Music Is the Only Transmission in the Human Chain That Can Be Safely Amplified Now

Artists of all varieties and genres have come forward to flood the virtual space with their engagement, some going viral while others remain less audible.

When asked to write something on music and performance in today’s times, I was flummoxed, even a tad irritated at what I thought was a preposterous request. How many such requests would follow, I wondered – sports in the time of corona, fashion in the time of corona, poetry, dance, literature, the list could go on.

Especially as we live in a time when everything seems to be up for grabs, a commodity for sale. Tragedy or crisis – all could be packaged and consumed. I wasn’t exempt from this virus either – I had watched and heard COVID Rap, corona songs of all kinds and in all languages mostly with mounting irritation as I somehow saw these efforts as trivial.

That feeling, however, passed when I sat down to reflect on some of the things I had been forced to do during my lockdown and which helped me, above all, to think afresh about life and livelihood. As a teacher and instructor, whose services are still seen as worthy of support, I was able to move almost seamlessly into a virtual classroom space, record lectures, interact with the class amidst choppy wifi services and renew my commitment even more rigorously just in order to keep a sense of normalcy. But I knew that it could never be business as usual for anyone – least of all for those artists whose livelihood is intimately connected with the public space, and who may not find the virtual space as an effective or sustainable substitute.

And yet artists – dancers and singers of all varieties and genres have come forward to flood the virtual space with their engagement, some going viral while others remain less audible or visible. Those who come forward inevitably renew the debate about the social function of art – is it simply to please, to give us an aesthetic fix or is in it a deeper potential to experiment with especially in times such as this pandemic that forces us to think more rigorously about our social self and by default, our personal practice be it music, dance, painting or writing?

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Can this moment help then in realigning arts practice with social issues in a manner that is not banal or formulaic? I believe it can. Just as we are forced now to think beyond our immediate preoccupations and we are united by fear of the unknown, and have to perforce see unblinkingly the state of the poor and the precarious, we can go back to discovering the simplicity of the medium that music embodies and by the same experience think more expansively about networks that musicians can rely upon when performing before the public is simply not an option.

I would like to focus on two issues in relation to the performing arts: one the precariousness of artists’ livelihoods in the best of times notwithstanding the expansion of the digital public space that technology has made possible; and two, to consider how and whether a more intimate and interiorised engagement with one’s artistic practice generates new insights and spaces of creativity that have been dulled by the tyrannical demands of a continuously expanding public but access to which remains constricted.

I think it would be true to say that in the realm of the performing arts in twentieth-century India, there has been considerable expansion of the public and of its stakeholders in the form of private sponsors, government, cognoscenti, media and technology. Equally true is the parallel phenomenon of attrition especially of those groups and individuals whose location has gone against them, those who missed the race, and who were not plugged into the right networks and fell by the wayside.

While digital and mobile technology has enabled artists, small and big, urban and mofussil to record, and even participate occasionally in new modes of circulation, archiving and knowledge production, hierarchies have remained intact and it’s relatively rare to see artists either come together as a collective in support of one another or indeed to explore new forms of adaptation and of expression. If anything, artists who have dared to think differently have faced flak.

This pandemic may change entrenched prejudices and may help reach out to a larger community. It may equally persuade practitioners to go back to their inner resources and experiment or rethink their engagement. It may urge us all – to rethink the basis of art as a social expression, to reconsider the value of art as a vehicle of overcoming some of the most serious infections that we face as a social body.

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Not simply to perform for either one’s vanity, or for pandering to the needs of a doting public but to perform for grappling with collective fear and neurosis and find a uniquely individual way out that nonetheless resonates with a larger public. Admittedly, the fear of the pandemic is not quite as liberating an experience as say a struggle for rights or freedom, but perhaps it carries within its DNA the potential for a new bonding to merge amidst us – for a cellular level change that will help us see the inevitable interconnectedness of human life and experience.

Faced with uncertainty, music can appear to be the only resource that helps us feel like we are part of a human chain wherein transmission can be safely amplified. It has been heartening to see musicians over the world coming together to sing, play, serenade, practice, and discover the ineffable joy that it provides amidst isolation.

It is equally heartening to see that technology has been such a facilitator. What remains to be seen is how societies and their governments will pick up the slack and help artists do what they do best, perform and practice and by extension provide the much-needed immunity against the viruses of divisiveness and exclusion.

Lakshmi Subramanian is an Indian historian and has worked in the fields of maritime history and the social history of Indian music. She is currently a professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty in BITS Pilani (Goa) and her most recent book was Singing Gandhi’s India Music and Sonic Nationalism (Roli Books, 2020).