It was like the rarest of rare cases that cultural institutions around the world and in India shut down – during the coronavirus prompted lockdown. Whether it was the NCPA Mumbai, the MOMA New York or the Tate Modern London. Soon, curators of art festivals, theatre directors, musicians and writers started thinking of how to put their plays, their tunes and their works of art online, and also generate some of that same experience for a lockdown tired viewer. Whether it was watch parties held virtually, or plays which re-formatted themselves to fit a virtual platform, like Zoom, culture went through a process of fine-tuning. How to cater to a virtual audience craving for some feel-good entertainment.
One might say that the situation revolutionised the arts, when for the first time, even if a performance was taking place in Bombay, someone from New Zealand could tune in. And vice versa. So this is how the lockdown of the past months brought all suckers for the arts together. Brought the world together. Nidhi Taparia, CEO at a digital content creation firm, says she enjoyed looking at the works of artist Dhruvi Acharya at an online viewing room on art gallery Chemould Prescott Road’s website. The artist had made several paintings in lockdown and Taparia cherished how Acharya “rigourously painted everyday and that almost all the money was given for charity.”
Someone with a more dramatic take on culture going on the web will even say it helped save the world during months and months of stay at home. It did indeed. Because we wouldn’t know where to look without some delicious entertainment streamed live on Zoom, a platform we suddenly discovered at the start of COVID 19.
Here, we do a small round up of some of the world’s most talked about cultural events that were totally held online.
One of the world’s first events which brought pop music stars online together during curfew was the WHO event conceptualised in collaboration with the unstoppable, Lady Gaga. The event was organised as a “show of solidarity” during the pandemic, to celebrate and express gratitude to healthcare workers and to inspire people to stay healthy. Apart from the rich voiced Gaga, the digital festival, which played live on April 18th on major American TV networks like ABC, also included Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Billie Eilish and John Legend. Called One World: Together At Home, this event kicked of many an event online to enjoy rather than cry over being stuck at home.
Says psychotherapist Shrradha Sidhwani, “The Arts give one the opportunity to be in a non-judgmental space and break free from the conditioned norms of society. There’s been a lot of lockdown loneliness and we as human beings thrive on relatedness. Digital shows help satisfy those psychological needs, even though it may not be 100% satisfaction. Also, one saw a big show of solidarity for the #blacklivesmatter movement, and at One World, I saw a lot of acceptance of all humanity. Today people have become more open to attending concerts because they can watch them from their dining tables. They don’t have to go out. They don’t feel the need to spend 10 lakhs to go to Amsterdam. They can watch a concert live digitally. Today conditioned thinking is falling away.”
Another step by WHO, this one to help our little guys combat the pandemic, involved launching the Read the World Campaign. For the event children’s authors would come together and read from their books live on Instagram and YouTube. Some books read included Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Cook and the King by Julia Donaldson, and How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell. Some authors acted out their stories which abounded with fantasy, adventure, and tested imagination’s limits.
The hashtag #SAVEWITHSTORIES was also another enterprise that was thought of during lockdown to help kids in rural America – those without access to the internet, school lunches and dinner, and education material as schools shut down. The Instagram account @#SAVEWITHSTORIES, in partnership with actresses Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams had several celebs reading books to the kids. Some celebs who read (even children’s books they authored themselves) included the US’s Vice President Elect Kamala Harris, actors Kate Winslet and Benedict Cumberbatch and models like Cara Delavigne, and Alia Bhatt as well. All in their casual best (Kate Winslet was dressed in her pyjamas) looking great. The purpose of the page was to raise funds for kids deprived of school resources and learning as the world went into lockdown.
Closer home, Tata Lit live went all virtual for the first time and was a week-long fest instead of the four days it is held for every year. The annual literature festival which is normally held at venues in Bandra and Nariman Point in Mumbai held its sessions, its workshops, panel discussions and award ceremonies online.
Viewers could ask questions in the comment sections on YouTube and Facebook and some sessions included “Lockdown Learnings – Ten Lessons for a Post Pandemic World” with award winning journalists like Fareed Zakaria and Barkha Dutt, and a panel discussion on Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (the TV series can be seen on Netflix today) with participants like storytellers Farrukh Dhondy and Kiran Manral. Not missing out on the date it always keeps with readers every year, Tata Literature Live! – The Mumbai LitFest was held between November 16 to 22nd this year.
Thespo 22 which vowed ‘Double the Dramagiri’ was also held wholly online, looking to make the most of the end of geographical boundaries in putting up plays and reaching spectators. One of India’s first digital youth theatre festivals, this year’s Thespo which was held between December 16 and 20, saw the development and showcase of musicals like Miah-Boy Diaries from Kolkata, which is about a man’s introspection in self isolation, and what it means to be Muslim in today’s era. And other plays like the Marathi play Nightmare from Pune which was about what is means to live one’s ideals in the practically designed world.
Shares Quasar Thakore Padamsee, Artistic Director at QTP Entertainment Pvt. Ltd which organises Thespo, and also an Associate Festival Director, and Head of Performances at Tata Lit Live, “It was a strange task organising the festivals online. There are both pros and cons of going online. For the Lit Fest there is no control over where participants could be at a time. There are so many variables to deal with. There were around 40 people managing the show. It may seem like the Internet is magic, but it’s not always like that. There have been issues in terms of internet speed, and audibility. Sometimes for people, their connections were strong, sometimes weak. On the other hand, for Thespo, because today there are no geographical limitations to putting up a show, we had creators from Sri Lanka, Brazil, Trinidad!”
Quasar also talks about the beauty of showcasing online. “For example a play can be performed live at a garden in Jaipur and you can watch it (from anywhere). For the Lit Fest, there were new people in the committee who joined in August and we’ve never met. Technologies on Zoom are also evolving where today two people can be on screen at a time while performing. Even other sites like Insider are growing into live online performance spaces.”