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The Arts

Thank You for the Music, the PPE for Our Minds

These moments of turning to art, have helped strike a balance, offered a mini-check dam between the need for repair and sensing life’s resilient tools, to hold on to the essential.

Marin Alsop’s enthusiastic sharing is simple, timely, and has a community transmission effect of an unexpected kind. It seems to palpitate with COVID-19’s path and effect on life in our times, in several parts of her take on Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’.

“From the sotto voce, the barely whispered suspense…possibility…to things quickly heating up, a few voices saying, ‘we are here, listen’.”

“From the lone hero, to the idea of unison (like so much of humanity balcony-singing in isolation together)…

“To another movement, reflecting despondency, depression (yet pulling at the straws of human will) ‘and humour, drawing Beethoven out.”

Then, “to a spiritual apex starting with unease, segueing into a serene prayer, almost an ode to nature as a power. From there the earth erupting, the low instruments singing out, ‘listen to us, we are here too’.”

It is as if it is Earth’s other resident species calling. Then, Beethoven reviving again.

“The journey of a whole symphony, to a quiet moment, when we first hear the Ode to Joy.” Just at this point, the heart begins lifting in sync.

Soon “joined by soloists, then a chorus and a human dialogue continues.”

By the time she finishes explaining with musical interludes from the symphony’s own journey, one glimpses a shared something in Beethoven’s ‘Ninth’. This is the same something which erstwhile polymath and cultural critic, George Steiner, carves well in word, in his book Grammars of Creation:

“There is in the most affirmative work of art, a memento mori, a labour implicit and explicit, to hold at bay the seepage of fatal time, of entropy into each and every living form. It is from this wrestling match that philosophic discourse and the generation of art derive their informing stress, the unresolved tautness of which logic and beauty are formal modes.”

Also read: Five Ways Musicians Are Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis

Clearly it is not zoned out ‘time pass’, which often just leaves one bleary-eyed.

Nobody quite knows what exactly presses this elevator’s button. It is also a moment of a well-known western classical music composition, deliberately made more, well, known. I am reminded in Alsop’s sharing that art can, when listening closely and sharing fully. Steiner himself tried hard to explain it in a London lecture I once attended, on the mathematics of music, but too many of his words, took music solely to the brain.

While Alsop as conductor of an orchestra, in all of eight minutes, deposits me ticketless, into a virtual seat of possibility. Yet again, after a 20s spent in attending an endless number of paid art appreciation classes, weekend workshops, retreats and discipline testing longer courses.

The show must go on(line)?

I play Beethoven’s ninth while doing pocha in my highway flat, the next day and thank London’s Southbank Centre’s somewhat predictable, but cheesily valid slogan – the show must go on(line). An explosion of curated ras online, is in both careful and carefree mode now. Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre has had 24 hour-long YouTube sharing of some of its most popular, beauteous ballet performances – free of cost. When did that ever happen worldwide?

The Paris galleries and museums have free to download and stare-in-detail artworks, not just one or two to use, as the usual free screensavers? Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum now-viral stay-at-home challenge, making famous art in your own home project, is helping make isolation become play(not to mention it includes, includes, includes).

E-search and ye shall find that a new hygiene habit for an art world has presented itself, a world otherwise tethered not too often to inclusivity? Relinquishing for now, a somewhat stingy snobbery, expensive tickets or often just a level of intimacy that isn’t always available far away, yup, reaching out, they are. Making the out of reach, the very art of reach. One that seems as unprecedented as this time we are in.

Have they come together to cheer us up? Stay in, pardon my saying, touch? I hope that we contribute to their utterly stalled stalls, with movie and concert halls, production houses, theatre doors, and the baithak being silenced, for the moment. With no watcher-hearer-listener’s foot in the door, allowing in-person contact?

Somewhere in the mechanics of a lockdown, a multi-second brush with I can see clearly now, is rubbing e-shoulders with a global artsy CSR happy hour? Or perhaps just a pause, to aid our own, worldwide? If adaptability is what has steered our species well, is there possibly a long term lesson here? A signal, as mixed as this pandemic hour, perhaps. As a self-isolating receiver, I am, for now, just relieved there’s a temporary truce between the us and themness of the art world here.

A pandemic stew of a common fate?

Music, theatre, film, poetry, a massive pandemic broth, and to each receiver, their own available antennae. For me, this has included Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag act, as it originally was. A monologue of a play. Accessible for the first time worldwide online, with a small or give-as-you-can fee, going as a contribution to several UK charities, both in support of the arts and the medical fraternity.

Having seen Phoebe’s online series avatar, this too remained real, slightly shockingly funny, and in denial for ever so long. But watching it at this time, there was more. It felt like all the other species have come out to reoccupy earth, talking back to us. Humouring us darkly. Felt also like the kind of bumbling, one has seen in the global corridors of power.

Watch | In The Time of Coronavirus, An Artist Gives a New Spin to Kalighat Patachitra Paintings

The solo act, transcending one human longing to be heard, understood or just held. But causing me to also grieve openly, at our common fate, when we have steered towards escapism or blame, not accountability. Toward excess consumption, not acknowledging the gaping holes of one’s own heart. Toward a relentless filling of minutes, not a living, in even remote rhythm with nature, either the universe’s or our own? Through April-May, one has been reminded, off-screen and onscreen, that life has felt so much like Kumar Gaurav’s Hindi film career, one year after Love Story. Like a perfectly happy year followed by wtf-just happened. Like untethering, after an excess of attachment to our mall of impermanent goods.

These counterfeit layers did not spring upon us overnight, although it may seem inexplicably so. Solid artworks like that ark of a bookmark, doesn’t it? When I can swerve away for ten minutes or an hour, from a regular online teaching day at my university job, stop I do, at these little pockets of refuelling. Without hopefully losing sight of whatever Dolly Parton meant when she and Kenny Rogers sang slowly losing sight of the real thing. The real is so real after all that one has been living in several compartments – alert to the news and local logistics, available to family and the community, volunteering what one can, in cash or kindness, getting some sun. Yet wary this time, of an addiction-to-a-bland-positivity, the despair magnets or the elevator button.

So when in yet another corner of the e-ofying duniya, a poet in under ten minutes manages to ratify a personal treaty with centering, one has been opened by art enough by now.

To turning inward?

‘Listen to presences inside poems
Let them take you where they will
Follow those private hints
And never leave the premises.’

Lines of a Rumi poem (and of course several variably quoted, social media forwards). Recited here in full, along with her own poetry, by Indian poet, Arundhathi Subramaniam. This poem, suitably called Indoors, works on me like a doorstopper. Stepping away from the fret of the moment, taking one inside and wondering how one is really doing there. I hear they call this holding space now, but something in AS’ gentle delivery, simply unmemes Rumi.

As also reminds the listener softly, of poetry’s capacity to speak to uncertainty, without ever resorting to the language of certainty. I take in this line with a guilty, self-reflexive gulp, knowing that my days have brought a floundering too. Hearing a voice recite face to face, also feels like one step more alive and embodied, than just reading it in a book.  Or perhaps, that is just too much isolation talking.

Arundhathi’s session is part of the inaugural session of KitabKhana’s Poetry Live, on Instagram TV. A chance to warm hands around a collective campfire, she calls it. With poets in several Indian languages reciting through the month. The spoken word, half evoking some of the pleasures of Hindi and Urdu poetry, which one is so used to hearing recited? Human to human, podcast ho ya simulcast. I dip in and out of this several times, momentarily happy our poets are surrendering a moment’s reclusiveness, to reach out through their poems.

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

A live mobile recharge balance?

That’s just the thing. This too, feels like a live, mobile recharge I end up taking to other areas of my life, holding at bay the seepage of fatal time (and the comorbidity of news as only statistic). It is not like life stops feeling like the whoosh of a Zen painting brush, sometimes entirely without the Zen. Staring outside my lockdown window on an Indian highway, low on supplies, a refrigerator in need of repair, worry about ageing parents and the relentless pain of watching our own workers walking home.

Our society’s stratification suddenly made Page 1 visible. Or the incredible loss of lives in April alone has also wrought around the world. Yet, there is no question in my heart that these moments of turning to art, have helped strike a balance, offered a mini-check dam between the need for repair and sensing life’s resilient tools, to hold on to the essential.

Phone pings. Before looking, I give a winking, near-horizontal check of visible droplet level on the phone screen cover. Instagram notifies that Ani Choying, a Buddhist nun with a beautiful voice is performing live. Once in a day or two, I try and seek these tidbits of healing. Of pressing play, on hope, against hope. The ode to joy here may yet come from solidarity in science, but as we carve our journey in the times of COVID-19, may we all have art in the form that replenishes us. Beyond this pause button.

Grateful for this PPE of the mann, as we all baby step into the unknown, live.

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.