By Shriya Roy
Delhi-based magician and illusionist Karan Singh had already cancelled his public shows when the nationwide lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 25 this year. Confined to his house, though, he took to the online medium and started performing for free for anyone who wanted to watch. He also performed on Skype for 15 to sometimes even 50 people initially. “I moved my shows online pretty early… I came up with a bunch of things that I used to do on Instagram Live before the lockdown happened. I took that concept and made it bigger,” says Singh.
The pandemic has forced many sectors to innovate and adapt. And the world of performing artistes is no different. Faced with an uncertain future, many artistes have taken to the online medium to keep themselves relevant and their fans entertained. But for a ‘business’ that thrives on audience participation and interaction, how fulfilling is it to consistently perform for a screen?
Adopting & adapting
Music festivals, concerts, standup gigs have all been hit hard by the virus. As theatres, concert halls and clubs remain shuttered, many performing artistes have been left without any gigs to depend on. Initially, with news of the outbreak, many voluntarily cancelled performances. However, what they didn’t know then was that they wouldn’t be able to see the light of the stage and their fans cheering for a very long time.
Artistes are, however, known to improvise. And that’s exactly what they did by going online. Today, Zoom shows, open mics on Google Hangouts and Instagram Lives have replaced theatres and concert halls. Sure, the virtual world isn’t entirely a new sphere for them, as many already have an expanding and interactive social media space—some even have their own ‘Specials’ on various OTT platforms—but performing live on a virtual platform is a completely different ballgame. Needless to say, many are still trying to find their feet. “It is definitely not the same as performing live. With me, I need people to talk to. It has been a challenge. I am getting used to it,” admits magician Singh.
For Noida-based standup comic Nishant Suri, the winner of comedy reality show Comicstaan (Season 1), the transition hasn’t been very easy either. Suri had initially planned to wait it out, hoping that things would get back to normal in some time. But soon, he realised that that was not to be. “I had to accept the fact that this is going to be the new normal at least for a while. So I decided to get out of denial and move towards accepting and adapting,”
he says, adding that standup is a lot about building and playing with the energy of the room, and that’s something he misses dearly. “In a live show, everybody participates and shares that energy, and that really adds to the
The virtual audience is sitting inside their own houses, mostly alone. So the experience for them is completely different,” he says, adding, “For me, it’s not the same as live standup, but it has been a decent experience so far.”
The energy in the room is what Bengaluru-based comedian Shankar Chugani misses as well. “I have been used to performing for a live audience for six years now, but trying to recreate that virtually is difficult. When I am performing live, I can sense the energy in the room… whether the joke is doing well. If a joke doesn’t go well, I know exactly what to do to get the audience’s attention back. In a live show, I am the only person in-charge. But online, I have very little control over that… many factors aren’t in my control. With online shows, I feel there is a lack of feedback as well,” says Chugani, who is also popularly known by his Instagram handle Halfacomic.
Reason to cheer
The silver lining to all this is that content is being consumed at an extremely high rate now, as most people are confined to their homes and hungry for entertainment. So apart from doing online shows, standup comics are also selling their recorded original sets to various OTT platforms. There has also been a concentrated effort not only by artistes, but also by organisers to reach online audiences. Rolling Stone India’s #ArtistsWFH has brought together artistes, comics, musicians and poets who have been presenting live gigs on Rolling Stone India’s Instagram handle on a weekly basis, while BookMyShow’s Live From HQ brings forth a combination of curated performances by prominent artistes, poets and standup comics like Prateek Kuhad, Adil Hussain, etc, that the audience can enjoy sitting at home by registering online and paying a nominal fee.
Music and comedy festival Bacardi NH7 Weekender has also been bringing out online music content titled Happy At Home Sessions. Popular Indian standup comics Vir Das, Rohan Joshi and Sumukhi Suresh are part of these sessions. Comics like Sahil Shah of East India Comedy fame, on the other hand, are doing open mics on Google Hangouts for Only Much Louder (a Mumbai-based artist and event management company, which is working to create special live performances for audiences) for which a limited number of fans are invited. Some musicians like Ankur Tewari and bands like Indian Ocean have also been doing live sessions in collaboration with
It’s not a surprise to see these artistes embrace the digital medium so wholeheartedly, as it helps them reach a wider audience across the world, which isn’t possible with a physical performance. “There are a lot of possibilities with a virtual show both for the artiste and the audience. As an artiste, it’s now possible for me to sit anywhere in the world and test out my jokes. We were earlier constrained to staying in cities that had a good open mic circuit. But online open mics eliminate the need for that,” says Suri, adding that everyone is working under constraints imposed by the pandemic and the audience understands that.
“They’ve been really nice and cooperative so far,” he says. For Singh, the online medium works as he doesn’t need a large audience to perform. “What works for magic is that I can perform for one person at a time. You can sit with a person and connect to them at a very personal level. Magic as an art form has that advantage,” says Singh, adding that while he initially did a bunch of free shows, he has now put a nominal charge, most of which he donates for feeding stray dogs around Delhi.
Social media platforms today are crowded with virtual events, performances and live conversations. Clearly, a strong presence in the digital space is on these artistes’ minds, as it looks unlikely that offline shows will be a possibility in the foreseeable future. Popular standup comic Kanan Gill, however, believes that it’s still very early to say whether it will work or not. The shift from offline to online also comes with financial implications, as artistes have to determine how they monetise their performances. Mumbai-based Gill says there’s great financial uncertainty amongst both artistes, as well as audiences, which will play a major role in the future after the pandemic is over. All live art forms will suffer, he says.
But the artistes are hanging in there, hoping for that day when they will be able to hear organic laughter and cheers from the crowd. “A virtual performance will never be a replacement. The rush you get when you’re on stage, making people laugh, that feeling can never be replicated at home. So even though I’m mildly optimistic about virtual performances, I can’t wait for live shows to begin again,” says Suri.
Other comics agree. “Even if instead of 40, I have to perform for 20 people, I am okay. I love going up on stage, telling jokes and making them laugh. Virtual shows may be here to stay, but I don’t think they will replace live shows,” believes Chugani.