A Pandemic Year for Women: In an unprecedented crisis, rethinking an art practice, and ways of living

This essay is from our International Women’s Day 2021 series, about women who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, professionals, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time — over this pandemic year.

Aranyani Bhargav March 10, 2021 13:40:00 IST
A Pandemic Year for Women: In an unprecedented crisis, rethinking an art practice, and ways of living

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

EDITOR’S NOTE: A UN report from September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral”. The report delves into the many ways women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the ongoing pandemic: For instance, industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.

The impacts of the crisis, however, go far beyond the economic. News stories and surveys have looked at how women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores while they work full-time remotely. Isolation and confinement have meant that cases of violence against women are on the rise.

While the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdowns have been especially hard on women, there are also many stories of resilience, courage and hope that have emerged in these times.

On International Women's Day 2021, we launched a series called A Pandemic Year for Women. These essays have been written by women with varying experiences of the past year, who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, healthcare workers, community outreach professionals and entrepreneurs, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time.

These first-hand accounts do not look away from the costs of the crisis, but they look beyond too: to the future, to what is possible, to what still remains to be (and must be) done.

Read the essays here on Firstpost, in ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’.

***

A little less than a year ago, as I faced the prospect of a nationwide lockdown with a 10-month-old baby and a profession whose survival was threatened by the very idea of ‘social distancing’, I found myself panicking: How would we manage full time work, childcare and the household with absolutely no help? How will I teach my classes? What will happen to my dance company?

Later that day, as I walked my dog, with my son dangling from a baby carrier, I passed by labourers carrying cement at a construction site. They were not given the option of working from home, or staying home with pay. Nor were they given masks. They carried on their work, under risky conditions. Their children stood around barefoot.

Soon, news broke of the horrific and inhumane situation of India’s migrant workers as they made their way from the cities to their homes on foot. Miles away from their villages and walking in the heat, so many died of exhaustion and dehydration. Many were stranded. And many others kept marching on.

Everyone in the world was forced to make the best out of a difficult situation, but some clearly had it much more difficult than others. Things were difficult for me, but it was nothing in comparison to the difficulties of so many other citizens of India. I really had no excuse to not make the best of my situation.

***

What had initially appeared to be an impossible task of juggling work and baby turned into something transformative. Before the pandemic, when my husband worked from office and I worked largely from home, I was obviously spending more time with our son and doing more of the household work. The pandemic actually helped to equalise the gender equation between us simply by virtue of the fact that we were both at home, and both working. The organisation and coordination that was required to equally divide our time between work, our family, and looking after the house, made our companionship stronger; my husband spending so much time at home really made a difference to the bond between him and our son.

The pandemic took a lot of work online, Bharatanatyam classes included. I believed that my teaching method required that I be able to physically correct my student’s postures and be physically present to demonstrate how to execute movements correctly. But I realised very quickly that I would have to teach my classes online if I wanted to continue to contribute my share to the monthly expenses. I lost quite a few students, much too young to be kept engaged in front of a computer screen. But over time, I gained others. Once I realised the power of the online medium to reach students across cities and countries, my teaching methodology changed. New ideas for different kinds of classes that suited the online medium emerged. Today, I am teaching beginners’ classes for children and adults in Bharatanatyam; a class for professional dancers on seeking modernity within Bharatanatyam ,inspired by the work of my dance company ‘Vyuti’; classes in body awareness for children; and movement classes for senior citizens.

***

But my own body craved to dance too. I could not imagine how I would manage to do my own rehearsals with a toddler crawling all over the floor when awake, and still napping multiple times a day. My son and I slowly developed a rhythm, where I would dance around him as he learnt how to walk. I also found other ways to bring dance into my everyday life. To begin with, I accepted every invitation to author essays and articles on dance, which I wrote either when my son napped during the day or after he slept at night. When Oddbird Foundation commissioned me to make a short film on my experience of the lockdown as a performing artist, a nine-minute short film called Lockdownatyam resulted — a film that depicted a day in my life as a mother and dancer during lockdown. This film was shared on social media platforms, put up YouTube and screened at Rangashankara in November last year.

Another difficulty I faced was what I believed to be the untimely death of my nascent dance company, Vyuti. Vyuti’s work is almost an antithesis of social distancing — heavily dependent on close interaction between the dancers in terms of physical contact and intertwining bodies. Rehearsals and performances with Vyuti were simply not possible. I had to find another way to keep Vyuti alive somehow, at least in the minds of audiences. Thanks to Lockdownatyam, which I had to conceptualise, shoot, edit and submit by myself, I became quite adept at video editing. I made five small videos on Vyuti’s last performance before the lockdown, and periodically shared them on social media. Despite that, Vyuti is in a comatose state at the moment. There is however, a silver lining in the dark clouds, as performance venues are slowly reopening now. I do hope Vyuti will be on stage again before long.

***

Lockdown life was trudging along when I woke up one day to find myself in the midst of a furious social media controversy. A short clip of a talk I had delivered three years ago had gone viral overnight. Over the course of the coming months, I would come under attack from cyber bullies and social media trolls repeatedly. What it taught me was not just that the pandemic had led to a significant increase in time spent on social media — time that allowed such detailed and sustained trolling to go on for days on end — but also that the subject of my talk (the contentious socio-political history of Bharatanatyam) needs serious and ongoing conversations around it.

I found that this issue was replete with misunderstandings, unjustified assumptions, misinformation and downright scorn and hatred amongst very divided sections of the dance fraternity. It was prey to an ungainly politics of identity and polarisation. A complete stranger who reached out in support during the controversy quickly became a friend. With the thought that these issues needed greater discussion, we started ‘Re-cognising Dance’, an online platform for dialogue and discussion on dance. This platform has seen some of the world’s best dance scholars speak on a variety of issues related to the history of Bharatanatyam and other Indian dance forms, and some of India’s brightest young practitioners discussing and debating contemporary concerns with regard to the practice, pedagogy and performance of Indian dance.

***

Last month while I was in Delhi, my husband called to give me the shocking news of a close friend’s passing away. I was not scheduled to return to Bengaluru until three weeks later. Had it not been so risky to travel back and forth with a young child, I might have made it to his funeral. I attended it on YouTube instead — a most bizarre and heartbreaking experience. My biggest regret is that we didn’t see each other during the pandemic. In our minds, we were being safe, we were being responsible, we would see each other when all this is over. How many people have lost loved ones that they could not meet through the pandemic, I wondered? How many funerals have taken place where people could not attend? I realised that physical distancing need not mean no human contact. I called the people I’d been meaning to call but hadn’t, and met the friends I’d been meaning to meet but hadn’t.

When I look back on all that was lost due to the pandemic — lives and livelihoods of ordinary and extraordinary people, the absence of human contact which is such a basic human need, the death of loved ones whose funerals people could not attend — it becomes so clear that there is a tremendous amount of inhumanity, grief, destitution and loss associated with COVID-19 . I consider many of us who survived it to be fortunate. But in the face of all this loss, these small gains acquired a significance far in excess of what they would in normal times.

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