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Playing to no audience: How arts and culture survived the pandemic

“It felt weird,” said 37-year-old Kolkata-based guitarist Bodhisattwa Ghosh, talking about the first time he stood in front of a live audience nine months after the lockdown was first announced in March 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease
By Dhamini Ratnam
UPDATED ON MAR 24, 2021 12:33 AM IST

“It felt weird,” said 37-year-old Kolkata-based guitarist Bodhisattwa Ghosh, talking about the first time he stood in front of a live audience nine months after the lockdown was first announced in March 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease. It was at the Bengal Music Fair, organised in South Kolkata’s Deshapriya Park in the last week of December, and Ghosh remembers it being a fairly clinical affair: each band had separate cubicles, and none lingered on stage to interact with the audience – most of who were in masks – after its performance. His own, a vernacular contemporary rock band, Lakkhichhara, played its set and left shortly afterwards. Still, it was better than playing to no audience at all, Ghosh said.

The lockdown months were not fallow as they forced Ghosh and other members of his band – he is also part of The Bodhisattwa Trio, a jazz fusion band – to come up with ways of working remotely. In August, the Trio released a single, Europa Swim, though the members were in different cities: pianist Arunava Chatterjee (Shonai) in Delhi, drummer Premjit Datta and Ghosh in Kolkata. “We kept making new stuff and sending new compositions to Shonai. For the single we released in August, we recorded our parts individually in our respective places. That’s very unusual for a jazz band where we record live what we’re playing, together, in the moment,” Ghosh said. The Trio live streamed a performance from popular Kolkata jazz club Skinny Mo’s in June. It was a ticketed event but the audience heard them in a closed group on Facebook.

If the timbre of performances changed in 2020, several performers were also forced to rethink the relevance of their art form as they explored digital avenues from Instagram live videos to Zoom calls. New technology came up that allowed people to watch live performances with friends, and make decisions on the video calling application. For some it worked:British singerDua Lipa broke online live stream records with her lavish Studio 2054 show, pulling in more than five million views. For several others, it wasn’t that easy. Several artistes were also forced to deal with a more precarious future as the lockdown led to cancellations of shows across the country.

The big shift for 32-year-old harmonium player Zakir Dhaulpuri was turning to the web to continue to impart lessons to his students. The New Delhi-based accompanist learnt to play the instrument from his father, the famed late harmonium player Mehmood Dhaulpuri who accompanied vocalists such as Kishori Amonkar and Bhimsen Joshi. But to go on Zoom, Dhaulpuri took the help of his 22-year-old nephew, a student of Delhi University and a tabla player. In the online class, it was not difficult to teach the students where they were going wrong with the note, or how they needed to improve their technique, Dhaulpuri said. “It was good to learn something new. At least the children were occupied. But music is a prayer (ibadat) and children need to learn it, and experiment with it, in your physical presence,” he said.

Theatre and film actor Danish Husain, famous for his Dastangoi performances, was in the US to give a performance and a lecture in March (both got cancelled), and was stranded there till July. “I began to wonder that if the pandemic goes on for three or four years and shoots don’t resume or theatres don’t open and I am never able to perform again, what would I do to reinvent myself,” he said.

Husain, who most recently appeared in the Netflix series Bombay Begums, produced a series of 20 Instagram videos titled, A Dastango stranded in America, starting March 2020. “I had a lovely view from my room in my sister’s house. I love reciting poetry. So why not memorise poems and have a series of videos, I thought? In a conversation, friends suggested that I use the window blinds as a stage curtain,” he said.

“I was not used to performing to my phone. Instead of going to a stage, we now went into a Zoom call and saw audience there. Just like theatre to film, this was a new medium for me. I needed to adjust the grammar of my performance to adjust to this medium.”

The shift to the digital medium also required investment, Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal pointed out. Through the lockdown, Mudgal performed in digital concerts, participated in online conversations on the arts, and even gave master classes online.

“The realisation that I would have to equip myself for a long period of online events also meant investing in some semi-professional equipment for such activities. But by then, every mike, every piece of live streaming equipment that one could buy for this purpose was either unavailable, or was selling at hugely escalated prices. And by that I mean, that the prices had gone up, in some cases, by 200% or even more. Eventually, I did buy some equipment and asked colleagues and even young students to teach me how to use a sound interface. That’s how I have managed all this while, as have so many artistes. We have survived by sheer dint of our ability to adapt and move ahead,” she said.

Dhaulpuri also gave two concerts online, which were streamed live on Facebook: he played from his home, street sounds notwithstanding. “These are not things you can do much about,” he said.

Theatre actor and radio jockey Roshan Abbas, who co-founded arts collective Kommune, said that the “pivot” to the digital space was necessary if artists had any chance of surviving the lockdown months. Together with his team, he produced a digital play Lockdown Love ,directed by Sheena Khalid, where various actors enacted their parts over Zoom in a play that was, helpfully, about online dating. It was a ticketed event and gave Abbas an insight into how the digital space could be monetised for performances. The team at Kommune held several events over the lockdown months, trying everything from learning workshops to midnight podcasts (for the insomniacs, “a big hit”, Abbas said) and even a mehfil of Urdu poetry on August 15.

“Instead of a stage manager, what we needed was a Zoom manager who knows when to cut and switch screens and a sound manager who could manage mics on the platform. It was like internet 1.0, and what we were telling performers is that technology needn’t scare you,” Abbas said.

Through the lockdown, efforts were made to monetise the digital medium: the Indian Singers’ Rights Association set up a series of virtual concerts, and the funds collected went to the PM-Cares fund to help people affected by the pandemic. Together with arts consultant Rashmi Dhanwani, entrepreneur Megha Desai, lawyer Priyanka Khimani, and marketing professional Gaurav Wadhwa, Abbas helped set up StayInALive, a platform where artists’ performances contributed to a fund for those struggling under the lockdown.

A report brought out by online arts repository, Sahapedia, quoted budgetary figures over the past five years to show how arts and culture in the country needed enhanced funding; the lockdown only augmented the economic crunch the industry finds itself in. When asked about the budget slash, a culture ministry spokesperson refused to comment.

The Bodhisattwa Trio saw their earnings slashed by almost a fifth compared to 2019, which, Ghosh said, was a highly successful year for them. The band toured Europe and several Indian cities, performed in jazz venues like Blue Note in Poland and B Flat in Berlin, and released an album with a Croatian label. The Trio was well on its way to release its fourth album when the lockdown was imposed. The concerts that they had lined up for 2020, including one in the Jaiyede jazz festival in Denmark, were cancelled.

However, as things return to normal, the rising number of Covid cases in the country remains a concern. Last month, Dhaulpuri gave his first paid performance -- a stage performance in Bhopal – after almost a year since the lockdown was imposed. He had two performances in March.

As for his students, he now takes the classes with them in another flat that is not too far from his home. The students sanitise their hands before they sit down. They keep their masks on when they play the harmonium.

According to Abbas, the pandemic taught performers to collaborate and think beyond physical performances. Online performances aren’t going anywhere, he said. “Like concerts have directors for DTH specials, so will live performances. Purists can continue to enjoy the live experience, but the future belongs to digital live experience creators and technologists.”

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