During his 40-year-long career, Gurugram-based photographer Dinesh Khanna has dabbled in both contemporary and commercial work across the world. Khanna, however, had never imagined that there would come a time when he would be away from social interactions and travel for months on end as he was last year. “Photography as my profession and passion made me travel the world… at least four-five trips a month, but the social seclusion brought in a major change in my life. I had never spent so much time reviewing more than thousands of images in my archives, editing, creating photo essays or books at home,” says the shutterbug, who in the absence of human interaction felt isolated and quite uncreative. “Photography is a language that speaks stories about humans. It connects humans in many aspects and if there are no humans to interact with, it becomes difficult to connect. The isolation hampered my creativity due to limited interaction,” rues Khanna.
The photographer, however, used the time to focus on his vicinity and zoomed into small objects and details around him, seeing familiar things in a new light. Focusing on how Gurugram converted into a dystopian place, his work resulted in a series of photographs called Dystopian Utopia. “The isolation changed the subject of my photography as I explored unique situations in the vicinity,” says Khanna. “Photography is an expression of what you see and connect with… I clicked empty streets, unexotic and uncreative objects like a dumpyard or an unearthly surreal landscape near an under-constructed housing complex on the highway. If one image depicts the sense of desolation on empty streets, another is about a pile of tyres on a pavement with circles painted on the road to follow social distancing rules,” he adds.
Khanna was not alone in feeling a creative vacuum. As the pandemic changed the rhythm of life for many, what majorly got impacted was the inspiration to create. While for some, creative isolation worked wonders, helping them turn ideas into projects, for many others, it resulted in a huge loss of creativity. The major reason behind this is that creativity emerges from dialogues, interactions and practices. It involves a thought process that works well with interactions, exchange of new ideas, innovation, learning and unlearning, and receiving feedback. Without all this, it becomes a solitary process, hampering creative thought.
Medical and social experts believe that long periods of isolation reduce social reinforcement. “Mental health gets impacted with self-isolation… and it does hamper one’s productivity at work and elsewhere. Creativity is not a unitary goal. It is like a process and very subjective for different people in different situations,” says Delhi-based Achal Bhagat, senior consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Apollo Hospitals, and chairperson, Saarthak, a mental health organisation. “The essential requirements for someone to be creative are time, spontaneity and stimuli. Some people are more creative when they have stimuli from outside, others are more creative when they respond to internal cues. As a matter of fact, work-related productivity can lead to a dip with continuous isolation. Sometimes periods of being alone increase efficiency as distraction decreases, but long periods of isolation reduce social reinforcement and thus decrease motivation to work,” he explains.
The human touch is also very important for the creative juices to flow. “In the current situation, people are trying to cope with anxieties and the fear of so many imponderables. Sanity and survival are difficult… and this is not good for creativity. Field work, meeting people face to face is important in a creative process. Internet sources are helpful, but can’t always be a substitute. Of course, human touch is essential for any kind of creativity. Social distancing deprives us of the human touch even as we watch and hear about the trials and suffering in current times,” offers Savyasaachi (who goes by one name only), professor of sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.
The tech twist
Technology has come as a big aid for secluded artists, helping them form unique associations spanning disciplines and allowing them to collaborate across geographical locations through their screens. Take the case of Mumbai-based Tanuja Gomes, who is the co-founder and co-CEO of Furtados School of Music (FSM), a music institute that partners with schools, has a pan-India presence and boasts a 150-year-old legacy in the music business. Schools may have been shut, but Gomes didn’t let that deter her spirit of teaching music. “During the pandemic, the essence of group discussions, brainstorming on ideas and strategies was amiss. The whole world came to a standstill, but we were sure that delivering education to students could not halt,” says Gomes.
“For years, FSM has relied on an offline model to impart music education to students, but we were forced to rethink our approach and change focus. Online education grew at a rapid pace last year, so this was the best time to introduce music learning via FSMBuddy, an online platform that gives students access to 180 courses in online arts education-music, dance arts, crafts, drama. The platform helps learners find the best teachers in the art space, enabling teachers to put up their courses and teach students across the world… the tutors can assess their wards’ performance as well,” says Gomes, adding that over 20,000 students have enrolled on the platform in the past six months. “It helps students interact with not just teachers, but students too from other parts of the world, creating a multicultural experience,” she says.
Similarly, Delhi-based Rahaab Allana, curator and publisher, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, had to arrive at novel ways of sharing information and conducting public projects. Constant online sessions and artist collaborations helped, he says, but many projects were also put on hold. The situation forced him to develop Alternative South Asia Photography, or ASAP Connect, an editorially-driven app for lens-based practices from south Asia, supported by non-profit MurthyNayak Foundation. The app has regular posts on contemporary exhibitionary practices, seminars, publications and grants. They are also building a resource of artist portfolios to present research-led perspectives around visual cultures.
“It is perhaps south Asia’s very first one dedicated to perspective writing around lens-based practices, with a focus on art history and visual culture,” says Allana, the founder of this app, who has curated various lens-based exhibitions and works with institutions and festivals internationally. “Many young freelance writers, many just finishing their degrees, have an incredible amount of intellectual and creative input to share. They can drive the app, and this is a novel way of articulating the impact images have on us. I think the paradigm shift now is in information-sharing and production-and we must consider how to make it accessible for a generation that is constantly looking at a screen,” says Allana, who is also the founding/managing editor of PIX, a theme-based photography initiative for south Asian practitioners, now in its 10th year.
If technology helped in bridging the gap, the isolation itself became a source of expression for many, especially artists in the various creative writing genres— novel, theatre, screenplay, short stories, etc. Inter-media artist Amitesh Grover, for one, started writing prose and poetry and found inspiration for it in every nook and corner of his house and everyday life. “The spatial in my home-the window, corners, drawers, all began opening up to experiences and memories that were abstract and real,” says Delhi-based Grover, who is the curator of Serendipity Arts Virtual (SA Virtual) of the Serendipity Arts Foundation, an arts foundation that aims to promote new cultural partnerships, creative strategies and artistic interventions. “I wrote for my billboard art project, carried new pieces of text every week for mostly empty roads and no traffic at first, and later for people who emerged from the lockdown and crawled back to work. The text I wrote is a poetic response to the conditions in which we lived,” says Grover, who in December 2020, produced a multilayered art form titled The Last Poet. Theatre, creative coding, digital scenography, film and live performance made this theatre-on-the-internet broadcast as India’s first genre-bending virtual event commissioned by SA Virtual.
Talking about the cyber theatre, which shows how a poet disappears, a virus spreads within and how the world becomes haunted, Grover says, “The idea was conceived during the lockdown and the accompanying crisis… migrant exodus, stigma, anxiety and fear of the disease, loss of families… all this opens up possibilities for viewers to navigate the story of experiences.”
For Noida-based Hindi writer and author Manish Sharma, too, it was a time to slow down and experiment, which eventually helped him find a stronger expression through audiobooks, comics, animations, podcasts and vlogging. “The year 2020 was about experimentation. My previous three novels and several short stories were fantasy, but the fear and loss associated with the pandemic were so overpowering that all the ifs and buts associated with the virus blocked my creative disposition and got converted into my creative writing,” says Sharma. “I took a realistic approach to create an all-new genre of writing as ‘real-life horror’-fear, uncertainties, insecurities related to the pandemic. My latest novel Bhoot Jholakia focuses on fear, restlessness, loneliness— all these are central to the lead character,” adds the author, who works as a lead writer at Pratilipi (a self-publishing and audiobooks portal based in Bengaluru) and has written several stories inspired by Indian folklore apart from his comic novel Kaun Tha and a 3D surround sound audio of Kaun Tha.
Creative thinking can be perceived as a social phenomenon as most writers search for ideas in conversations. For award-winning contemporary film writer and lyricist Abhiruchi Chand, planned meetings with friends from the film fraternity helped her come up with brilliant work and creative opportunities in the past, which in the absence of social interaction vanished. Working from home for about a decade, Chand says being at home was never an issue, but social networking and meetings can sometimes do wonders. “I cannot deny that there are times when you want to head to your neighbourhood café, sip on a hot chocolate, look at people passing by and take cues to write a new script or song. It’s very contextual and this kind of creativity helps. It’s very subjective. Also meeting in person helps as one can strike a chord. But all this stopped,” says Chand, who is known for her songs Manzar Hai Ye Naya from RSVP’s Uri, Buddhu Sa Mann from the film Kapoor & Sons, Theher Ja from Shoojit Sircar’s October, among others. “At the same time, the entire ordeal of dressing up, getting stuck in traffic has completely ended, which in a way means, I’ve time to accomplish more. I have been giving script narrations to actors on Zoom calls, but nothing better than a person-to-person chat,” says Chand, who is currently busy writing untitled big-ticket projects, which are in the pre-production stage.
Dialogue in a dilemma
Like Chand, there are many who look at human interaction for creative pursuits and for them it can’t be replaced by online platforms. Interior designing, for instance, is a social phenomenon and negotiations between designers are essential to initiate creativity. That’s why it became imperative for Gurugram-based Meena Murthy Kakkar to see the positives of the situation and turn it into a learning experience. “Working as a professional in a highly collaborative industry, interacting in a physical space is necessary to take design ideas forward,” says Kakkar, design head and partner, Envisage, an interior and architecture firm. “Online meetings kept us afloat, but we felt something going amiss in terms of the level of engagement with clients. The line between the professional and personal also got blurred with both overlapping. There’s nothing better than closed-door meetings, consultations for small daily tasks in a physical setup or collaborating for architectural projects under tight deadlines,” adds Kakkar, who feels the need to re-evaluate spaces like school buildings is huge. “As designers, we are in a constant process of learning and reanalysing the situation. Our perspectives changed about space design in general, the right use of natural light and ventilation, or cutting down the consumption of artificial heating or cooling systems to make the best use of design possibilities. Also, we haven’t seen any progress in the basic design of school buildings in the last two decades. With all the sudden change the education industry got thrown in, and with engagement methodologies undergoing a paradigm shift, it is important to rethink classrooms’ configuration: flexible modules with walls, ceilings and corridors that can be turned from unutilised design elements into spaces that interact or as multi-utility spaces. The walls can be reimagined as interactive digital screens, and interactive classrooms and flexible seating arrangements can be integrated into the building’s fabric,” she says.
As far as the F&B sector is concerned, feedback from guests is an important part of the process. Naturally then, for chef Jatin Mallick, the low footfall impacted motivation and zeal to create new dining options. “A chef’s creativity is affected when there are no guests or feedback. Closed business in the peak months of the pandemic was purely a question of survival,” says Mallick, who is the co-owner of Delhi-based restaurant Tres. “Daily work pressure of limited availability of resources, manpower, ingredients and limited guests pushed us to step out of the comfort zone and create experiences that people would be eager to try. Thankfully, food is always in demand and delivery has become big. We introduced the all-new concept of food delivery called TRES at Home, a DIY kit (including for kids), sandwiches, burgers, pastas and comfort meals, which were accepted well and have given a boost to the business,” he says.
In 2020, Serendipity Arts Foundation & Festival, too, explored alternate possibilities via the digital model, hosting landmark initiatives for traditional artisans working in remote parts of India. Lack of infrastructure has forced many artists— who have been developing traditional art forms for over multiple generations— give up their art forms and inherited skill and learning, and move to bigger cities for survival. SA Virtual hosted various hands-on guided live workshops with artists for whom last-mile digital connectivity has been a game-changer. Kite-maker Umar Daraz and Sanjhi scroll painter Mohan Verma, who upskilled to take online workshops, were some of the artists who were able to connect with a larger audience through the initiative.
In December 2020, British Council, FICCI and The Art X Company released a report titled Taking the Temperature on the deepening impact of the pandemic on India’s creative economy. The report compared the situation in India since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the lockdown (March-June) with the relaxation of the lockdown (July-October). It found that despite the opening up of the economy, income streams for the creative workforce remained inconsistent and sporadic. The creative economy, it said, is contracting with 16% of the creative sector facing permanent closure. “The report emphasises the importance of digital entrepreneurship within the creative economy and its vital role in rebuilding creative endeavours which were limited to the offline space before,” says Mumbai-based Rashmi Dhanwani, founder-director, The Art X Company, an interdisciplinary arts organisation. “Creative organisations and artists who have explored new possibilities of culture-making in the digital space have come out stronger. But there is a gap in the level of digital literacy within the creative community. The government and corporates must step up to close that, so that the sector is ready for future uncertainties. Despite adapting to hybrid, live and digital models, some sectors in the creative industries will remain reliant on face-to-face audience interaction to generate income in the long term,” adds Dhanwani.