Priya's Shakti[Photo Credit: Kamini Ramdeen]

In a bid to preserve their objet d’art, most galleries and museums, follow a no photography policy but at Manhattan’s City Lore Gallery, aiming your phone’s camera is the only way to appreciate the oeuvre.

The artwork currently on display is from a 32-page innovative social impact comic book, “Priya’s Shakti,” that tells the story of Priya, a fictional rape survivor who goes on a campaign for women’s empowerment, aided by Hindu goddesses Parvati and Durga. The exhibition, which is a first of its kind, displays artwork through augmented reality technology.

The entire gallery turns into a virtual comic book, where audiences can unlock special animation, videos, speech bubbles, real-life stories and bring other interactive elements to life right on their smartphones.

The comic book released in December 2014 at the Mumbai Film and Comic Convention, and is displayed at the City Lore gallery through August. It is a reaction to the alarming apathy among the public and authorities towards issues affecting women, which include rape, patriarchy and misogyny in India and elsewhere.

Indian-American filmmaker and co-creator of “Priya’s Shakti” Ram Devineni witnessed this disconnect first-hand while participating in the protests that followed the 2012 gruesome gang rape of a 23-year-old Jyoti Singh from Delhi and thus the idea was born to create “Priya’s Shakti.”

ram deveni[Ran Devineni | Photo Credit: Kamini Ramdeen]

“I looked at making a documentary at first because I am a documentary filmmaker, but I felt the topic was too complicated and sensational to do it in this format,” Devineni said. “I am not a journalist, so my interest is telling stories. I selected the comic book format because I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books and was hugely influenced by them. I think millions of children have read the series, and they’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture.”

Inspired by mythological tales, the comic book instantly went viral. It became a topic of many national conversations, and the book’s character Priya, the tiger riding female hero, was honored by the United Nation’s Women as a Gender Equality Champion. She became a global phenomenon and one of the top ten female comic book characters to watch out for.

“Priya is not your typical ‘superhero’ and her strength is her power of persuasion and the power of an idea,” Devineni said. “Although she rides a tiger, she has no powers. An idea is much more powerful than Superman’s strength or Wonder Woman’s magic lasso. There is nothing spectacular in catching a bullet between your teeth—what Gandhi did is spectacular. Also, typical super-heroes’ convey to children that inhuman bulky god-like beings will solve all of human societies’ problems, which is the wrong message. Priya does not solve anyone’s problems; rather she challenges us all to solve them.”

Talking about the rape phenomenon and how it is perceived as an Indian problem, and what the book conveys, Dan Goldman, visual artist for “Priya’s Shakti” said, “We know rape is a problem in India, but it is not an Indian problem, so the idea was to create a movement that is not only about India but comes from India to the rest of the world.”

“We are using ‘Priya’s Shakti’ to highlight issues related to women. So in a matrix sense, she is an ambassador,” added Goldman, who was drawn to the project by Indian culture, motives, and activism.

The exhibition at City Lore, according to Devineni, is the first ever augmented reality art exhibition in the United States.

“We wanted to celebrate this remarkable project and bring it to audiences in the U.S. because gender-based violence is not just a problem in India, but all over the world,” Devineni continued.

Augmented reality uses technology similar to scanning optical character recognition codes, but instead of scanning a barcode–one scans an image.

“Embedded in the image is information that is activated by the app–Blippar,” Devineni said. “Augmented reality is a major part of our comic book, and by scanning the comic book with the popular augmented reality app you can view animation, real-life stories, and other interactive elements pop out of the pages.”

priya's shakti[Photo Credit: Kamini Ramdeen]

While some might see this as an attempt to gamify art by adding on unnecessary bells and whistles, from another perspective, it could potentially deepen their engagement with the piece of art.

“For me the message gets out in a more accessible form and probably it is easy for anyone to understand especially the children,” Mark Goldsworthy, a building contractor from Canada who is visiting New York City, said. “I think it is colorful, appealing, and it gets the message across.”

“The next step would be to try and educate people in the countries where similar issues are going on. A documentary would be one way of getting the message out,” he added.

For some visitors including Lester Bernard, an investment banker, the exhibition is a platform to learn more about Indian god and goddesses.

“I am always fascinated by Indian mythology and Indian gods. I know Ganesh because, in Paris, where I come from, there is a small Indian neighborhood and each year they celebrate Ganesh [Chaturthi],” Bernard said.

Due to its popularity, the comic book is being exhibited and presented simultaneously at Scuola Holden–Storytelling and Performing Arts (Torino, Italy), DocsBarcelona Festival (Barcelona, Spain), TEDx Talk (London, U.K.), Sheffield Documentary Festival (U.K.), Cooler Lumpur Festival (Malaysia), and Civita di Bagnoregio (Rome).

“The purpose of the world tour is because there were a lot of requests all over to learn about this project and the story,” Devineni said. “The comic book has been popular all over the world.”

And even as Priya is going global with the exhibitions, she is simultaneously rooting locally into disparate communities and schools in India with the help of Apne Aap International, an NGO working against human trafficking.

priya's shakti[Photo Credit: Kamini Ramdeen]

“We are working along with the comic book makers on a translation into Hindi and the regional languages and hope to print a large quantity and distribute it through schools,” said Alison Adams, U.S. associate at Apne Aap. “We will also be holding focus group interviews with the kids to understand their reaction to the comic book and see if the book is helping them understand such complex issues.”

As for what’s next, Devineni said him and his team have collaborated with Mumbai-based filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra for their next installation of “Priya’s Shakti” that will have an arch-villain born out of acid who throws acid at women. The second chapter will also show Priya more developed, but she will still be riding a tiger!