But the prolific writer is best known to the world for his book “Here comes the Sun” - a sparkling biography tracing the spiritual and musical voyage of ‘Beatles’ fame immortal singer George Harrison.
In this exclusive tête-à-tête with Sudhir Raikar, he elaborates the cause and conviction behind www.hanuman.org - the proposed online home of Indian culture for young people.
How and when was www.hanuman.org born?
The idea of www.hanuman.org dates back nearly 40 years when my teacher A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada asked me to engage my background in literature to make Krishna stories for children. Over the years, by the grace of guru and Krishna, I took few steps in that direction, writing and publishing a dozen books from shastras aimed at young people. The website was a natural extension of that effort, and I registered the domain name in 1982 post my return to New York after having spent 13 years in Vaishnava ashrams of India.
In those days, “Star Wars” had become the principal mythological reference for young people. George Lucas borrowed liberally from the Ramayana for his “Star Wars” scripts, yet my years in India taught me how much richer the original epic tale was.
I asked myself - Is it possible to create a plausible venue for young people to learn the original story, particularly those who were at risk of losing their culture? The website is my humble attempt to develop an answer in the affirmative.
What have been your major milestones till date and what is the next level in the evolutionary voyage that you’re close to achieving?
The biggest milestone has been working with the “Star Wars” artistic director Iain McCaig on “HANUMAN,” a picture book that was published by Ten Speed Press and which received many excellent reviews. Since then, the partnership with the San Rafael-based Mandala Publishing - one of the world’s leading publishers of illustrated works about India - has been the most rewarding development till date and certainly the principal catalyst to achieve the next level of evolution, with a series of picture books and eventually animated companion films for each episode. The head of Mandala, Raoul Goff, is an old and dear friend. We are currently developing a series of children’s picture books about Hanuman and other tales from Ramayan. The first will be published this fall. We are using our connections with the Hollywood community to design and illustrate these various properties, so the books will have a contemporary appeal for young people without betraying the original culture from which the stories emanate.
The www.hanuman.org team seems quite diverse – Was this team built in the process of corporatization or were these all like-minded folks across disciplines that came together for a common purpose?
The Hanuman project is still in its early stages, despite the many years of incubation. The people listed on the website are friends, well-wishers, or service providers, not formal partners. We have not yet firmed up the executive team, as this remains a project-in-development. The biggest challenge we face is in building the right team.
Talent can be hired, but ours is a labour of love that deserves an effort from the heart. So we are carefully building a team comprised of people who love the story, who understand Hanuman not as a “brand” or a “product” but as an exemplar of devotion who can inspire young people across the world.
What is your content strategy and policy for the site and its initiatives (with respect to innovation, authenticity and visual appeal) as content is undoubtedly the most critical aspect of your offering?
The content strategy and policy are to always be respectful of the original tradition from which the Ramayana stories emerge, yet allow for their adaptability to a world vastly different from that tradition. By most estimates, there are more than 400 versions of Ramayana in print, including many regional versions and variations throughout India. Each makes particular concessions to culture and context. Ultimately, all translations of a source text are interpretive; the challenge is to remain faithful to the original in its values and message. We seek to blend the traditional iconography with sensitivity to current trends in fantasy and graphic art.
What’s the competitive edge of your literature vis-a-vis other offerings devoted to Indian religion and mythology? How do you plan to serve your goal of unfolding Indian culture for the young people across the globe? In other words, what are the various initiatives, programs and products that you have undertaken or plan to run in the near future?
Mandala is a leading publisher of high-quality art and photographic books, with a specialty in the stories and art of the East. So the means of production are a clear “competitive edge” – although the notion of “competition’ when presenting Hanuman and his world is somewhat contradictory to our purpose. We could be guided more by a complementary spirit in making this brilliant story more readily accessible for today’s young people.
You have also appealed for donations at large – is this to escape the route of private equity/venture capital that may dilute the conviction of your venture?
We incorporated Hanuman Educational Foundation as a non-profit institution to house Hanuman.org. The purpose of making this project non-profit was to keep its devotional purpose front and center. We are soliciting funds because a proper games-based site that will attract young people and hold their attention is an expensive undertaking.