Kerala Technology
Dancing star looks beyond Chandrayaan and the moon

Methil Devika is working on a project that could lead to arts inspiring science in future. Handout photo

Dancing star looks beyond Chandrayaan and the moon

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on August 29, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on August 29, 2023

As Chandrayaan-3 made its historic touchdown on the lunar surface, a whopping 8 million people were watching the livestream of the event, setting a world record for streaming viewership.

For renowned dancer Methil Devika, it was even more exciting as she had the fortune of watching the entire event along with a large group of scientists at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST).

“It was tense at every stage, with students and researchers commenting in hushed tones about the complex maneuvers at each stage, and then everyone breaking into euphoria as the images of the successful landing beamed through,” recalls Devika. “It was like watching a match live at the stadium, from the players' box. The tension, the relief as each stage passed without a hitch, and the excitement at the end. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.”

Could a future choreography based on her experience be on the way? “I don't think I will be able to do justice to the excitement that was there. It was simply out of this world,” she says with a laugh.

As probably the only non-scientist and an artist in the crowd that was watching the events at IIST, she says it was an incredible honour to be there.

This once-in-a-lifetime chance came Devika's way when she was recently accepted as a post-doctoral fellow at the renowned institute, whose graduates played a key role in the Chandrayaan-3 mission.

Her research aims to explore the possibility of developing a gestural language database that could be used in cutting-edge technologies applied in fields like space science. This will be achieved with inputs from mudras or hand gestures that Indian art forms have developed over 2,000 years.

This could open up some exciting possibilities, as the increased use of robotics and artificial intelligence in areas like aerospace has made communication with machines a critical area.

Teaching machines to understand gestures is a tough task. In fact, it can be a complex challenge even for some humans, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found out. She once flashed the V for Victory hand signal, made famous by her predecessor Winston Churchill during the Second World War era. Unfortunately, Thatcher was pictured flashing that sign with her palm inwards, and the message many interpreted was ‘screw you’.

With the rapid progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, there is a renewed push to codify and digitise gestural communication, as the tech industry witnesses the rapid integration of such methods in fields like VR and robotics.

This is where India holds an advantage, according to Devika. “We have a unique communication system in our art forms, and the idea is to extract elements from that for use in other domains.”

In advanced scientific fields like space science, communication methods such as American Sign Language are in use. Now, as intelligent machines are becoming integral to key areas in these fields, there is a growing need for a scientifically derived gestural language to communicate with these computers.

“India developed such a system thousands of years ago, which has been incorporated into various domains like Vedic, Tantric, and Natya forms. My PhD thesis in 2013 focused on discovering the principles of our ancient gestural language. When I approached IIST with some ideas, they graciously accepted my proposal.”

Devika believes that communication methods defined in certain scriptures on dance and drama are ideally suited for a computer system, as the data needed to train them must be precise.

“The theories about gestures that we have come from a methodically practised form. There were specific reasons why these gestures were performed in particular ways. That's why we refer to it as ‘sastra’.”

She says the idea is not to simply turn these theories into a computer language, but to use them as the foundation for developing an entirely new domain-specific language system that is more systematic.

The growth of virtual and augmented reality forms opens up a vast canvas for the use of gestural language. Indian art forms extensively utilize hand, face, and body postures, which could prove invaluable for researchers, paving the way for another intersection between different knowledge fields.

This is an inevitability, according to Devika. The national education policy aims to mandate that every research institute must incorporate such cross-domain subjects by 2030. This will enable individuals conducting research in physics, for example, to embark on projects that focus on music or dance. Similarly, someone studying chemistry can undertake projects related to culinary research.

“It is a journey of exploration for both artists and scientists. As artists, we are trained to imagine and be empathetic, so we are capable of grasping where they are coming from. However, most researchers are deeply immersed in their own domains and have limited time for other fields. Opening a window into the world of art may inspire them to develop more creative approaches.”

The challenge of translating art into science is not lost on Devika. “It's not that I expect scientists to start using mudras to communicate, but my project aims to develop a repository of knowledge from which they can adopt modules as needed and generate their own ideas.”

One stumbling block here is that most commentaries on Indian dance treatises come from researchers rather than practitioners. As a result, some technical aspects of the art fail to be translated accurately, leading individuals from non-arts backgrounds to develop an incomplete understanding of the art.

“This is where I believe I have an advantage, being both a practitioner and an academic whose focus is on action research. I have created a substantial body of work consisting of 62 performance creations over the last 27 years.”

The dancer whose documentary Sarpatatwam was voted into the contention list of the short documentary category of Oscars in 2019, is not confining herself to a single space. Devika was recently selected for the Nava Kerala grant, instituted by the state government to promote research in various domains.

Her project aims to explore the ‘Temple terrain as a new performative space for a female dancer’.

“We are accustomed to staging art forms on conventional stages with defined boundaries, where the audience sits in front. How would artists interpret a work that is traditionally formatted like that when transplanted to an environment like a temple premises? I want to delve into this.”

“I would also introduce an element of time into it. Our performances are typically confined to formats of two or three-hour shows. This limits the participation of those who possess the craft but may lack the physical stamina for such rigorous performances due to their age. It will be intriguing to witness such individuals performing shorter pieces without the concerns of audience expectations or financial pressures.”

This endeavour could witness the convergence of knowledge fields such as architecture, sound engineering, and sociology.

Technology is like a vast sky, filled with bright stars in every corner. It often witnesses innovations that shine brightly, but some disappear like shooting stars. However, this artist aspires to be a lodestar on the tech horizon, serving as a guiding light for future innovators venturing into unexplored territories.



Wait for the next unicorn is over

Finally, India has added one more firm to the Unicorn list. Eleven months after Molbio Diagnostics made it to the list in September 2022, the fast delivery startup Zepto has become the next Indian firm to cross the magical one billion US dollar valuation after their E-series funding. This is a remarkable achievement, considering the fact that their competitors like Dunzo and Blinkit have struggled to maintain momentum.

Zepto was founded by Aadit Palicha and Kaivalya Vohra, who dropped out of their Stanford computer science program and returned to India to launch Zepto in 2019. Currently, they deliver 6,000 products across groceries, fruits, and vegetables and operate in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, and Chennai. The company states that they are not aiming to expand to other cities at the moment and plan to consolidate their presence in the current markets.



India gets top billing for AI talent

According to LinkedIn’s “Future of Work Report – AI at Work,” Singapore, Finland, Ireland, India, and Canada are experiencing the fastest diffusion of AI skills. The report highlights that job postings on LinkedIn mentioning AI technologies like ChatGPT have seen rapid growth worldwide. India is no exception, with many companies and startups embracing AI technology across various sectors, including edtech, fintech, and SaaS. Compared to January 2016, India has seen a fourteen-fold increase in the number of people adding AI skills to their profiles, securing the country a fourth spot on the list of fastest-growing talent hubs, reports Inc42.



Wind power sets sail again

A ship named Pyxis Ocean, owned by Mitsubishi, is currently sailing from China to Brazil, and what makes this noteworthy is that it is utilising wind power for a portion of its journey. As part of the shipping giant's clean energy initiative, the vessel is equipped with retractable sails, each measuring 37.5 meters (123 feet) tall, mounted on the deck. These sails are constructed from the same materials as wind turbines and are employed only when the ship is on the high seas. It is not all plain sailing yet as Cargill, a food giant that chartered the ship, anticipates that it will take at least seven to ten years for fuel savings to outweigh the cost of installing the sails on the Pyxis Ocean.



Is it a myth? Now the Scots want to know

It seems that it’s an open season for myth controversies, and the latest one comes from Scotland. Unlike Kerala, where a recent myth controversy resulted in shouting matches on television channels, the Scots approached it scientifically to uncover the truth about their beloved myth, the Loch Ness monster. The hunters employed equipment that had never been used on Loch Ness before, including drones with infrared cameras and a hydrophone to detect acoustic signals beneath the surface, reports The Guardian. The two-day event, which concluded on Sunday, attracted participants from as far away as Japan and New Zealand. The primary objective of the event wasn’t solely to find the Loch Ness monster but to “study the loch and its natural behaviour – the way it deceives you”, explained by one organiser.