Artists and Covid

 

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Photo Courtesy: Debojyoti Dhar

by Parvati Rajamani

I had flown from the UK where I live and work for a short trip to Bengaluru to be with my parents. On 21 March, I heard that my return flight to the UK was cancelled. Though I did not realise it then, this was going to be the that long-sought sabbatical I had repeatedly postponed. As news of people stranded all over the world filtered through, I could not be grateful enough to be with my parents at this stage of their lives.

The situation has since unfolded and fast developed into one of the most devastating global health crises ever known to man. There are (as of July 19, 2020) more than fourteen million confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide , and more than six hundred thousand people dead from the disease. The pandemic showed just how communities around the world could be connected through a shared experience.

In the immediate aftermath, those of us more privileged to have media access, saw posts abound of the ephemeral nature of existence and the power of living in the present. Art as a way to “transcend” the mundane and experience it from the confines of one’s home, became the sudden go to, with online platforms awash with performances, interviews and presentations. Some, like me, in a desperate scramble for normalcy, chased video conferencing platforms to start my online dance classes. Almost immediately posts and views dictating the behaviour of artists sprouted. I lapped up those that supported my style of coping.

Conversations

I was interested in how my dance colleagues were dealing with this situation. Sooraj Subramaniam, Elena Catalano, Jaivant Patel, Sonali Misra and Arushi Mudgal, dance practitioners in Europe and India, kindly shared their experiences with me. How must we respond as artists? What is the relationship between artists and society? were some of the questions that they were faced with. In the face of disappointing cancellations of performances and the inability to do fully what they love, they struggled. Then there was an additional pressure to perform online. For performing artists, already reeling with the existential, professional, personal, and financial impact of the change of circumstances, decisions to agree to perform or decline, as the case may be, were not taken lightly. With the impetus to create, rehearse, and perform reduced, the perfectionism many artists battle with, lead to guilt surfacing at times and a need to reset priorities to accept and manage the changing circumstances.

The acknowledgement of their privilege and empathy with others less fortunate was palpable in all of our conversations. However, there were positives they spoke of as well. All ubiquitously cherished this gift of time and reflection and as Sooraj put it “sadhana,” where process could be given its due. Without the pressures of hectic schedules, Jaivant said he had the chance to rejuvenate. When Arushi spoke of rejoicing at seeing peacocks again near her residence and starlit nights, it brought back memories of a Delhi I knew. The luxury of using this time to relish in the nuances of dance described by Elena contrasted with the constraints for space she experienced, summing up the mixed bag of experiences this was. Sonali spoke of the uncomfortable reminder of mortality and morbidity this had been for her. I related to this, the constant washing hands, extraordinary attention to hygiene with the fear of my parents contracting COVID paralysing me sometimes. Separation anxiety from loved ones was an undercurrent for most, and I recalled my panic at never being able to see family and friends back home in the UK.

Grief and Coping

Analysing my experiences and reflecting on my discussions with my colleagues, I was reminded of The Five Stages of Grief. First researched and formally identified by experts David Kessler and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These broadly include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The prevalence and extent of this disease has had most of us face some form of loss and inevitable grief. As I write, four months since the beginning of all this, I am alternating mainly between depression and acceptance, with lesser and lesser bouts of panic. People can move through these five stages of grief in a different order than the one described here. One can also jump around from different stages at different points in time.

Some mental health professionals advocate assessing our current situation using these stages which can help process and understand the complex and wide-ranging emotions we all have about this global pandemic. The final stage is acceptance. This is not to be confused with being fine or happy. Acceptance essentially means coming to terms with what has happened and being ready to act for the future in the best way you know how. When it comes to COVID-19, maybe this looks like accepting that you feel down and overwhelmed, but knowing that the best you can do right now is to use precautions, follow guidelines, help others where you can, and support those you love. I add an artistic depiction by dancer & painter Desiree Bashi

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Photo Courtesy: Desiree Bashi

An impending Mental Health Crisis

The mental health impact of COVID cannot be underestimated. The director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mental health department Devora Kestel, speaks of “The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil – they all cause or could cause psychological distress,”. The UN brief on mental health issued on the 13th May 2020 outlined, the increasing psychological distress in populations. The distress due to the immediate health impacts of the virus and the consequences of physical isolation were described: the overwhelming fear of infection, dying, losing family members, and being physically distanced from loved ones and peers. Millions of people facing economic turmoil having lost or being at risk of losing their income and livelihoods was a devastating added consequence impacting adversely on mental health in turn. Frequent misinformation and rumours about the virus and deep uncertainty about the future being a common source of distress was also spelled out. The verdict was that a long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems is almost certain.

Financial Implications and the Future

It is becoming increasingly clear, how the disease threatens some, more than others, the lines of division pretty much separating the more privileged from the less fortunate along racial and class lines. In the UK,the situation is particularly severe for the less well-established – because of age, race, geographical location, disability, or background and for freelance artists, who make work that people pay to see. Though a 1.5-billion-pound bailout was announced recently, there are questions about whether the funds will actually reach practitioners or go to buildings and institutions? However, in the UK,23 as in other social welfare economies, the benefit system could support at such times.

Unfortunately, there is no default state support for the citizens in India. Most charity efforts specifically for artists are being led by other artists and NGOs. Some of my colleagues above performed to raise funds to do their bit. It is still unclear whether the funds are reaching the most needy artists in India. These and many other such unanswered questions will continue to preoccupy artists in the coming months.

What does the future hold for performing artists whose interaction with their art is inextricably linked with actual physical human connections with co-artists, students and the audience? These experiences can never be substituted for by a virtual medium. Having said that, the current shift to online media has opened up unique possibilities that artists and programmers could never have imagined. One such opportunity is online classes allowing students to learn from the teacher of their choice geographical distance notwithstanding. Similarly, with some exclusive shows being streamed online, there is a democratisation, with access to many shows one could only have dreamt of affording to see. The audiences have thus expanded. But will people pay for this as they did before? Will we need to revaluate how their time and effort is compensated for? Artists’ livelihoods depend on a healthy sustainable online based economy, if this is indeed the foreseeable future.

Artist :The Survivor

Artists have always been described as resilient and adapting creatures. Gardner (2008) says about the Creating mind:

“…But I have come to believe that personality and temperament are equally and perhaps even more, important for the would-be creator (than knowledge and cognition). More than willing, the creator must be eager to take chances, to venture into the unknown, to fall flat on her face, and then smiling, pick herself up and once more throw herself into the fray

The characteristics that surface in literature defining ‘artistic identity’, are of someone powerful, dominant, fluid, and porous, and personality traits including independence, dealing with uncertainty, tenacity in challenge, flexibility, and flow among other characteristics.

I have faith in the artistic community and trust society will support and sustain this much- needed professional community through these tough times.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

– Policy Brief: COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health 13 MAY 2020
– Why So many Artists are Highly Sensitive people: Huff Post Jan 6 2016 Carolyn Gregoire.
– COVID-19 and the 5 stages of grief ;April 8, 2020 in Health; The Optimist Daily.
– Artistic Thinking and Development ,Social Sciences( 2008-2013) Sangeetha Ranjan.
– COVID-19: But what about art? The culturati appeals for government relief  Sneha Bhura April 11, 2020 THE WEEK.
– Rishi Sunak’s arts bailout is more divisive than it looks : Charlotte Higgins 14 July 2020  Guardian.

*I am truly grateful to Sooraj Subramaniam, Elena  Catalano, Jaivant Patel, Sonali Misra  and Arushi Mudgal, dance practitioners in the Europe and India, for allowing me to speak to them, and to artist Desiree Bashi for letting me use her painting

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