Coronavirus lockdown effect: Culture goes virtual. Is this the #newnormal?
Photo Credit: Flipboard

The crucial differences which distinguish human societies and human beings are not biological. They are cultural,” said author of the book Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict. As the world came to a complete halt, there was always going to be a way for culture to emerge again. Only that channels, this time powered by the internet, would have to be mastered. Audio quality, device microphones and cameras, internet speed, these were but a few elements of online programming that needed to be managed. And voila, you could be watching a digital play, tuning into morning ragas on Spotify or taking a virtual tour of an art exhibition.

Knowing full well that for some time people are not going to be able to make it to venues, museums and performing arts centres decided that this was the time to upgrade and learn. Marry the virtual with living-breathing performances, and support artistes who would find themselves out of work almost immediately.

Mumbai’s Tao art gallery has organised virtual walkthroughs and the city’s performing arts havens like the NCPA have launched initiatives like NCPA@home which take its shows to social media, where people can subscribe to their YouTube channel and watch many pre-recorded shows. Tao’s walkthroughs on the other hand bring the artist, his work and at least part of the experience to your house. Your phone and your laptop. The walkthroughs take you over each work of art, and a recent computer-generated photography display at Tao, has been fittingly named ‘Through The Lens – Locked down physically, Unbound Visually. Sporting 10 photographers whose landscapes have been shot around the world, some themes of some of those pictures include ‘Apart. But Not Alone’ and ‘Rise To The Occasion’. Clearly, culture in India is rising to the occasion.

Avid Learning, which has since its launch organised more than 1150 programmes with more than 1,40,000 people from the arts, launched AVID Online on April 1, 2020. Within a week of the first lockdown AVID Online was up and ready. Some of its digital offerings included sessions with experts from across fields like comedy, publishing, fashion and interior design. ‘Extraordinary Stories from Ordinary People in Mumbai’ by Mumbai city raconteur Meher Marfatia and ‘Arts for Social Change’ by filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala were some of AVID’s online talks which took place early on. That people could access on YouTube and FB. Says Asad Lalljee, SVP Essar Group and CEO of AVID learning, “We have tried to focus our programming around themes and days, for example, World Environment Day which was on June 5. We wanted to develop critical mass and also save our shows for posterity and future viewing. We are still trying to figure out the technology in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of a performance. We are still trying to understand current consumption patterns. It’s not going to be sustainable to organise a show at a theatre house like the Mumbai Opera House and keep three seats free. The online world is here to stay and people have a lot of disposable time to see wonderful stuff on the internet. We want to democratise the arts and this is an exciting time.”

Says V. Ravichandar, Honorary Director at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), “Till the coast is clear we won’t be able to operate. What I foresee is private events with gatherings of people you know starting first. For example, if a group of people where everyone knows each other wants to book our venue for a music programme. Events with strangers will take much longer, simply because if anything goes wrong, you can contact trace in the case of a more private event. Which will be more difficult among a group of strangers, for example, a ticketed event where anyone can buy a ticket and come to the show. We would also like to operate at one-third capacity, to maintain physical distancing. At a private do you know everyone and you feel more comfortable attending.”

A play called Suhani ki Shaadi held two online shows last weekend and will host one more this evening at 5 PM. It is a digital play where apart from the protagonists, attendees participate. All one does is sign into a zoom room to watch. The play has a narrator, and the leading lady, also a mentalist by profession, Suhani Shah is in conversation with a few characters that occupy her world, like her grandmother or her best friend, played by Mehak Mirza Prabhu. The play is certainly an example of how with impassioned thinking, directors can dream up on-screen projects. Audiences could participate live by commenting in the chat box, and by joining Shah who read their mind and predicted where they wanted to travel next after the lockdown opened!

Furthermore live magic was part of their flirtation. Explains Shah, “The more shows we do the more refined we get. I don’t see public gatherings and shows happening for the whole year. There will be safety issues. There needs to be adaptability and an understanding of how a digital audience is going to think. We plan our play at 5 PM because we want the perfect natural light on the computer screen. When the lockdown happened, we decided to do something exclusively for the digital medium and developed a practically new genre.”

Most at the helm of performance showgrounds agree that it may still be too early to predict their own comeback. Shares Khushroo Suntook, Chairman, NCPA, “It is perhaps safe to say that the return of audiences to theatres will be a slow process. We will continue to engage with audiences — including those beyond India who we have reached out to through NCPA@home. In keeping with social-distancing norms, the NCPA is brainstorming different formats to give the audiences a wider experience, including the latest addition of sessions from Tata Literature Live!, Mumbai’s annual literature festival, to its weekly broadcast series.”

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