IMAGINE a time somewhere in the near future. You step out to meet a friend. There’s the corner chai shop. You spot them and smile, and they rush over and you hug. Chai and conversation happen. No one is wearing a mask.
See what I did just there? I told you a story, and for a moment, it tugged you to a less fraught time where we could hug and hold our friends without worry. Imagination has that power; the arts wield that power to give us comfort and calm, especially when things are not going fine.
Through this year of restriction, the arts – television, films, books, virtual dance performances, the radio, music shared with the neighbourhood via a loudspeaker – offered us a chance to be transported. We moved around freely in fictional worlds.
Usually, the arts connect us to the impossible but in our current context, they connect us to a world where anything is possible.
Let me tell you a bit about my journey into the arts. I grew up in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. I moved to New Delhi to finish High School, a small-town girl with big dreams. I was fortunate – my parents were liberal, the arts a significant part of our lives and we were encouraged and supported to walk whatever path we chose.
So while I tried my hand at Psychology and then travel, I continued to be involved in Theatre (more specifically Lighting). A serendipitous meeting in 1991 with a crazy dreamer, Protima Gauri, swept me into the magical world of the arts.
Protima Gauri’s own story demonstrates most dramatically the transformative power of the arts – a ’60s flower child who wandered into the wrong theatre in her late 20s and watched an Odissi dance performance that would change her life forever. She convinced a conservative guru, the great Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, to teach her dance, gave her total attention to learning and, as a mark of gratitude and to provide others the same opportunity to transform, she built Nrityagram.
Nrityagram, which literally means dance village, is a community of dancers located outside Bangalore in rural Karnataka, devoted to the practice of a 2,000-year-old dance tradition Odissi, to the exclusion of everything else. We have a gorgeous 10-acre campus which houses a School with a dance pedagogy inspired by the ancient Gurukula system and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, regarded as one of the foremost dance companies in the world.
What is special about Nrityagram is that usually such small communities are bound by blood or religion. For us it is dance.
When the Covid-19 crisis hit in 2020, it caused our very means of livelihood to come to a standstill. Our performances were cancelled for one year, all workshops suspended and our teaching and practice were compromised. While sweeping cancellations of our regular activities resulted in significant financial losses, we were committed to supporting our immediate circle of teachers, students, performers and staff, and our global community, through this difficult time.
Dancers who remained in residence (four from the ensemble plus a young one), continued with their usual practice, blessed by the fact that they lived together as a family. Nrityagram was perhaps the only dance company in the world where in-person rehearsal continued through the lockdown. We searched for ways to teach, create and perform, and to work with the wondrous reach that technology has given us.
In April 2020 we started online classes for our registered students so they were able to stay fit, train and rehearse choreography. In October 2020, we expanded our reach to unregistered / new students. For our community spread across the globe, we made digital content available so they could stay connected with us, since we were unable to go to a Theatre nearby.
What we at Nrityagram did, isn’t at all unusual. The same was true for thousands, nay millions of arts practitioners from across the globe. Each one reached out and ended up holding hands with the universe. Like others before us, have done over the centuries.
Around 45 kilometers from the capital of my home state, Madhya Pradesh, is Bhimbetka. Spread over seven hills and rock shelters, it was first occupied 100,000 years ago. Our ancestors the Homo Sapiens lived there, and the rock shelters are filled with paintings, including some of people dancing to drum song.
Thousands of years may have passed, but those instincts remain the same.
When struck with tragedy, we mourn with ballads. On witnessing war, our anguish is epic. We even conjure nursery rhymes to speak of a plague.
And in creating, sharing, and experiencing our collective humanity through our art, we end up holding hands with each other.
During the worst days of the lockdown, many people owed their overall wellbeing to the arts – which played a critical role in health (mental and physical), education, inclusion, urban regeneration, leisure, entertainment and much more. There can’t be more solid evidence of the importance of the arts in our lives, than what we have experienced over the last one year.
Interestingly, research shows that the cultural economy employs more people aged 15−29 than any other sector. Nearly half of the people working in the cultural and creative industries are women, opening up new opportunities to address gender inequalities.
Statistics show that the cultural and creative industries influence income generation, job creation and export earnings, acting as major drivers of economies and trade strategies in developed and developing countries. In fact, the cultural and creative industries provide nearly 30 million jobs worldwide, contributing close to 10% of the global GDP.
So there you have it. Emotional wellbeing? Tick. Economics? Tick. What more is there to say?
Oh yes, one last thing: The arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory. They preserve what fact-based historical records cannot: how it felt to exist in a particular place at a particular time. And they connect us to our past in the here and now.
If we take away the collective memory from our museums; remove extra-curricular activities from our schools, and celebrations and music from our communities; lose dance, plays and films from our theatres or books from our libraries; erase our festivals, literature and painting, we will be left with a society bereft of a national conversation. Bereft of dreams.
Pics courtesy Nritygram.
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Lynne Fernandez is the Managing Trustee and Lighting Director of Nrityagram, a dance village and home to one of the foremost dance companies in the world. Lynne is a trained psychologist and worked with severely disturbed adults for several years before turning her attention to the arts full time – first as an actor and technician in theatre, and then her role at Nrityagram.