Vivekanandar Illam is reinventing itself to make him relevant to the present generation

When you are led into a dark room and handed over 3D glasses on the second floor of a heritage building, don't be surprised if within the next few seconds Swami Vivekananda comes alive barely a feet away from you and starts delivering his message to the youth. “Experience Vivekananda”, a project launched by Vivekanandar Illam on the occasion of the 150 birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, “is like serving old wine in a new bottle” — in the words of an official of the Illam — to take Vivekananda's message to new audiences. And the response so far, he says, has been encouraging.

Launched in January this year, the ongoing project aims to revamp the content of the exhibits by 2014, and make the static exhibits dynamic. The exercise will highlight themes such as Indian culture as viewed by Swami Vivekananda, the greatness of Tamil culture, and Swami Vivekananda's message. “Over the next two years we are going to install high resolution photographs, LED backlights, a 4D theatre, fibre glass models, dioramas, short-throw projectors, and more statues among other things,” the official said. “The interiors will be redesigned to reflect vedic, British and Mughal times and the exhibits will follow a storyline.”

Earlier this year, a stereoscopic 3D short movie on Vivekananda was launched, and a vertical multimedia panel installed. The six-minute movie clip shows Swami Vivekananda delivering a lecture titled “My message to the youth,” which was created using realistic 3D modelling. “We recently came up with a Tamil version of the clip that is being screened in the 3D theatre after a lot of visitors requested that we have a Tamil version as well,” says the Swami in-charge. A holographic display system which allows for 3D viewing without 3D glasses was also installed.

The Illam is in the process of producing another clip based on the lecture given by Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions. “It will be 12 to 13 minutes long and will look less like a lecture and more like a movie.” The exhibits alone are being revamped at a cost of Rs. 10 crore.

On whether the structure was strong enough to support the works being undertaken, he replied, “We first checked the container and then developed the content.” A committee would be set up by July with experts from various fields. “Lime structures are breathing buildings. And since it is a heritage building, the structure cannot be tampered with. We will only modify the interiors,” he said.

Citing an example of how the exhibits were being given a fresh lease of life without tampering with the architectural structure, he said, “The 3D movie theatre had to be sound proof as the meditation room was close by. We modified the acoustics without drilling a single hole in the roof.”

The building is nearly 170 years old and the circular verandahs which were later constructed by Biligiri Iyengar are around 120 years old. “Before installing most of the new exhibits, the structure will first be strengthened. The wood will be tested to ascertain its immunity level before any work is carried out. We are still reviewing the processes,” he said. With only few experts and masons available to restore old structures, and with mounting costs, caring for a heritage structure can be a challenge.

“These are all mud walls with lime plastering, and with the beach right ahead, there is a lot of sea breeze. This has been a cause of a lot of problems. Also, the termites feed on the wood and the mud walls have been a breeding ground. Heritage structures need maintenance round the clock. We have been spending more money on maintaining the building than we have spent on the exhibits. We have spent around Rs. 45 lakh in the last two years alone,” the official said. The Illam is run under the auspices of Sri Ramakrishna Math to whom the building is leased out by the Government of Tamil Nadu.

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