"The right to consume our own histories": Dhruv Jani, of Studio Oleomingus, talks about creativity and meaning

The world of Somewhere (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
The world of Somewhere (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Angshuman Dutta

Studio Oleomingus' works often take the Indian players on nostalgic trips of remembrance and fond memories. One such was when I met the tube of Colgate in a Museum of Dubious Splendors. These games act like aesthetic conversations - telling you stories about a world gone by and a world we live in.

Once you have played any one of the titles this indie studio offers, all of which are free and available either on their page or on steam on PC, it is hard not to be overcome by the curiosity about what Somewhere is or who Mir Umar Hassan is. The titles from the small independent game developers are infused with imagination and creativity.

Recently, Angshuman Dutta, of Sportskeeda Esports, engaged Dhruv Jani, artist and author at Studio Oleomingus, in a discussion. Dhruv talked about the formative period of the studio, their philosophy and practices, the effects of current world affairs and what they are looking forward to next.

In conversation with Dhruv Jani, artist and author at Studio Oleomingus

Studio Oleomingus is a two-person independent game and arts studio based in Chala, India. They describe themselves as practicing at the intersection of post-colonial writing and interactive fiction where they use video game spaces as sites of discourse, resistance and record.

Our new game has released!The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place is a story about a municipal building eater. And a rumination about the profound grief in the erasure of places of entangled heritage.Play it on @itchio…#indiegame #madewithunity

Here's an excerpt of the conversation.

Q: To start off, I would like to ask you to describe Studio Oleomingus to our readers. How did it come to be?

Dhruv: Oleomingus is a small collaborative game and arts-practice studio run by me and Sushant. We work at the intersection of postcolonial writing and interactive fiction, where we study imperial power structures and the histories that they inevitably occlude.

Using the inherent frivolity of games, we explore stories and the various methods of their telling that might challenge and intertwine a single reductive record of the past, and allow the creation of a generous historiography.

We, at Studio Oleomingus, are particularly interested in how the record of our lives and the stories of our various identities are remembered and exploited by individuals, organizations, states and archives.

And how such narratives are lost and reassembled within fissures of identity, community, race and gender. And we believe that hypertext might become a profound form of recollection for difficult histories and entangled tales from such margins.

Identities of survival (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Identities of survival (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Studio Oleomingus came into being during a residency program at Khoj International Artist's Association (Delhi) in 2014, where Sushant and I decided, while working on a precursor to project Somewhere, that our mutual ignorance of the medium was qualification enough to blunder into the world of video games.

Q: What is the philosophy that drives the games you create at Studio Oleomingus?

Dhruv: At Studio Oleomingus, we believe that privilege in various forms withdraws from us the right to consume our own histories. And in the overwhelming presence of such hegemony, some stories can simply not be told, because the violence of their recollection and the absurdity of their form is not accommodated in the method of their telling.

Amidst the burden of such hegemonies, interactive fiction is a profound change to how a text is created and recollected, a change volatile enough to seep into our ability to imagine multiple futures and remember our various and varied pasts - particularly from the margins of history.

After all, even the simplest dislocation of text requires a slightly altered form of reading and criticism that takes into account not just a reader's agency, but also a reader's labor in the assembly of meaning.

Stories of repetitions and hauntings, imprints and doppelgangers, and the countless ghosts who linger between the finite delineations of a clock.From a new project called : The Uncertain Repetitions of Truth.#screenshotsaturday #ArtistOnTwitter #IndieGameDev #madewithunity

And the intricate ways in which you can arrange and entangle stories not just in most video games but in most forms of hypertext and ergodic writing - might eventually make it possible to build other kinds of fictions better suited to the chaotic and incomplete records of subaltern history.

Our work at Studio Oleomingus is a modest attempt at articulating such a form of record. A critical framework for interactive fiction that can excoriate unimaginative, dehumanizing and predatory fallacies.

A form of record better suited to recollecting tales that are ravaged by the forces of time and authority, and one that can give form to incomplete histories, and lost repositories and effaced archives - the absent bodies and the missing voices that are the detritus of progress.

Studio Oleomingus is fascinated by the counterfeit nature of virtual space, and the powerful pantomime of virtual bodies. And we believe that the traditions of hypertext inherit an egalitarian and anti-colonial mandate from folk theater, vernacular myths and etiological tales, and that this legacy of protest and repair gives us a cogent frame with which to read and write hypertext so that it may resist the puerile impulses of authority.

Q: Talk to us about the magic realist world of Somewhere in the games of Studio Oleomingus.

Dhruv: Somewhere allows us to put into practice the imagining of a world where anti-colonial protest can lead to a spectacular reconfiguration of reality itself. As a project it is nebulous and difficult to surmise, full of small game-like vignettes, writings, installation work and commissioned projects and shows.

It is ultimately an experiment in pondering Authority, Memory, Desire and Dignity, Confinement and Language and the Internet, Rebellions and Violence and Migrations and the vaning promise of plurality in a modern state.

But most of all, it is an attempt to demonstrate Interactive Fiction as an extension of theater where it may be possible to imagine the performance of democracy without the burden of nationhood.

Adapted from the writings of an all-but-forgotten Gujarati diarist and poet Mir Umar Hassan, all the stories in Somewhere are set in South Malwa, from 1850s to 1950s. And they all seek to apprehend a recollection of the fortified town of Kayamgadh or Matsyapur, as it was later known, from the dredges of time.

Juxtaposition (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Juxtaposition (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Here is a short excerpt translated from a text by Umar Hassan that began the project, and still delineates its peculiar form.

People of Kayamgadh do not speak.

They are afraid that their words might penetrate the layers under which their bodies are hidden. Afraid that some phrase or name might, through woolen caps and cotton plugs and balled bits of torn rags, enter their buried ears and insert itself into their thoughts, prompting them to think of Kayamgadh not as they see it but as it is being described to them by the person speaking these words.

It is a fear so deeply entrenched, that people now see the city with unwilling eyes, shaded behind their hands, lest they be tempted into a sudden burst of verbiage whilst looking upon the wonders of Kayamgadh. A temptation that might resist the doctrine of their self-imposed silence.

For Kayamgadh is a wonderful city, where the craftsmen strive hard to put into form all that they cannot give words to, and where the work of the craftsman is left undisturbed, for it is only looked upon and but never described by the people, who never speak.

Q: Studio Oleomingus' games are unique confluences - an intersection, even a juxtaposition, of post-colonial thoughts, of cultural experiences and of surreal stories. Where do you draw your inspirations from?

Dhruv: Our games, at Studio Oleomingus, are a medley of influences, writings, motifs and circumstances stolen from history and repurposed into new forms, using techniques not dissimilar to the aleatory methods of Dadaist and Situationist writings.

Olupian texts like Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities are often obviously referenced and the works and essays of Jorge Luis Borges continue to engender a healthy suspicion of language or its capacity to embody reality.

Then there are stories and poems by authors like Silvina O Campo or Naiyer Masud, or Fernando Pessoa and several others that inspire with their vigorous reimaginings of the world and the way we choose to celebrate it.

Nonsense writing, especially in vernacular, is another crucial influence. Tales by Sukumar Ray or Giju Bhai's stories are a remarkable negotiation with the limits of what language will allow you to remember.

And we are fascinated by folktales and mythologies and their many interpretive retellings, especially from the margins, so AK Ramanujan's, Roberto Calasso's or Sarah Joseph's compilations and stories are constantly referred to.

Then there are the explicit post-colonial texts, of course, from anti-imperialist essays by Orwell to JG Farell's satirical trilogy or EM Forster's or Paul Scott's magnificent novels. Seminal essays and books by Gayatri Spivak, Arthur Basham, Ranajit Guha, Ania Loomba and others.

Or writings from the period itself, in the form of recompiled journals like those of Fanny Parkes or John Lang or James Tood.

A room of violence (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
A room of violence (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Of course Studio Oleomingus' practice is still nascent, and we can hardly ever do justice to the splendor of the works that we claim to be inspired by, but perhaps the juxtaposition of our stories that you mention is now a little easier to comprehend given the nature of writing we are trying to respond to.

Q: Studio Oleomingus has a strikingly distinct visual aesthetic in its creation of space and architecture. What inspires this?

Dhruv: Most of our stories exist in small voids. Voids of memory, and an unremarked past, voids of violently repressed cultures and voices. Voids engendered by fractures in time and forms of record.

While stories can, to a certain extent, fill such gaps with imagined and fantastical concoctions, the arenas for performing these tales have to be drawn from a recognizable and material reality.

Neighborhood (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Neighborhood (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Studio Oleomingus' game spaces therefore become the principal sites of historical reanimation, and in an effort to keep our own privilege at bay, and to avoid appropriating histories of people we scarcely understand, we created an industrialized language of objects that would serve as components of architecture for the world of Somewhere.

An architecture of repurposed objects that would litter our gameworlds and jolt readers out of familiar and comfortable spaces into small theater-like arenas where it might be possible to negotiate conversations about difficult histories, amidst a landscape that becomes a tapestry for the tale being told.

Q: Mir Umar Hassan seems to be the locus of all the stories you tell. Personally, I was extremely interested in how beautifully he seems to be integrated, almost real, in these stories. Do tell us something about him.

Dhruv: A singular conceit that repeats across all of Studio Oleomingus' work is a deliberate delegitimization of the authorial and historical veracity of the stories being told from within the shadow of colonial rule (or any similar authority).

A conceit that we call: Redacting Authorship - where we nest our work inside a series of fictitious translations and appropriations until any original source for the work is completely obfuscated. A specific kind of pollution if you will, that fosters an uncomfortable and distrustful relationship with our text.

Mir Umar Hassan is one such obfuscation.

In creation (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
In creation (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

This conceit, of a fictitious author inveigled within the writing of our games and their performance, has allowed us to repurpose local history and to appropriate places of colonial occupation and entangled heritage into virtual domains that become arenas for post-partition and contemporary political and historiographic discourse.

We believe that such deliberate obfuscation in the recounting of history is a form of imposed plurality and a powerful site of democratic performance. Hypertext, after all, is the stage on which the theater of our public lives is now conducted and the state in which a memory of our performance, recorded.

Voices (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Voices (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Especially amidst the contemporary revival of a despotic colonial political order, when there is a palpable danger of erasure of plural voices from the margins, there is a grave and urgent need for a pirated history of our times without the burden of authoritarian authorship.

Q: What is your opinion of the medium of video games in story-telling?

Dhruv: Studio Oleomingus believes that, when written with a great degree of skill and care - Interactive Fictions with their shared authorship and porous structures, with their bifurcated and irreverent forms are ideally suited to pondering individual loss and accommodating fragmented narratives without the textual contradictions you run into with most historiographies.

Here the labor of the player is folded into a deep rooted context and meaning - that they become complicit in creating and that they become complete possessors of.

Removed from the material needs and memories of volatile territories, hypertext can become a powerful site of repair and reparation. A set of interrogations that can confront the political legacy of appropriation and power.

Studio Oleomingus' subversion of narrative (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Studio Oleomingus' subversion of narrative (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

A sort of language built into game-making tools and forms of play and discourse to excoriate Orientalist fallacies and white savior narratives and clashes of cultural narratives.

And start to draw severe attention to the needs of Labor, Bodies, Gender, Memory, Identity, Community, Erasure and Anxiety. And to facilitate the promise of an endlessly plural and endlessly fissured form of creation.

Q: How do current world affairs and its precarious politics affect the narratives Studio Oleomingus chooses to tell?

Dhruv: We find videogame spaces to be excellent sites for political discourse. For all the reasons enumerated in our previous answers, we find games to be wonderful spaces to entangle and simulate intersectional identities, blur territorial margins and pollute dominant narratives.

For Studio Oleomingus, games are explicitly anti-colonial, anti-authoritarian, and where possible, anti-capitalist tools of discourse. Especially at a time when we find the very mandate of a generous history being violently and systematically repudiated in our country.

Violence (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Violence (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Amidst a degree of religious and doctrinal violence perpetrated on fragile bodies and fragile communities that is scarcely to be imagined - amidst a proxy conflict, conducted beyond the shrinking borders of our collective attention span; and amidst the vilification of dissent - there is an erasure of margins, boundaries and bodies.

A truncation of people into prescribed identities, and the abrasure of the differences of language and image, that are the fuel of culture, until a meager history becomes the inevitable narrative of this hegemonic age.

Which is why Studio Oleomingus believes it imperative that as purveyors of fantasy, we should at the very least attempt to reconcile the discord between the definitions of a democratic state and the desires of an individual - and try to confront our mutual apathy in the light of grievous harm that is being done to our communities and ways of living.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted the work at Studio Oleomingus?

Dhruv: We have always worked remotely, in relative seclusion, so the advent of the pandemic did not portend a sudden change in our practice. There have been personal challenges, of course, and it has been a difficult two years with illness and death in the family.

But it of course pales in comparison to the horror unleashed by an uncaring state, as it left people to fend for themselves at the start of the lockdown and the horrors of the subsequent wave of infections last year.

Though we retreated to teaching and writing rather than game making, during this time - Studio Oleomingus tried to respond and articulate our own discombobulation in a short multiplayer installation called Symmetries of an Absence, that we created for the Last Prophet Exhibition at Shenzhen New Media Arts Festival last year.

The Other Symmetries of an Absence.A small new installation about detentions, confinement and the withdrawal of bodies from public spaces. Currently on display at Shenzhen Bay STArts festival, along with works by a wonderful group of artists.#indiegame #ArtistOnTwitter

A game to explore the emptiness of a world dotted by the many absences of people withdrawn from society, and to find a way to give voice to the grief of our many isolations.

Q: What do you think about the Indian game development scene? Being funded by the IFA, how has that added to the world Studio Oleomingus has been building with its games?

Dhruv: Being based in Chala, a small town on the western coast - we practice in great insularity from other game developers in India.

And while there has been spectacularly polished and technically accomplished work being crafted by a plethora of independent game studios, we do think (and this might just be our ignorance of practices at large) that there is indeed a distinct dearth of imaginative, political, strident storytelling from our region.

One that is able to speak to local concerns and social mores, and is plural and inclusive without being a facsimile of popular mechanical tropes.

The nostalgic fascination with standing fans (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
The nostalgic fascination with standing fans (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Works like those by Padmini Ray Murry or Gayatri Kodikal or Avinash and Quicksand or Afrah Shafiq, which are incredible tales told in inventive ways that broaden the medium, invite a careful confrontation with our expectations of interactive fictions - and are often created well outside the domain of traditional game-development circles in our country.

This is true for our own works at Studio Oleomingus as well, because they are inevitably funded by arts grant organizations or new-media gallery spaces or are the result of residency collaborations or small collectives rather than a legitimate part of traditional Game-Development spaces or conversations.

Take our work with IFA for example, which allowed us to build something as odd as a game with no actual interaction aside from looking at objects in rooms (A Museum of Dubious Splendors), but nonetheless was a profound first step in concocting the world of Somewhere.

Under the eyes (Image via Studio Oleomingus)
Under the eyes (Image via Studio Oleomingus)

Not only does such an absence of support or discourse truncate the degree of acceptance of experimental game projects amongst larger local game communities, it also muffles the variety of inventive voices who might otherwise be able to contribute to game making in our country.

This moreover creates a lacuna of vernacular work that can take advantage of the wonderful criticism and writing that is happening on the other hand. Take DiGRA India for example, and all their talks and interviews that are contributing generously to the myriad conversations that stem from games and game cultures.

Q: For the final question, what comes next for you?

Dhruv: Studio Oleomingus is working on a small set of essays accompanied by analog experiments that seek to understand interactive fiction as a topological problem.

By drawing parallels between paper folding, illustrated labyrinths and branching narratives, we are trying to build foldable, branch-able stories onto paper and printed maps, rather than program them into the computer.

Created a small new work for the Serendipity Arts Virtual Festival. It is called : The Uncertain Repetitions of Truth, and it is a collection of rabelaisian tales about pocket-watches made from bones of people killed during Partition…

In more conventional video game work, Studio Oleomingus is chipping away at a small anthology of interactive poems that ponder the violent cost of marking time. And we are working on an intimate and carefully crafted tale set during the Partition, called a Diagram of Leaving - for Humble Bundle Inc.

Edited by Sijo Samuel Paul


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