known as Indofuturism – an aesthetic, a genre, and a narrative that imagines what India might look like in the future. These visions, whether expressed through science fiction, music, or art, are based on traditional Indian cultural staples such as spirituality and folk customs. They are, however, universally appealing due to their provocative design, cutting-edge technology, captivating sonics, and emphasis on diversity and self-reliance.
Indofuturism aims to create a future that doesn’t fall victim to Western tropes
The game alludes to various mythological icons, including the eagle demi-god Jatayu, traditionally a symbol of bravery, who is shown with the addition of phoenix wings, and is based on the idea of the Indus Valley Civilisation advancing to a planet in outer space rather than going extinct. “Indofuturism is about freeing your mind and imagining a world that is unapologetically Indian,” says Roby John, co-founder of SuperGaming, the company behind Indus Battle Royale.
Indofuturism is not new, but it is becoming more popular in popular culture. In a process that challenges Western visions of the future, an increasing number of creatives are concocting alternative realities based on Indian spirituality and folk customs. “The discourse surrounding futurism is frequently deeply rooted in Eurocentric worldviews,” Sarathy Korwar, a London-based jazz musician who describes his latest album, Kalak, as “an Indofuturist manifesto,” agrees. “Indofuturism, like Afrofuturism, is shifting the focus to the Global South,” Korwar tells BBC Culture.
Gulf Futurism, Sinofuturism, Indigenous Futurisms, and, of course, Afrofuturism, the catalyst for it all, are examples of non-Western futurisms. Each of these philosophies has its own visual language and motivations, but they all stake their claim to modernity through indigenous means. That means applying localised knowledge to alternative realities in Indofuturism. Korwar’s polyrhythms on Kalak are influenced by India’s cyclical understanding of time. “In South Asia, we envision our relationship to the future and the past in terms of cyclicality,” explains the percussionist. “Time doesn’t have to flow in a line but can be understood to flow in a circle”. Korwar refers to his music as “circular,” referring to a composition technique in which the beginning and end of a song are indistinguishable. This is evident on Kalak’s single, Utopia Is a Colonial Project, which begins and ends with glistening synth lines. The “inherent hierarchy” of music, i.e. reading notes from left to right and top to bottom, prompted him to consider a circular notation system instead.
The word Kalak is also a palindrome, evoking the idea of continuous loops, and the album artwork features a sacred geometry circular symbol. Several strains of Indian folk music are usually performed by a group of musicians sitting in a circle, and this communal aspect of music-making was another influence on Korwar, who describes his style as “future folk”. A player’s role in this setting is fluid because they can be both an audience member and a performer, he explains. All of these references are his way of shattering the Western concept of linearity.
Origins of Indofuturism
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of Indofuturism. Some experts point to early Indian modernists such as poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore, who attempted to establish a new form of education in West Bengal in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Santiniketan, his school, combined indigenous knowledge, nature, art, and pan-Asian beliefs in an effort to develop a curriculum that would outperform the British colonial model and produce a new generation of Indian free thinkers. In her early fiction, Begum Rokeya, a writer and political activist, embodied Indofuturism. Sultana’s Dream, her 1905 short story, depicts a society ruled by women who invent solar ovens, flying cars, and cloud condensers that provide abundant clean water. The fictional work serves as a powerful critique of patriarchal science. and one of the first examples of feminist science fiction in India.
Just as Afrofuturism seeks to liberate the black diaspora from past and present-day sociopolitical issues, Tagore and Rokeya demonstrate how Indofuturism arose from dissatisfaction with the status quo. For contemporary creators, a lack of Indian representation on the global stage was a key motivator. Antariksha Studio, a media company that has been producing Indofuturist games since 2016, entered the space to help India’s gaming position. “India has always been underrepresented and misrepresented,” says Avinash Kumar, co-founder of Antariksha Studio. Chapters and entire games in popular video games such as Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed are all set in India. “The irony is that while India may be the subject as well as the base for creating these productions, it is forgotten in the actual narrative beyond stereotypes,” Kumar says.
Antariksha Studio’s worlds, on the other hand, are rooted in Indian heritage, with added steampunk motifs. Antara, one of the games, features a biomorphic dragonfly with the metallic texture of Chola Bronze, a type of artisanship from the 9th century. Antara, which is based on Indian space exploration and aeronautics, sees space travel as a way to restore cultural harmony, as opposed to the conquest-and-survival narratives prevalent in mainstream media. Another game set in India is about preserving lost artefacts of traditional culture, and it follows Meenakshi, an unemployed cyborg built for preservation work. One of the characters is seen carrying a hybrid instrument that combines an antique sarod – a lute used in classical North Indian music – with a synthesiser to produce “electro-classical” music.