Art in isolation: A whole new literature is going to evolve from this experience of the pandemic

March 28, 2021 3:00 AM

The pandemic has been both a boon and curse for artists

Such is the power of art. It moves you, making you undergo a sort of catharsis.Such is the power of art. It moves you, making you undergo a sort of catharsis.

By Reya Mehrotra

The pandemic had an unprecedented impact on the art world, with many artists losing their stage, audience and livelihoods. So how did they overcome the uncertainty and chaos through their creative language?

Khol do. These are mere words until one reads Saadat Hasan Manto’s great work by the same name, considered a pioneer in partition literature. The strikingly shocking and bitterly true account of crimes on women during partition sends shivers down the spine, jolting one out of their stupor. Such is the power of art. It moves you, making you undergo a sort of catharsis.

Though not as great in stature as colonial, partition or post-colonial literature, the art being churned out in the pandemic and post-pandemic era is nothing short of iconic itself, as it captures the psychological, emotional and economic upheaval of these times. As for the people behind this art, they remain one of the most severely impacted, with many artists having lost their stage, audience, as well as their livelihoods. And that’s what ‘Art in Isolation’, a conference at the Bihar Museum’s first-ever Museum Biennale (which started on March 22 and concludes today) delved upon, discussing the impact of the pandemic on artists and enquiring how they overcame the uncertainty and chaos through their creative language.

Times and culture have always influenced art and literature. Think of the dark political influence on Shakespear’s tragedies or Vincent van Gogh’s famous Starry Nights, which the artist painted during his time in a mental asylum. Though not as severe, but current times have also impacted artists in a multitude of ways.

Art in pandemic

The pandemic has been both a boon and curse for artists, feels Delhi-based Alka Pande, project director and curator, Bihar Museum Biennale. “For certain people, isolation has given them time to reflect and think, which they never had earlier with pressures of everyday living. Art created in isolation has its own energy and gravitas. For writers, visual artists, painters and sculptors who work in solitary confinement… their work has become more intense and thoughtful. It has been a great period of creativity because they have the luxury of time to create work,” offers Pande.

But there’s been a downside as well and it’s too prominent to ignore. “Many artists in isolation have had a change in mental landscapes-they have anxiety, insecurity about whether they will be able to survive. Before the pandemic, it was a happy time, the economy was buoyant. In India, particularly, there was an upsurge of hope, but with the pandemic, there’s uncertainty of future, conflict, anxiety and mental health issues, so this is definitely going to reflect in their work,” explains Pande, who has taken a two-year sabbatical to come out of the pandemic.

Not everyone, however, has been so fortunate. “It is tragic that artists, weavers and performing artistes have lost their livelihoods and have had to adapt to other means,” says Pande. “There’s no money for the arts. The economy is in a shambles, money is being used for sustenance and health and essential services like food, so how can you look at the creative process that is innovative? Innovation happens both in times of strife and in times of great booming economies. But at this time, when people have had to look for alternative livelihoods, we must live in gratitude to be able to have access to those alternative livelihoods.”

Pande believes the pandemic’s impact on the human psyche will reflect in creative works in the long term. “Many have even started writing about food and diets during the pandemic-all immediate issues. But we’ll just have to wait and watch and let the whole thing sink through the layers of memory of imagination. A whole new literature is going to evolve from this experience of the pandemic,” she says.

Virtual viewing

For the audience, experiencing art through a screen is not the same thing as being able to see, touch or listen to it live. Similarly, for an artist, having an audience on the other side of the screen is not the same as them cheering live. Pande says the virtual medium is an enhancement platform, but it’s something she doesn’t support. “Virtual is important and will be a part now of the new normal. Showing of art virtually is going to be a reality, but for me, a work of art talks only through the physical space. The virtual space enhances the experience, but it does not talk. What you experience when you stand in front of a painting, sculpture or textile… listening to a live performance… that experience is completely different. If the art is especially created for virtual, then one can understand. There are hyper-real experiences through augmented realities, but for me, they lack the essential experience of transference of emotions,” she asserts.

New curriculum

For a nation obsessed with medical and engineering degrees, there’s good news for those inclined towards the arts. There could soon be a university of arts in the country for those looking at probable career options in the field of arts. The university is being planned by Bihar’s art, culture and youth department to support the art and cultural history of the state and its local artists. Calling it great news, Pande, who has been in the field for the last 35 years, says, “When I say I am doing fine arts, people say, ‘Finance?’ Art history is a subject which many people don’t know. They understand history, but art history is something which is still new. So it is important to have a university for arts. I believe art is all about innovation and new ideas.”

The dynamics have completely changed today, feels Pande. As compared to the earlier days when one chose arts if one could not get into commerce, law or science colleges, art today is becoming more and more significant. “A university for liberal arts is very important for our country to relook at our heritage, culture and practices of art… these can only be relooked at when we look at art education. It needs complete overhauling. The art school still comes under the department of technical education. Pedagogy is very much required for the establishment of an art course in post-independence India.”

Pande calls for a renaissance of our learning philosophy, literature, ideas, performing arts and traditional arts to create a new language, stressing upon the need for a university where people can take pride in their national identity. “What we need is a contemporary practice that has both tradition and modernity, which is a part of India’s culturally diverse landscape. We need to relook at our Indic wisdom, which is being ignored and has gone into oblivion,” says Pande.

Biennale bites

The Bihar Museum’s first-ever Museum Biennale, which concludes today, takes one on a journey of India’s museum culture and the world of art, culture & heritage

Touring museums and monuments virtually out of our living rooms remained one of our favourite activities last year. This newfound interest in the evolving image of the post-pandemic museum has led to the first-ever ‘phygital’ (physical + digital) Museum Biennale in the country. Organised by Bihar’s department of arts, culture and youth affairs, the biennale seeks to sensitise people about the significance of India’s museum culture through collections and virtual tours of museums across the world. Assam State Museum, City Palace Museum of Udaipur, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya in Bhopal, etc, are part of the event.

Some key speakers include Sarat Chandra Maharaj, professor, visual art and knowledge system, Lund University, Sweden; British art historian Neil MacGregor, director of digital, Tate Galleries, UK; Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial and collections management director at Louvre Abu Dhabi; Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, among others.

The key sessions circled around ‘Elements of a Museum’, ‘Museum As an Open Space for Conversation’, ‘Viewership, Connoisseurship, Outreach in a Post-Pandemic World’, ‘New Museums, New Audiences: Sharing in the Virtual Age’, etc. Masterclasses like ‘Restoration at the Prado Museum: From Tradition to Modernity’ by Lucía Martínez and Eva Martínez, and ‘Biographies of Emperors, Empresses, and Heroines’ by Ira Mukhoty proved educationally enriching.

Didarganj Yakshi, a sculpture at Bihar Museum, Patna

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