The first thing that catches your eye at Dhruv Jani’s studio in Chala, Gujarat—located a few kilometres from Daman—is his collection of board games. From the Czech classic, Lost Ruins Of Arnak, that takes you on a quest for artefacts through jungles, to Small World, an award-winning creation about fantasy races, the gamer-artist has board games that vary in difficulty levels and take anything between a few hours to a couple of days to play. These share space with a host of books—collections of essays, tomes on colonial histories, literary fiction by Jorge Luis Borges and Naiyer Masud and postcolonial writing by theorists like Edward Said.
Jani, 34, one of the Digital Artists in Residence at the forthcoming India Art Fair, specialises in interactive fiction (IF)—a concept of text-driven games that is still at a nascent stage in India. At Studio Oleomingus, a game design studio that he co-founded with creative coder Sushant Chakraborty, Jani creates links between post-colonial histories, speculative architecture, art and games. “My studio actually bisects my father’s office, who is an architect. He has his space outside and I colonise the rooms within. It is a very quiet space, and I usually work alone in the studio. And when I am collaborating, it is mostly done remotely,” he says.
His artistic practice involves two key processes—writing the story and game building. The writing itself always happens in the studio. During that time, you can find Jani walking outside, observing people and places. The game- building part is the more tedious process, involving making of meshes, creating hypertext, programming and then compiling the game. This part of the practice requires him to be in front of the computer for several hours for days altogether. For any project, both of these key processes take up equal amounts of time. “Jani creates visual elements as textures, found images or illustrations in Adobe Photoshop on iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, collaging together brightly coloured architectural and pop-cultural elements from colonial and postcolonial India,” mentions a note on the India Art Fair website about his practice.
In between projects, Jani ends up reading a lot of literature, especially nonsense fiction and regional Indian writing by Dom Moraes and Arun Kolatkar, or playing board games with his family. Some of these he has inherited while others, which are in his collection, are out of print. “I buy them for the underlying systems and not the narrative, because the latter, more often than not, are deeply disrespectful to the regions that were once colonised or economically manipulated. I like figuring out the mathematical structure, which can be maddeningly complex and elegant. These might not always translate into my work, but are elements that I don’t want to lose touch with,” he says.
Jani, who studied exhibition and spatial design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, calls himself a self-taught game designer. He found IF a good medium for telling barbed and broken tales in a remarkably coherent form. “One of our recent works, A Museum Of Dubious Splendors, is a good example of this. The work is structured in part as a labyrinth and in part as a picture book, and both together attempt to probe how museums acquire authenticity,” Jani said in a 2019 interview to Lounge.
As a Digital Artist in Residence at the India Art Fair, he has created a multi-level labyrinth set in the ridges of the north end of the Western Ghats, which was once covered by dense forests before industrialisation took over. Like all his work, this too has a fable-like quality to it. He tries to visualise geological movements and sedimentation in the region, and find out what stories emerge from the interaction of these forces. “What is the relationship between language and landscape? To explore this, we look at the time when Gujarat and Maharashtra split from the Bombay Presidency. A border was carved out, thus carving out a plethora of histories as well. It is fictitious of course,” he elaborates. The game, It Takes a Long Time to Grow a Mountain, is played as a three-dimensional labyrinth. Each time you dive into a column of bedrock, a page from a diary is shared with you, which is by an author who had surveyed the lands before the border was carved out. “This format allows us to platform erased histories,” adds Jani.