When the national lockdown was imposed in March of last year, people scrambled to preserve the things most precious to them. In most cases, this meant ensuring family members were safe at home, essential food items were well-stocked and health insurances were in place.
However, for a few culture aficionados, it meant embarking on concerted efforts to preserve India’s rich heritage, through the use of digital mediums.
Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube came alive with music artists across genres conversing with knowledgeable hosts while performing for engaged and widespread audiences. Some of these events were ticketed, but most were free and available to view at any time.
Nanni Singh, CEO of ShowCase Events launched ShowCase Studio as a new vertical, to promote artists in a changing environment. She explains,
“We felt the need to spread the word about music artists that have been consistently working towards keeping their art forms alive. Our efforts began with the 13-episode ‘In Conversation Series’ which promoted artists, while sharing valuable information on their art forms. Episodes were livestreamed through Streamyard, with access provided on the purchase of a ticket, and we concluded Season 1 of this show in December 2020,”
“When it became clear the pandemic wasn’t leaving anytime soon, we shifted gears and began promoting the phenomenal young and upcoming talents of our country. And so began Artists ShowCase, an non ticketed live broadcast on the ShowCase Studio Facebook Page every Wednesday for 30 minutes, where artists perform and speak about their practice.”
Singh wanted to promote artists languishing without patronage in tough times while preserving India’s intangible heritage. The latter was a motivating factor for others too.
Majha House, a literary and cultural space in Amritsar, opened its doors in 2018 to celebrate the spirit of Punjabi culture by hosting talks, discussions, workshops, exhibitions, and performances. Founder Preeti Gill, who is also an independent literary agent, sought to create a space that encouraged dialogue and exchange in a liberal, non-intimidating manner and encouraged critical thinking around socially relevant issues and concerns. When their popular annual Basant Festival was canceled in April, they decided to go virtual to offer their patrons some respite from lockdown.
“we began our music sessions in May 2020. Our endeavour was to bring the best talent to the fore, to create a space where everyone can enjoy good music, performances and discussions. Through the online sessions – both our Majha House Adda’s and the music session on Facebook called Music Dil Se – we have tried to keep this alive despite the gloom of the pandemic and the lockdown. We hope to bring culture and literature into the homes of all our members, friends and larger audiences.”
Bhai Baldeep Singh, Founder & Chairman, The Anād Foundation, found himself marooned in Rome when Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. He had been conducting rehearsals for a concert in honour of Gurū Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. The concert was canceled, as were all flights home. Quarantining in Rome, he began reporting on the pandemic in Punjabi. The early videos went viral, and he was flooded with requests to perform concerts online or sing a ‘sabad’ a day.
“Amid the uncertainty, loneliness, and fear, I wanted to spark conversations of hope and reflection across borders. In April 2020, I called six friends, beginning with a maestro of viola da gamba, Luigi Polsini. Inspired by Gurū Nanak’s journeys, I asked if they would appear virtually on a live program to discuss their artistry and journeys with me. When all six graciously said yes, the YaarAnād Virtual Baiṭhak series on our Facebook page began.”
Music has been hailed for its healing properties for centuries, making The Anād Foundation’s efforts well-founded.
Another organization offering healthy virtual engagement through cultural programs is Ganga-Jamuni, founded by Educator Shagufta Siddhi. Her aim through this platform was to document and archive the cultural traditions of the Indo-Gangetic belt, in an engaging manner. By speaking to eminent artists, Siddhi promotes a deeper understanding of subcultures and traditions, through her virtual live series on Facebook.
She candidly shares,
“We have a consistent followership and that perhaps, speaks of the quality of our programs. With continued use of the virtual medium, we hope to reach smaller towns too. We cover art history, miniature paintings, sculptures, musical genres like thumri, khayal, sufiyana, dadra, dhrupad, and have also had programs on domestic music for various rites of passage, which not many people are aware of.”
Preserving one’s culture and uplifting spirits during lockdown was definitely high on the priority list, but there were other reasons for people to host virtual live series too. Sheer boredom led media professional Raj Nayak to begin his own talk show – Fridays Live with Raj Nayak on YouTube.
His weekly chat show hosted plenty of eminent guests, including popular singers like Sona Mohapatra and Adnan Sami, who readily broke into impromptu performances, and earned Nayak, ‘The Best Talk Show of the Year 2020’ title in the IWMBuzz Digital Awards.
For others, like the Bangalore Open Air Festival, going virtual was simply a way to remain in people’s consciousness. First established in 2011- to promote homegrown talent and showcase international artists- in lockdown this platform hosted multiple panelists for discussions on specific music-related topics. Despite a successful run last year, it could not sustain these live sessions over a period of time.
The other platforms also took breaks, but consistently returned with new and upgraded offerings. Ganga Jamuni’s Siddhi shares,
“In between the lockdowns when people let their hair down, we organised four on-ground events at various locations around Delhi-NCR and even Vrindavan, and received an incredibly positive response.”
Majha House shut operations throughout the month of May out of respect for the tragic loss of lives during the second wave, but are planning to begin afresh in June.
The obvious appeal of virtual live shows for audiences worldwide, is the ability to tune in to world-class performances, without paying a penny. But without any real monetary gains, what’s in it for the organizers?
“Our intent was to keep alive the art forms and to promote the phenomenal talent in our country. Through both the series produced by ShowCase Studio, we hoped to share happiness in the lives of the artists and the audience. The amazing feedback we received is our biggest reward. One guest who attended the Story of Sufi Qawwali in our In Conversation series, claims the episode made him understand the nuances of this genre of music, allowing him to finally enjoy it. The reviews made us feel that we had created a concept and a property that made an impact,” states Singh matter-of-factly.
She further adds that many of the guest artists received exposure, were invited to more performances and even gained new students; which made the experience of hosting them more satisfactory than any compensation she could hope to receive. Gill feels the same way about the programs organised by Majha House. Many of the artists invited by them have received gigs. New and upcoming artists express gratitude at being able to perform for an audience. In a collaborative series hosted by Majha House and the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, the artists were even paid a small honorarium. Siddhi’s biggest reward is the positive response to her efforts, making her believe that Ganga Jamuni will inspire others to archive and document their own histories and traditions.
For these repositories of Indian culture, the future looks promising. Virtual mediums have increased the reach of their work remarkably, carrying word across borders. Even when things return to normal, they believe a virtual component will remain, so more people can view their programs. Bhai Baldeep Singh sums it up best when he says,
“with everyone quarantining at home, artists and audiences alike found themselves unusually available and hungry for detailed conversations, at times running over Facebook’s eight-hour limit for videos. In order to sustain and build upon the series’ quality programming—which requires untold hours of preparation behind-the-scenes—it will be necessary to cultivate partnerships with those who can see the value in such dialogues.”