Where art thou?


By Romila Padhi

In a world pre-covid-19, Bengaluru had an eclectic art and theatre scene. A play at Ranga Shankara or a recital at Alliance Française welcomed artists and connoisseurs every other day.

Whitefield’s Jagriti Theatre, Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Malleswaram, KH Kala Soudha in Basavanagudi, Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in Indira Nagar, H N Kalakshetra in Jayanagar, Rangasthala in MG Road, Atta Galatta in Koramangala and the National Gallery of Modern Art on Palace Road were spaces that nurtured art.

In the pandemic’s clutches, just as work, art was shackled within the four walls, or rather smart screens. Performance art went through a ‘drastic change’, artists BM spoke to said.

“It was a paradigm shift,” as Odissi dancer Meghna Das put it.

Das has been performing for almost three decades, collaborating worldwide, exploring varied styles and disciplines. She has written and directed three full-length productions – Anamika, Neelachal and Ayam.

With the stage no longer available during lockdowns, Das underwent tremendous transformation, performing in the proscenium. She took to Instagram too, like many others. “It’s not the same,” she said.

“As the pandemic’s fallout settled, artists performed for shows from their homes,” Das told BM. Online, the screens are smaller than the stage and attention spans too short.

“In an auditorium, I could turn off the lights and ask the audience to switch off their phones. I had access to spotlights and smoke. Now, people watch from a cab, toilet, anywhere,” Das added. To adapt classical dance to digital, according to Das, one had to do away with many aspects of the art form.

“A 6-inch screen doesn’t require elaborate makeup, traditional silver jewellery or costume,” Das explained.

This means, the classical dance we knew would drastically change. Not every dancer can transition to digital.

“The light crew, makeup artists, shops on Commercial Street that provide costumes, all were hit by the pandemic. Just as we were getting used to ticketed proscenium shows, things changed further,” she told Bangalore Mirror. “The money was always bad,” Das quipped. The prolonged shutdown only made things worse for the dancer: “A lot of us, who weren’t teaching, started instructing students online.”

There were challenges. “Dance is based on rhythm. When I’d recite the taal (rhythm), the students would hear it a few seconds later. It took time to figure out if they were rhythm-deaf or it was the internet,” Das noted.

Sujay Saple, is the founder of Shapeshift, a theatre company: “I’ve been inclined towards visual arts, contemporary dance and movement-based theatre. I want to create experiences rooted in feelings; make the audience experience things closely, just like in dreams: a truly immersive experience.” During the first lockdown, Saple was on a break. “Digital is a whole new format. It needs to be explored properly,” said Saple.

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Last one year, Saple too, went digital. “Max Mueller Bhavan organises a dramatic reading of German plays annually called German Spotlight. This time it was digital. The entire play was made, directed and shot on Zoom. Initially, it was weird but as it came together, it was cool. It felt more like a film,” Saple added.

While the lockdown meant a break for artists like Saple, there were those who ran out of options.

Lekha Naidu, another theatre practitioner, with decades of experience in performance and teaching, pointed out that riding the digital wave isn’t for every artist. “The internet is a privilege not everyone has access to,” she said. Likewise, the pandemic proved an extremely tough time for Lakshmana KP, a theatre professional from Shivamogga — financially and mentally.

Dance is based on rhythm. When I’d recite the taal (rhythm), the students would hear it a few seconds later. It took time to figure if they were rhythm-deaf or it was the internet

— Meghna Das, Odissi performer

“Covid-19 affected me at a personal level. I used to spend a lot of time with actors and dancers… Suddenly, I felt caged and helpless,” he told this reporter.

This wasn’t too different from what Das and Lekha experienced. They too spoke of how isolating it became all of a sudden.

“I stayed away from the internet, I think it doesn’t work for me. I focused on translations instead,” Lakshmana said.

He staged a production after the first lockdown and is waiting to launch his next based on Waiting for Godot. He is now teaching at Abhinaya Taranga.

Lakshmana did find relief though, in three children of daily wagers, who knocked on his door for food.

“They were looking for work, so that they could eat. I spoke to them to find out where their parents were, etc. I told them a story, gave them food, and then they’d come again, adding to the stories. They’d tell them in their own ways. At times, I felt I was with friends again,” Lakshmana recalled.

Quite similarly, Akash performs playback theatre, an intimate format where the audience plays a part and the production doesn’t require a stage. “The audience tells us their stories and we build from there. It’s very intimate and interactive. We do it in small groups. When we started doing this online, we received a good response,” he said, adding that not only artists but audiences too go through the so-called Zoom fatigue.



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Sagar Biswas

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