India’s cultural institutions are fighting to keep the arts alive during a pandemic

Viewing gallery.
Viewing gallery.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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Cultural entertainment in India is on hold.

As Indians defer stepping out for even essentials, the nation’s arts and cultural spaces are coming to grips with the realization that the only way to survive the coronavirus pandemic is to innovate. While some galleries have gone online, others have reimagined viewing art with social distancing. And others still are experimenting with 3D technology to replicate the physical experience of consuming culture in different formats.

Amrita Verma, associate vice-president of the RMZ Foundation, an organization that supports arts, sustainability and healthcare innovation, was getting ready to set up the Bengaluru edition of the Goa Affordable Art Exhibition at its gallery in March. But Covid-19 and the lockdowns that followed put a spanner in the works. “This was a big learning experience, challenge, and adventure for us. Art is all about congregation, and it can have supportive factors online. But one can’t deny the physicality of the experience,” she says.

A brave new world

So when the exhibition opened in June, the biggest hurdle was establishing social distancing but also retaining the fluidity of the art viewing experience. “There is a flow of loitering about the gallery, getting immersed in the work. Making people walk in a line abruptly breaks that flow,” Varma says.

The gallery decided on a vantage point for each artwork, allowing viewers 15 to 20 minutes to get fully immersed into it. “Instead of short snippets and the manager walking visitors through the gallery, we had longer write ups with each work on display.”

Gallery Ark, an art gallery in Vadodara, in Gujarat, chose to not only take its exhibition online, but also offer visitors a three-dimensional virtual experience at home. Often, the architecture and overarching aesthetic of a large art space is woven into an exhibition. “We realized that sharing artworks digitally, without their spatial and tactile reference, was not enough,” says Nupur Dalmia, director of Gallery Ark. The length and breadth of Gallery Ark’s physical space has been rendered in 3D, and the digital model offers pop-ups guides for a virtual walkthrough.

Dalmia says this is a change that could exist in tandem with the physical viewing experience, even after the threat of the pandemic is over.

While these innovations are more intuitive and direct for visual artwork, they remain a work-in-progress for the performing arts.

Staging ground

For the first time in its 50-year history, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) had to shut its theatre in Mumbai. What came to its rescue was the painstaking archival work the cultural institution had been doing over the past several years. For most of its history, the centre has been filming its performances—now, they are available online. “These rich archival reservoirs, with the expertise of our senior staff members as well as our foreign consultants helped us present performances across genres to our members, patrons and wider audiences beyond India through the NCPA@home digital broadcast series,” says Khushroo Suntook, chairman of the NCPA.

Some of these digital series have included performances from the Symphony Orchestra of India, plays, operas, and ballets, and works of artists such as tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas. “There is, of course, no substitute for watching a live performance,” adds Suntook.

But NCPA is hopeful that it may soon be able to open its doors in a modified, new normal. The institution is working out what the scenario would look like, which will likely include asking patrons to wear masks and keep sufficient seats in the auditorium empty. It is also looking towards successful examples of such institutions in Europe.

For younger audiences and newer media, though, the change has been stark. Stand-up comedy, for instance, has been a growing industry in India, fueled by the appetite for experimental content. An evening of stand-up comedy often meant a drink or meal with friends—entertainment that went beyond the medium of the performance.

Vir Das, a comedian based in Mumbai, has taken his content and live performances online, and made these online events ticketed. But challenges still remain. “You can’t talk to the audience too much. Sometimes, you can’t hear what a laugh sounds like in unison,” he had told Quartz in an interview.

Online gigs, though, are going strong despite these shortcomings. Ticketing platform BookMyShow said that it hosted over 750 virtual entertainment events during India’s lockdown phase. Its new offering, BookMyShow Online, is now entirely dedicated to hosting and facilitating music, comedy, and entertainment events. For the foreseeable future, this virtual experience of culture is here to stay.