A year since India's COVID-19 lockdown, an overview of how artists and cultural institutions navigated a crisis

Reviewing a year since nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, in culture coverage at Firstpost. Part 1 looks at how artists and institutions responded to the crisis.

FP Staff March 24, 2021 16:35:08 IST
A year since India's COVID-19 lockdown, an overview of how artists and cultural institutions navigated a crisis

When the nationwide lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March 2020, it brought life to a grinding halt for some, and threw others into a what seemed like perpetual motion, as they traversed many hundred kilometres on foot, or any transportation they could find to make their way home.

For the art and culture domain, the lockdown presented an unprecedented challenge, but also an opportunity. As artists, institutions and allied professions/industries struggled with the loss of income, they were looking for new ways to reach audiences. Often, this meant innovation that stretched or broke through preexisting paradigms and hegemonies. At other times, it was a chance for long overdue introspection on the very nature of the art/craft/service.

Here’s an overview of how cultural institutions and artists attempted to navigate a crisis year.

— Art galleries and museums faced up to an uncertain future with online viewing rooms, virtual exhibitions and social media outreach. Would it be enough to counteract the effects of a dismal art market?

Kiran Nadar, who heads India’s first private philanthropic museum (the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art), underlined a range of concerns in an interview with Firstpost. These included tighter liquidity, falling prices of artworks, and the slim chances of visitors returning to museums and galleries, even post-lockdown. “How much are people going to want to invest in art when we are going to see recession of a kind? This is a big question mark,” she said. Read the full interview here.

Meanwhile, efforts were on at the global and national level to answer just the question that Nadar posed. The Art Newspaper encapsulated these efforts as, “When God closes a gallery door, [somewhere] He opens a browser window.” Even as biennales at Kochi and the Bihar Museum faced postponements, leading galleries such as Chatterjee & Lal, Chemould Prescott, Tarq, Gallery Espace, among others, were setting up digital exhibitions or by-appointment-only visits. You can read about these initiatives as reported by Ankush Arora for Firstpost here.

Elsewhere, as Pakistan imposed locality-based lockdowns, Firstpost’s Anvisha Manral examined what the COVID-19 pandemic had meant for the country’s art scene, which had seemingly put years of political mayhem and curbs on artistic freedom behind itself. Read her report — ‘In Pakistan, artists reinvent contemporary art canon as galleries negotiate virtual experiences amid a pandemic’ — here.

— Indian classical arts had their own reckoning with the lockdown as they reflected on what the loss of live audiences meant for their practice and cultural spaces. What did going online mean for traditional art forms?

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram observed in her column for Firstpost: “Without concerts during these COVID times, musicians are hard hit. But it also offers them an opportunity to engage deeply with their art. To reach for their own light and find their own roots without the demands of an audience and organisers.”

Such personal engagements aside, institutions and artists were making archival material available online, as also offering lessons, premiering new material and even presenting concerts and recitals virtually. On the one hand, this created a more level playing field in terms of who got to perform — there was a democratisation of access to this new age “stage”. However, artists’ bodies and organisations were also grappling with the question of how to monetise this move online, especially for those whose very livelihoods were in peril. Devina Dutta exhaustively documented these aspects in a report for Firstpost, asking: Will Indian classical world’s move online prompt offline paradigm shift, reimagining of future? Read it here.

Amid these unique circumstances, there were missed opportunities too. Ranjini Nair wondered if the Indian classical dance community had let go of a vital moment for tackling the status quo in merely shifting the focus from offline performances to online ones. “The pandemic has shown that while gatekeeping and access to opportunities may remain the same with regard to classical dance in both offline and online spaces, the online world holds potential to have the difficult exchanges we need to be having. It can subvert the long-held narratives around our practice to have a critical self-reflective voice, which has remained largely absent thus far,” Nair concluded in a column for Firstpost. Read it here.

— Indian theatre groups and venues witnessed the lights go out on stage, but were defiant about finding ways around the limitations of a lockdown and a virus.

Archival streams and Zoom/interactive performances abounded; practitioners hoped to derive fresh inspiration in a time of setbacks and revive the stage ecosystem. As Mohit Takalkar, founder of Pune’s Aasakta Kalamanch tells Vikram Phukan in this Firstpost report: “The best of literature, and art, and music were created in the troubled times that followed the great wars.” Read the full story here.

Firstpost also collaborated with theatre and improv troupes from all over India for a series of online performances, conducted over Zoom, called FirstAct. FirstAct has featured Improv Comedy Bangalore, Drama Queen, OGLAM, Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani, Chanakya Vyas, MD Pallavi, Ashoka Theatre and Alienstar Collective Theatre. Access the performances here.

— Books were a solace to many during the pandemic. Bookstores big and small had a hard time with lockdown restrictions, as did sections of the publishing business.

Manik Sharma profiled two beloved city bookstores’ lockdown journey for Firstpost — South Delhi’s Midland Book Shop and Mumbai’s Kitab Khana. With Amazon and Flipkart already having an edge in the delivery department, Midland and Kitab Khana both held on to the hope that customers would eventually return for the unique experiences their vintage physical spaces offered — spaces that were being conscientiously disinfected to protect visitors, among other anti-COVID measures. Read the feature here.

As the lockdown stalled trains across India, Hindi pulp fiction publishing was part of the collateral damage. The Indian Railways was the largest moving library of Hindi pulp fiction. That relationship was already in flux thanks to the once ubiquitous AH Wheeler bookstalls on railway station platforms being taken over by other enterprises. For an industry in decline, the urgency to transition to new media was underscored by the lockdown. Read about it here.

Things were critical across the border for the Pakistani publishing industry as well. As book fairs and events were cancelled, and publishers and bookstores looked at mounting losses, the choices were often between “bad and worse”. The full story can be accessed here.

On a more positive note, back at home, events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival and Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest transitioned to online editions, to varying effect. (Read our coverage of the authors and sessions here and here.) The children’s literature community rallied to present readings and constructive conversations for parents and little ones during the lockdown. Read Ramya Mohanakrishnan’s report about it here.

— Amid the lockdown, the focus for the restaurant business was on what would help survive a seismic change to the ecosystem.

The complete shutdown of restaurants (along with businesses across all sectors) was a scenario no one could have imagined. Pared down menus, delivery-friendly dishes, packaged-to-assemble-at-home food and drinks, support for staff, stringent hygiene standards — these were a few of the measures restaurant owners too recourse to. At the same time, there was a lot of soul searching about what their establishments’ identities would be post-lockdown. Ruth Dsouza Prabhu reported on the situation for Firstpost; read the story here.

For smaller/standalone eateries, the Unlock 1.0 norms posed another battle. The new guidelines, hygiene and social distancing norms, changed curfew time (which doesn’t factor in dinner), rent issues, restriction on liquor sales, depleted staff, and people’s hesitance to dine out could well sound the death knell for many a standalone eating house, Joanna Lobo reported last June. Read here.

Film sets underwent a change, as Manasi Chandu reported for Firstpost. Fewer crewmembers but higher production budgets, a return to filmmaking basics and a shift to streaming platforms rather than theatrical releases: as the business of filmmaking was transformed by the lockdown and pandemic, so did the workplace. Read the story here.

For the Film Heritage Foundation, the lockdown was a time of limited physical access and drying funds. The main concern for the archive was the condition of all the film material in storage, which required preservation in temperature-controlled vaults and dehumidifiers with routine cleaning and checks to keep them from getting exposed. The archive currently has over 50,000 photographs, 500 films, and other film material including song booklets, lobby cards and posters. Read a report on how the FHF fared in the crisis here.

— India's handloom, handicraft sectors had the resilience to combat COVID-19 crisis setbacks. But, as experts quoted by Joshua Muyiwa in a report for Firstpost noted, the sectors need calculated support, not charity, to emerge from this crisis. Read it here.

— Major fashion weeks in the country moved online and towards ‘seasonless’ collections. Swareena Gurung reported on how these moves might have buttressed falling retail sales, and the trends that emerged during these digital editions. Read the reports here and here.

— India’s indie music scene, heavily reliant on live performances, turned an unviable situation into an experimental ground.

Unlike their more commercially-oriented counterparts, Indian independent music artists depend mostly on income from gigs to make a living. The clampdown on public gatherings and consequent cancellation of concerts across the country caused most of them to lose out on all potential earnings over the next few months, and perhaps longer.

In a series of columns for Firstpost, Amit Gurbaxani looked at how artists tackled the unprecedented turn of events and how their fans could support them (here); unresolved questions about the right platforms and monetising as artists tuned to livestreaming gigs (read here); and the indie music industry’s efforts to fix the many issues that surround the ability to make money from livestreams (here).

Simultaneously, record labels like Azadi embraced a greater digital presence by amping up online release of their music in lockdown. Read here.

— The live entertainment scene in India spent the lockdown months reconciling with the fact that the very notion of “being live” has been irreversibly challenged.

Shuttered venues, cancelled tours, performers left without support, and an industry in crisis: Anurag Tagat reported on what happened when the live music scene was brought to a grinding halt by the lockdown and pandemic. Read the story here.

Even as artists and organisers scrambled to go online, new tariff rules imposed by the Indian Performing Rights Society sent the live events business into further chaos. Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri analysed the impact of these developments for Firstpost; read the report here.

— However, creative responses were undimmed.

Throughout the lockdown, artists continued to create art (view here); made music; documented the reality of crises through photographs, journals, social justice movements, crafts projects; redefined off-ramp fashion; and found humour in memes. Celebrity read-alouds and fundraisers contributed to a vibrant global, online community.

As institutions across the board made their resources and material available online — often for free — audiences had access to an overwhelming range of options, from museum collections to art exhibits, cultural performances, books and panel discussions. Firstpost’s Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe compiled an extensive database of the books, performances, courses available online in these times of social distancing. You can access it here.

Of course, an increasingly online world also meant that the lockdown was a time that underscored the urgency of bridging the divide between India’s digital haves and have-nots. Read Gaurav Jain’s op-ed for Firstpost here.

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Featured images via Shutterstock / Ysbrand Cosijn, Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, Master the moment, Kapi Ng, Media Whalestock

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