Theatre in the Time of Corona: An essay by Nimi Ravindran

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Theatre in the Time of Corona: An essay by Nimi Ravindran

As an art collective, our entire existence has been about people, about creating performances, performing, touring, building audiences, festivals, gathering and celebrating.

What’s the theatre scene in Bangalore like during the Pandemic, and what will it be in the future? These are questions we’re constantly asked. Truth is, we don’t know.  No one does.

A still from the performance of Koogu in Under the Sal Tree festival - Aruna Manjunath
A still from the performance of Koogu in Under the Sal Tree festival - Aruna Manjunath

From the time of the first lockdown, we waited for things to get better, simply because we believed this was a temporary setback. After all, we've seen SARS and H1N1 come and go in the recent past. We saw no reason to think any different this time. However, as the days(months) passed, things got progressively scarier, and it left us with a feeling of impending doom. By the time the lockdown lifted in May, all of us were mentally exhausted. June has come and gone, and July will soon be behind us. That’s half the year gone by in a blink. Not just for Sandbox Collective, but for all of us working in the theatre. Locked in, wondering if we could afford to put off downloading zoom, and refuse to participate in webinars. It was easier to read Whatsapp forwards, watch funny videos of orangutans and figure how many layers of cloth made for an effective mask. Were ten layers too many?  Perhaps. Can’t say for sure.

We performed our play, No Rest in the Kingdom on 8th March at The Bangalore International Center.  We were scheduled to perform two shows of the same play on the 21st March at Ranga Shankara. The play had already completed over 30 shows, in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Kerala, Delhi, Kamshet, Jaipur, Colombo, and even Kampala.  It’s one of our favourites and we were quite pumped about the run in Bangalore. But that was before Covid-19 came along and delivered a massive punch in our gut. Earlier in the year, we had performed another show, An Evening of Lavani at  Sophiensaele Theatre in Berlin in January.

Publicity still from No Rest in the Kingdom - Richa Bhavanam
Publicity still from No Rest in the Kingdom - Richa Bhavanam

July is almost over and we've performed just twice this year.  That's a record of sorts for us at Sandbox Collective, because when we started (in Sep'2013) one of the first decisions we took was to perform as many shows as possible. As an unfunded organisation with no corporate or private sponsors- pretty much like other theatre groups-we moved from project to project and show to show. One way to ensure that everyone was paid and fairly at that was to perform extensively. In the first year of our existence, we counted over 120 shows. We managed to maintain that average over the years. This year we’ve performed just two shows and we can’t help wondering if we will even touch three. That’s 2020 in a nutshell.

In the beginning, there was just mayhem, cancelled shows and cancelled workshops in the summer months meant a loss of livelihood. Most performers earn money from workshops in summer, so this was the first nail in the coffin. Having pressed ‘pause’ on their own earnings and plans, theatre practitioners from across the country, irrespective of their political and ideological differences swung into action during the lockdown, volunteering on the ground, helping with procurement and distribution of rations, raising funds for migrant workers to travel home, raising funds for workers from other industries, raising funds for artists from rural Karnataka, helping in making and distributing masks, you name it. For a while, it looked like theatre people were running the country(Believe me, if we can handle theatre production we can handle anything!). Then came April, followed-like it usually does-by May and one could feel the restlessness. On the one hand, people were struggling to make ends meet and on the other everyone was caught wondering, what next? What is the relevance of an art form like theatre at a time like this? Most people got introspective, said this was a life-changing event(it is), those who could afford to, took long breaks, caught up on movies, shows and reading. Others went after physical fitness regimens. Some meditated, some cooked, while others grew plants. And, everyone waited. It had to end soon, right? Wrong.

Even as we waited, several theatre practitioners started  work very early in the lock-down. The works that come to mind immediately are by Kirtana Kumar and Anuja Ghosalkar, both of whom created collaborative works with fellow artists. Several others including institutions like Ranga Shankara and Jagriti uploaded pre-recorded work online, helping earlier works find new audiences. Quasar Padamsee’s Every Brilliant Thing performed by Bangalore-based Vivek Madan was adapted for Zoom, performed several shows and found new audiences online.

Most dancers, painters, sculptors and even some musicians create alone. Their creative pursuit is solitary, unlike in the theatre.  The best part about making theatre is(for me) drinking chai during rehearsals. I’m sure other people have other favourite things, but I can bet they all involve people.  August is upon us and most artists we know seem to have settled into a routine. Many of us are looking for jobs that will pay salaries, some are looking for freelance opportunities in similar professions like writing and teaching. Others have moved their work to digital platforms. There are workshops and classes being conducted online, and new ways of creating and showcasing performances are being explored. Yes, there seems to be a future in all of this, even if it takes time for us to find the right switch to turn it on. So, is this than just a stop-gap arrangement till we go back to the  ‘real’ world, or is this the  (new) reality?  We don’t know. No one does.

A still from an intimate performance of Koogu - Aruna Manjunath
A still from an intimate performance of Koogu - Aruna Manjunath

At Sandbox Collective, things move slowly. The first thing we did was to give up our lovely office space. All work had stopped, we had no corpus or savings and therefore no funds to pay rent for an unoccupied space. In 2019 we had taken a call to slow down a little and reduce the number of shows we performed, to help us find time for other things, as well as to stop what we felt was an impending burnout. It was as if the idiotic virus was hanging in the air listening to us. How does one clarify that this is not what we had in mind!

As an art collective, our entire existence has been about people, about creating performances, performing, touring,  building audiences, festivals, gathering and celebrating. What does it mean for us to be locked up in our homes? How does one make work, what kind of work, and specifically what work will help us make a living?  We don’t know.

Nimi and Shiva at Gender Bender 2019
Nimi and Shiva at Gender Bender 2019

The time has however come to take the first step, but we needed a push (kick is perhaps more apt). And that came in the form of a call for applications from Think Arts, Kolkata, to create a work for children that will be viewed online. We applied,  got selected, and received a small grant. So that’s a real kick because we now have to deliver. We're creating a new work for children aged 5-10 years to be viewed online. We’ve started, and I have to say, reluctantly, that it’s a lot of fun figuring the unknown, though it’s early days yet.  Reluctantly, because I don’t enjoy working with technology though Shiva and Raabiya both do. Also, I wonder if this is the future- creating and sharing work online? I think it will be a part of the future, especially since we don’t have an end date for the present pandemic that grips our lives. As we start work with cameras, film editing, sound editing, new software, laptops and the like I can’t help thinking about our past shows. Anish Victor performed Koogu in a forest in Assam, surrounded by people from all the nearby villages. Deepika performed No Rest in the Kingdom in Kampala with audiences from other African nations. Shiva and myself were in Chile, four years ago, surrounded by an audience of 7500 people watching a show in a Rodeo stadium. When can we get on the road again, when can we meet fellow artists and audience members? We don’t know. No one does.

The opening night of Gender Bender 2018
The opening night of Gender Bender 2018

Our real work starts with our annual festival, Gender Bender. It was initially scheduled for September, we’ve pushed it to December. The hope is that we will still be able to host it as a physical festival,  but that’s the heart wanting what it wants. The brain tells you otherwise, it tells you that December is not that far away, and the chances of this happening are slim. But we’ve decided to go ahead in any case. Like every year, 10 grants will be awarded based on the open call for applications. We’ve decided that applicants must not limit themselves to a Covid-19, world. There are enough works being shown online, and they’re fantastic.  We, however, want to hold onto the thought that we will gather, if not this year, then the next. We will come together, show work, hug each other, get on stage, and sit and laugh together as audience members again.  If it doesn’t happen this year, that’s alright. We will wait. Because that’s the dream, and we can’t give up on dreams. How long do we wait?  We don’t know. No one does. But, we’ll wait.

***

Sandbox Collective is a Bangalore-based art collective founded by Shiva Pathak and Nimi Ravindran in 2013. It is presently held together by Nimi, Shiva and Raabiya Jayaram.

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