Posted by Arupa Lahiry, New Delhi
2020. A milestone year. While Mayan calendar predicted it to be the end of the world, the naive, unsuspecting me began the year with a bang. I presented a solo in the prestigious Kalidas Samaroh of Nagpur and was lauded all around. Indeed, it was a beautiful beginning. A few more shows followed along with a hectic archiving tour in Bengal and it was all looking exciting and perfect in my idyllic world.
But as we read in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in our literature classes, “Beware the Ides of March”, by 15th of March, we were looking at a world that was speeding ominously towards an immense black hole. By 22nd March our worst fears came alive and the nightmare began. And it was just the beginning. The enthusiasm with which we banged plates and glasses soon waned and the race for survival started.
Most of my co-artists were divided into two categories. Category one were those who had the luxury to spend hours and hours in practice. They divided within, searching the layers of art for personal solace. Art became the North Star that held them steady amidst a sea of chaos. The other category of artists were those who were struck with unemployment and despair. Overnight, they lost their concerts, the date diary was wiped clean with no assurance of re-booking. Then there was a third category. A category of marginalised artists from the grass root level. The folk artists. For them it was a question of one meal even over days. Yes, I am talking about the street magicians, the snake charmers, the Baul singers on trains. India is home to thousands of these artists who were already struggling to make two ends meet. With lockdown happening, their struggles came to a cruel halt pushing them to deep pits of hopelessness.
Where was I within this scheme of things? What was happening inside me as an artist and human? Today, when I look back, all I remember is a haze. Of nights, where I have woken up shaking, cold. Of mornings, I have struggled to get out of the sheets. Of evenings, I have stood on my verandah looking at empty paths ahead and distant glimmering lights feeling I am left alone in an alien world. As a child, my biggest fear was that of being left alone in darkness. Growing up in a joint family I am used to sound, noise, chaos and people. Though I do welcome solitude, being part of a human society is an absolute necessity for my sanity. And that was wiped out. I was alone. In a house. My dear ones were far off. I cooked for myself, cleaned for myself, washed for myself. And repeated the cycle. I felt this will never end. Or end after everybody will be erased and I will be left alone searching for the faces, searching for the touches. I longed for a hug, for a touch, for a closeness with an ache that throbbed non-stop.
Of the above mentioned compartments, strangely I belonged to neither. I didn’t have the luxury of practise. With all programmes cancelled, I had to depend on an alternative source of income. Just six months before pandemic hit the world, I had started consultancy for a small company archiving the storytelling forms of India in association with British Council. This consultancy now became my mainstay. It saved me from penury and gave me an unbroken saga of comfort many of my colleagues couldn’t afford.
Hours melted into hours. Day, night had no separate meaning. As a small company we had to struggle to survive and miraculously we were given a research project. A project to create Ghat signages for Varanasi. We were elated. But the euphoria of course was short-lived. Books couldn’t be couriered, libraries were closed, we couldn’t travel to the city. How were we supposed to complete our project? A frantic scramble over phone diaries got us connected with scholars like Rana PB Singh and journalists of repute who helped us to get started. We traveled through our mind’s eyes pouring over hundreds of pages of scanned material. We traveled across the timeline and felt liberated even when trapped within the four walls. Mythology, history, politics and culture of Varanasi coloured my days and nights.
A human mind is a fantastic piece of creation. Somewhere I had read a long time back that when stretched, supposedly it can go to the moon and come back. Literal? Metaphorical? Let’s not contest. But ironically, when we were physically trapped, our minds started whirling. Journeying. I who hated anything digital and whose brains came to a lockdown when approached by a screen had to re-adjust, re-learn and re-fashion. Within a week of the lockdown, I, along with the company I worked for, ideated a digital festival. A festival of storytelling. Hundreds of people came together. As audience, as storytellers. It kept growing. Over phones we connected to folk artists who negotiated with Facebook and phone screens for the first time. Seated in Manhattan, one could hear the beats of a runja artist from an unknown village of Telengana. Such was the power of the internet. We connected to celebrities like Adil Hussain, Mir, Indira Varma (GOT fame) and were chatting with them about the perils of lockdown like long lost friends. Because, all of us were in that same boat. All were reaching out with the same need. A need to connect. Logon Ka Folk Log, a digital storytelling festival connected 5 lakh hearts. Today, I can proudly say it was my baby. An idea that germinated out of a locked down artist’s mind.
And that’s when I realised creativity cannot be locked down. I realised that the human body is a cage but the mind is a bird which is like Phoenix. It can rise again and again from any ash it is reduced to. And I started dancing. Practicing. The drawing room became my stage. The curtains were my backdrop. The screen was my audience. Choreography had to be re-imagined to suit the new proscenium. Angles had to be flattened. Diagonals had to be straightened. We re-aligned ourselves yet again. We moved from temple to proscenium to camera.
And today, when we all emerge out of that year of learning, tottering back to normalcy I can only say I carry with me the lessons to be grateful. The lessons to realise I am Hercules. Lessons that my mind dances as much as my body. The lessons to understand in the words of one of my favourite novelists, “Nothing Lasts Forever”.
Arupa Lahiry is a well-known Bharatanatyam Dancer and is empanelled with the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Doordarshan, Delhi and Ministry of Culture, Government of India. She has toured all over the world in capacity of a dancer, teacher, choreographer and director. An MPhil in English, Arupa has been awarded two prestigious fellowships, by the TATA Group (2013-14) and also from the Ministry of Culture(2017-19: Junior Fellowship) to work on various aspects of Bharatanatyam and Indian art.
Arupa takes pride in being part of SPICMACAY and CCRT and taking her art to all the nooks and corners of India. Currently, she is also the head content strategist for Folklogue Studios, spearheading various projects which are socially, culturally and historically relevant.
Cover image: Team LV
Story images: Author, FolkLog, Gettyimages
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