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Art and the post-pandemic world

*Schools and institutions of performance art are trying to adapt to a virtual curriculum and digital modes of teaching and learning

*Artistes and institutions without State funding are finding it difficult to stay afloat financially, with little to no revenues coming in

Before the novel coronavirus shut us indoors and made us fearful of one another's bodies, we believed that the teaching of performing arts, especially drama and dance, would always require contact and participation. Traditionally, the gurukul ensured constant contact between the student and the teacher. They lived together in a shared space, creating a small commune for themselves where the exchange of knowledge was not just about the transfer of information but also intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual growth.

Major arts institutions across the world are finding ways and means to continue with their teaching and perhaps revise their curriculum to what is possible with virtual presen ce, sometimes to good advantage.

In New York University's student newsletter, journalist Dani Herrera writes about the Tisch Drama School. "In a typical week, drama students in Tisch manage two days of classes and three days of studio work. Though studio days vary, they are generally a mix of singing, dancing, acting and music classes. Unfortunately, the past few weeks have been anything but typical due to remote learning conditions."

It is impossible to teach drama students such a complicated curriculum online. The shift to Zoom brought its challenges and shortcomings.

Closer home, despite the phased reopening of the country, many performing arts institutions that do not have the luxury of State funding are left to their own devices to find a way to get back on their feet again, when even in the old normal it was a constant endeavour to keep one's head above water.

If institutes were to close down, how do you complete the education of students wh o were learning from that institute before the lockdown? Or when alumni wish to come back for refresher courses? Also, teachers and institutes cannot assume that all students have access to good internet speed, if at all they have the privilege of a computer or smartphone.

However, almost all the heads of art institutes that I spoke with are artistes themselves, who will continue to look ahead and reinvent their art to accommodate the new norms for gathering and participation. Everyone agrees it is not going to be the same any more.

Mallika Sarabhai, who runs the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, is concerned for her dance students. In an email she writes, "For the last two months, we have been setting them small exercises that make them try and be creative with what they have learnt. They practise, shoot and send it to us, we correct and return. Often back and forth several times. But for Indian classical dance, the eye of the teacher is where students judge the correctness of what they do. This (virtual class) can only be a 'make do' scenario". She is hopeful of starting the new term by the end of June. But the new normal is going to bring a rather gloomy closure to the past. Mallika expresses her biggest worry, "I will have to let people go as their work becomes irrelevant in the new scenario. With current revenues at zero, I just can't afford so many people."

Madhu Nataraj, the director of Bengaluru-based Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, as well as the founder of Stem Dance Kampni, Bengaluru, talks about the lockdown period. "We were all part of a movement where artistes were kind enough to share their artistry and scholarship with a populace which suddenly turned to the arts for rejuvenation, reflection, healing and release." Nataraj and her colleagues also created a Covid-19 relief platform for rural artistes and managed to help 120 folk performers financially for three months. Nataraj is hope ful of the future.

"We are constantly reworking pedagogic techniques and creating online teaching aids such as 'Riyaaz kits'. We were to start a new foundation diploma in Kathak, which we have now reimagined as a hybrid syllabus to be taught 70 per cent online and the rest through live interaction as and when our institute opens up," she says.

Mohit Tripathi and Shilpa Shukla started a theatre school, Renaisstance, in Delhi. It acquired a space for training and performance in 2013 and has batches of 40-50 students who work mostly in the studio space, learning through projects and productions.

"The biggest challenge for us is that we have a beautiful space and now we have to find ways to pay the rent," says Shukla. "Since there are no new admissions we are not sure how to pull this off. The uncertainty over when we can safely resume functioning remains a question mark, but right now our bigger concern is to save the space."

While airlines, ban ks, and major corporate houses can throw up their hands and say, "Save us or we will perish, taking the economy with us", arts institutions will just have to keep on doing what they are good at — reinventing and recreating.

If they sink, there is a danger our future generations will be bereft of an education in the arts. Sadly, there is no index to quantify the loss to a society when the mirror that reflects the soul of civilisation cracks and crumbles.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and a stage director

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