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Ruminations during lockdown
#PandemicPonderings (Part 2)
- Dr. Anita Ratnam

April 30, 2020

Ruminations during lockdown
#PandemicPonderings (Part 1)


With the current pandemic sweeping our globe and with our lives forever changed in the foreseeable future, artistes share about how the month of March/April was for them. What they did that was different... what new hobbies they have started...

JAYESPERI MOOPEN
(Artistic Director, Tribhangi Dance Theatre, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Jayesperi Moopen was among the first set of dancers from Kalakshetra who were chosen to aid Chandralekha mount her now iconic "Alarippu" and "Tillana" choreographies at the historic1984 EAST-WEST Dance Encounter in Mumbai. Her signature dance creations in Johannesburg have combined the formal architecture of Bharatanatyam with the unabashed sway of Zulu and other South African cultures and narratives. Jayesperi Moopen is the Artistic Director of one of South Africa's best known dance companies - TRIBHANGI DANCE THEATRE. An unapologetic and forceful presence in her country, Jayesperi has put social cohesion and inter-cultural dialogue at the forefront of her work. I have crossed paths with this award winning dynamo in India, UK and South Africa. Her enthusiasm, fierce passion and flutter of creative curiosity remain unshaken.

Initially when we were aware of the virus, I was travelling to Bali and did not realise the seriousness of the situation until I got back to Johannesburg. Only then did it hit me that I was not alone. The entire world was on lockdown! Whilst South Africa is known as 3rd World with our social problems we were very proud of how our President handled the situation giving us time to prepare albeit quickly but collectively.

My personal take on the situation was to look at all the positives that I can take out of it and sit quietly and reflect on what I can do. I then realized there were many people dependent on me - financially and creatively. As we were in midst of preparing for a large festival in May, everything came to a sudden halt. It then gave me an impetus to continue mentoring and motivating the dancers digitally, giving them tasks and in turn asking them to mentor and share with others.

However, there is the flip side of being the team leader and having the dancers always expecting me to come up with answers and solutions. They are not enthusiastic about connecting via ZOOM and so it seems the right time to re-evaluate the kind of ensemble work I have been successful in creating for so long. A personal milestone of turning 60 can trigger these thoughts for sure!

In the South African context there is an overemphasis on shelter and water for the majority of our citizens. However, I bemoan the fact that the Arts are being decimated during this crisis. I think it's time for Governments to also realise at this time that their budgets and plans have not worked and it's OUR time to lobby yet again and be steadfast in our ongoing fight to be significant.

For creatives, lockdown-lockup... the mind is never locked unless we allow it to be so. We design costumes/sets, compose music or just allow ourselves to breathe!


SUMITRA SEKARAN
(Yoga guru, Kuala Lumpur)

Imagine a "yogini" who can rock a figure hugging designer "bandage dress" AND twist her body in the most complex Yoga postures. Who can teach you about fasting, fitness AND FUN! I have known Sumitra Sekaran for less than 15 years, being the kid sister (and you know how we "Akkas" always ignore the younger sibling!) of my dear friend Sushila Ravindranath. Sumi grows on you. Her laugh, her 1000 watt smile and her sense of fashion (bordering on the outrageous which only yours truly can counter). While Sumi fasts on one of her innumerable body-cleansing systems, Sushi and I would devour steaming coffee in her spacious Kuala Lumpur home while munching on all things fried and comforting! With Sumi, I have shared a passion for quirky costume jewellery, Indian philosophy, painting, sculpture and Sanskrit. Far from being a monk or a hermit, this YOGA STAR of Malaysia is a popular A lister on the social scene and the go-to person for all states of body and mind.

There seems to be a subliminal panic everywhere. COVID has taken over our lives and attacked our collective Prana; our vital energy and our life force.

Not surprisingly there is another kind of panic that is consuming us: the distress of unscheduled time. Time that is normally spent chasing deadlines, targets dreams, acquisitions and vanity. Time which was always at a premium is now magically available for free! Rather than 'kill' time I want to guard it fiercely and use it the way my yoga practice has taught me to do. To maintain an agile but quiet mind inside an agile body; to not just feed the body with healthy food but also give the mind the right nutrition.

I'm holding my time closely and deliberately avoid doing ZOOM classes: especially the frantic calls for PRANAYAMA lessons. Instead, I spend the days doing everything that I love doing but with an intense discipline of a yogi!
I spend a delightful 3 hours of gruelling self practice, fine tuning my KAUNDINYASANA or an ASTAVAKRASANA or whatever asana that needs some attention...

I re-read poetry which I have loved such as Ronsard's exquisite 'Ode a Cassandre...'which are so delicate and yet so powerful.
I have substituted NETFLIX over watching again the old films of Japanese masters like OZU's "Tokyo Story' where time seems to stand still. Moving on to Andresj Wajda next.
Listen to my favourite Carnatic music - one ragam each day savouring the intricacies of a KIRAVANI today and maybe a KHARAHARAPRIYA tomorrow...
Devour books that have been piling up for months... on my fourth now in 20 days which is 'A Gentleman from Moscow'.
In short, having the most wonderful productive time in a yogic way, of quietly turning my thoughts and mind inwards.

When all this mania around us is over and my busy life starts again, I'm determined to focus more on teaching my students the importance of the mind over the obsession with the body.
Bring their attention to:
Sit still...
Take deep yogic breaths everyday not only to strengthen the Prana but to make it a habit to change the direction of the mind's gaze
To create empty time deliberately for the health of the consciousness
To not keep doing DOING all the time but just BE
To be curious; to be fascinated
To be invaded by the beauty that's all around us.
Perhaps then we can kill any virus that dares...


MALAVIKA SARUKKAI
(Dancer, Chennai)

"Can you please speak a little louder?" Those were the very first words I spoke to a shy, tongue-tied 26 year old Malavika in the lobby of the Lincoln Center, NYC. She was among the roster of famous solo dancers chosen to open the prestigious FESTIVAL OF INDIA-USA. I was the official television chronicler of the entire 18 month cultural event. Malavika's voice was low, almost a whisper. She was also the youngest and the least known in the program booklet which featured Pandit Birju Maharaj and Radha/Raja Reddy. Yet, when she entered the stage in the opening "mallari" with her guru SK Rajaratnam Pillai wielding the nattuvangam, the packed auditorium was enchanted. 35 years later, the world has acclaimed her artistry and brilliance, while two generations of dancers have attempted to catch a spark of her creative fire.

The shy girl who was never seen without her collaborator mother Saroja Kamakshi is a new person today. She laughs, shares stories over a cup of coffee and we have even sighed together over Hrithik Roshan's dancing. Much of the "ice maiden" persona has melted. The voice is bolder. What has remained is her fierce and unflinching belief in the boundless capacity of her dance form - Bharatanatyam.


Pic: Amey Mansabdar

I keep thinking, this cannot be happening. But, it is. The world is under attack by a microscopic virus which knows no boundaries. It's a pandemic. The field is levelled. It is terrifying and surreal.

As the world contracts in fear defining its boundaries, several of my programs in India and abroad are cancelled or postponed. It is unnerving. The world is in shut down mode and every domain is impacted.

In response, my body does not want to move. I retreat into the silence of my home to come to terms with the gravity of the situation, knowing Covid 19 marks a defining moment in our lives. In solitude I spend hours reading, looking out at the old Madras tree in my compound with its family of birds, squirrels, insects. It reminds me that relationships are critical. We cannot live in isolation. It's reassuring to know the rhythm of nature continues, unaware that fear haunts humankind.

As I pause and observe life, I hear footsteps of my faithful companion, dance. Art heals when the underground river with its beauty of spirit runs deep and touches our core. We cannot forsake it. Experience of classical dance in the here and now is invaluable.


LAURA SABBADIN
(Tour guide, Venice, Italy)

It was on my birthday a few years ago that we met. Efficient and polite, Laura breezed into my Venice hotel along with a photographer - a surprise gift from my family for my landmark birthday! WOW! A photo shoot in Venice! For the next 3 hours, I was literally and metaphorically gliding on Venetian waters while Laura guided the gondolier, the photographer and me on what to do, and where to look. She also took my family to secret chambers in St Marks Church, to hidden gardens and alleyways, to the most astonishing mask shop of her beloved city. With Laura, I learned how to stand and drink coffee, eat a sandwich and speak with the exuberant Venetian hand gestures. I vowed to return to her magical city and spend more time exploring its treasures with her by my side.

I am Venetian-born and raised in this world famous city. I have been working as a local certified guide and I know that my profession is my privilege. For more than 20 years I have explored this gorgeous city and met such a variety of people from across the world. I was in Athens when the Italian government started to introduce mild measures to tackle the virus. It was in the end of February. From Athens, the perspective was different. I thought my country had overreacted and gone completely crazy.

I was back on March 2nd as scheduled and my plan was to return to Greece again within a week. I am studying Greek, by the way...I love languages! On March 7th, I was having dinner at a friend's when we got the news that the government had declared the whole country to be on lockdown. We were shocked! We went back home unable to say anything logical...we didn't know what to say and what to expect. It seemed surreal!

I am writing this 7 weeks into our lockdown and I have to say that I admire the stringent restrictions that our leader Giuseppe Conte laid out. The toll on our country, especially in the northern parts, has been cataclysmic. We watch and listen to the sickness and death numbers and feel grateful that we are in the South. I have tried to stay positive but it is not easy.

I immediately created a routine, good sleep, waking up early, Pilates, breakfast, planning healthy meals, knitting, tidying and fixing up things that had been waiting for years in a drawer, reading, a little dancing and a little singing to raise my spirit...calling friends for a chat...and allowing a moment of discomfort now and again.

Venice is fairly quiet - thank God. We were spared by the virus with only a few cases so far. Easter weekend was strangely quiet. Over 23,000 dead, mostly in the North but I can feel the tragedy of families losing loved ones and nobody to attend the funeral. I try to control my sense of frustration and impotence. I realize the importance of solidarity, of friendship, of family and of slowing down.

Now Italy is planning to slowly open up. However, 2020 will be a write off for the tourism industry. So many small activities and shops have already closed. We were so badly hit by the terrible flood last November, and were hoping for the coming tourist season to help our economy. But not this year.

However, I am a Venetian woman. And so, I am optimistic! It is unimaginable for us Italians not to laugh, hug, kiss and celebrate life. My country's FIDUCIA (confidence) is unshakable.


ANURADHA MAJUMDAR
(Poet and Writer, Auroville)

In 1992 we were seated in the Bharat Bhavan auditorium in Auroville, watching Veenapani Chawla's SAVITRI. We sat apart, not yet having been introduced. Soon after the play, we met as part of the cluster of people who wanted to meet Veenapani and share our excitement at having witnessed the re-imagining of Sri Aurobindo's epic poem of the same name. In those years, Anu Majumdar was a choreographer, using the international bodies present in Auroville to mould her dance vision. Anu and I even tried to collaborate on a short solo featuring vocal artiste Sheela Chandra's polyrhythms.

Drawn to Aurobindo's writings while in college, Anu began as a dancer and then segued through choreography, poetry, writing and is now an integral part of the Aurovillian family. As a writer, she is the author of poems, scripts for dance and for her husband Pierre Legrand's art installations. The author of several books, each is tinged with her original and imaginative mindscape. In her latest work, AUROVILLE: A City for the Future, Anu's introduction sounds strangely prescient. "....much of what we are missing now still lies safe in Auroville's original vision. It can still shake us all up and begs to be explored as human crisis peaks around the world."

Her last dance ensemble choreography (she insists that it was in another "janma") MANTRA - A Chant for the Earth was staged over 20 years ago. It seems like a recalling is needed urgently for the times we now live in.


A Shift
This pandemic challenges everything we have taken for granted. A virus that infiltrated someone's breath has put the world under lock-down, cast lives asunder, brought economies to a standstill and surprised science. Breath is our life line on earth, our link with the universe. We pollute it every day in the ways we live, think, fear, consume, manipulate, oppress and divide. For profit. But just a few weeks on pause and the skies have cleared. Earth is stronger than we imagined. This outbreak recognizes no borders. It will break the divisions in our minds till we consent to change: our lives, priorities, cities, environments and governments, till humankind grows kinder and freer, conscious of a new power inside. It looks like a civilizational transition. We could slide into further hardship for sometime as things unravel behind the Coronavirus Curtain. But what if God (Time, or the breath of the Universe) has outpaced us and is accelerating the world again? Can we get back to business and beliefs as usual?

I came to Auroville thirty-eight years ago drawn by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's vision: a new life evolving through a new consciousness for a greater humanity, unity and beauty. It taught me to stay open and keep learning as I worked in Matrimandir, as a dancer-choreographer, as a poet and writer. Now, as I research the city, listening to the woodpecker outside, this moment of world stillness carries manifold accelerations.


KARTHIK KUMAR
(Actor/director, Co-founder EVAM ENTERTAINMENT, Chennai)

Karthik Kumar aka "KK" is a maverick. With a Chemical Engineering degree and oodles of confidence, this 25 year old set out to prove that management, marketing and "moolah" can actually triangulate in the ephemeral world of the arts. With friend Sunil Vishnu K, he founded EVAM ENTERTAINMENT in 2003. I saw him on stage, confidently puncturing the greatest theatre dialogues with blatant plugs for the corporate sponsor of the event - a finance company, a branded car-all woven into time honoured scripts to the utter dismay of some audience members, including yours truly. "What cheek", I thought to myself, and yet I kept following this young company that won a national award in the list of the TOP 30 Hottest Start Ups in 2008.

Over time, KK has evolved, matured and softened. Life has thrown him a curveball and he turned it into an AMAZON PRIME special called BLOOD CHUTNEY. He discovered his funny bone and honed his timing and talent until other avenues beckoned - event management, corporate training, acting and directing.


I have always been a fan of the 'Evolution Theory'- and have waited for evolution to slap me in the face to get me to change. As artistes, we fancy ourselves as "agents of change", as being "catalysts" or in some way "prophets". We are often vain and lazy and continue to resist changing ourselves. We resist, we philosophise and throw up our hands in some mythical gesture of helplessness. Now we are sitting back and twiddling our thumbs, mostly fidgeting with gadgets in anxiety and thinking that PERHAPS we have been rendered obsolete!

The lockdown has been most disorientating - because the fine balance of life was that we have bills to pay, and in my case, employees to cover for, and we ensure we keep the entrepreneurial machine running, to generate a living for all through 'Revenue.' And now I find myself with bills to pay, and employees that I fully intend covering for, but all current revenue streams have dried up, or surely seem to have for the moment - and yet the game is still on!! Evam is in a flux, with all live performances having come to a standstill - and even our own brand new Comedy Club venue 'SoCo' is at rest, just gathering dust.

We have moved into the digital Zoom versions of garnering audiences, but it seems more to amuse ourselves in the meanwhile, than seeing it as a sustainable means to run a business with. Will audiences pay for a Zoom version of a live performance? I have no answers yet.

I have just completed my debut feature film and had completed the first edit of it, before lockdown. All post production work on it remains and is surely not going to be done in this lockdown period. So it's a brand new yarn sitting there and I need to ensure it doesn't rust. I'm only thankful that we had completed 99% of principal photography; otherwise I would be sitting with an entire cast and crew of people losing their mojo with the project creatively.

One would think that this time could be used to write something brand new - and in my case a new Standup Comedy special is in the offing. I don't see myself or anyone around, being able to write comedy at this time! Not that we don't see the humour in the situation - we do... but is it worthy of reflecting onto a page - I don't think or feel so yet.

And each day blurs into the next, and weeks are disappearing...
I do feel that it's time to start accepting this as a norm - but I don't think I have gotten there yet. It's like a game of 'Statue' and no one is saying 'Release' yet - and then what happens....


PRIYA SANTHOOR
(Chef, ITC Hotels, Mumbai)

The pandemic has been a catastrophe for the restaurant industry. The social distancing mandate has finished off first class stand alone establishments. Here is a young lady who always wanted to be in the food business ever since she could remember. Mentored by the wonderful Stefan Chin at THE TRIDENT in Mumbai, 23 year old Priya Santhoor now works for ITC hotels. When I met her, it was at the breakfast table when she approached me with a shy smile, holding a plate of freshly sliced avocado, drizzled with freshly cracked pepper and lemon juice on gluten free toast. Word had already gotten around about my "foodie" tastes. As we got talking over the next few days, this once tongue tied, soft spoken young lady shared her passion for food, art and the importance of reinventing oneself.

The lockdown has severely affected the hotel industry. In the 3 years of being a chef, I've never had so much spare time, but I have managed to keep busy by reading, cooking and illustrating. I discovered AUDIBLE, an app that reads books to you. This allowed multi-tasking while I could complete some online courses. I also started meditating and Tai Chi to recover from paranoia and withdrawal symptoms of missing pizzas! Whoever says Tai Chi isn't exercise should see me now. I have never felt more relaxed! Once this lockdown is behind us, we can expect a wave of crowds and customers to return to our dining establishments, because Mumbai is a foodie town and people will go out to eat and meet friends - no matter how skeptical we are at this moment!

I am one of the growing number of female chefs in India and I know that the food business will never die. But staying at home during this pandemic has given me time to make hand made noodles and other dishes from local ingredients - just to vary up my parents' DAL-CHAPATI-CHAVAL routine. It has also helped me develop my sketching skills. My pizza craving will have to wait.

I am working on a blog to find ways to connect with local farmers and revive traditional recipes with a twist. My neighbours are helping me with recipes. One of the biggest takeaways from this extended lockdown is how inventive and resilient people have become. How much they make from so little. Instagram is flooded with images of interesting food recipes. I am also reading about the amount of farm produce that is going to waste, fruits and vegetables rotting in godowns and warehouses with no transport possible to the markets. When so many are starving, this is a tragedy.

This pandemic has revealed that people are buying less and eating more consciously. This will definitely impact the direction that luxury dining will take. Our team has discussed ideas of creating seasonal menus while keeping an eye on sustainability and recognising the growing vegetarian wave that has returned during this lockdown period. With e-commerce and zero contact being the way forward in the food delivery business, perhaps we can come out of this crisis as a kinder, more responsible and equitable world.


FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN
(Feminist Academic / Cultural Catalyst, New York)

South Asian academics are not the sharpest of dressers. Not Fawzia Afzal-Khan - a rare mash up of 'chutzpah', sass and substance. I first met her from afar in Santiago, Chile, where I was attending a theatre conference. Holding court during a coffee break was a stunning woman with red-brown hair, wearing a hat, a neon yellow scarf and rocking a pair of hot pink pants - all accessorised with a hearty laugh! The colours may have altered in my memory but the first effect was unforgettable. I HAD to meet this woman! Over several evenings of the conference, we began to admire each other's clothes, discussed our India and Pakistan's eternal tango, went shopping for Chilean wraps, turquoise and got smashed drinking "Pisco Sour" cocktails.

Fawzia is a brilliant academic, a beautiful ghazal singer and an ardent feminist of all matters South Asian - with a focus on Pakistan. Every conversation with her has been an eye opener as to how South Asian women have to be constantly vigilant to hold onto their agency and voice in this increasingly patriarchal world. Her latest venture into documentary film making is SIREN SONG-Women Singers of Pakistan.


I came awake in the middle of the night with what must have been a panic attack, for the first time in the 5 weeks since I've been back home in Ossining-on-Hudson (NY) after having been away in Lahore, Pakistan on a Fulbright Specialist assignment and book tour for my latest book (SIREN SONG: Understanding Pakistan through its Women Singers). I rushed back home to be with my family just as borders were closing, and flights into the US were being cancelled.

Initially, I was too busy learning how to teach online via Zoom, to feel much of anything except worrying if I would be up to the task and how it would feel not to be face to face with my students in a 'real' as opposed to a virtual classroom. And having my son and husband in the house for company has also helped stave off the depths of loneliness that I imagine engulfing those who are totally alone in their living quarters.

But the singular gift of having a cheerful 11 month old baby granddaughter Nylah, living nearby with our daughter and her husband has been a life-saver. With her giggly laughter and joyful gusto at tasting all manner of culinary delights I feed her, her curiosity as she points daily to the various "tchotchkes" (trinkets in Yiddish) in our home gathered from travels all over our beautiful shared world, forcing me to recall their howwherewhen— well, those happy memories of a life well lived now become a palimpsest intertwining with the grave circumstances of a much shrunken and scary present reality. The sheer pleasure of talking about books that matter to me with my students who I can see even if behind a screen— well then, it becomes possible to breathe through panic attacks such as the one I woke up with. I tell myself in our collective nightmare: this too shall pass, as I lull myself back to sleep, perchance to come awake, with you, with my granddaughter, with my students, into a Brave New World.

I do want to say that I'm unable to tap into my creative artistic side to sing, or write (poetry, or a play project I want to get back to but just can't right now, or even just reading anything other than what I'm teaching). And feeling great anger at capitalism and what it's wrought on humanity, I have given myself permission to not be productive, for a change. And that's ok. Do feel like I want to live differently moving forward. How, I couldn't say quite yet....


ANITHA SANTHANAM
(Physical Theatre, Dancer, Educator, Bengaluru)

A questioning body and a curious mind are often a devastating combination for a classical dancer. It seeks to break out of a trained environment of formality and deference. I sensed this in Anitha Santhanam when I first watched her as part of a Bengaluru based Bharatanatyam ensemble called SHIRI in 2007. Soon after, Anitha went to London to study Physical Theatre at LISPA (London Institute of Performing Arts) where she developed her corporeal articulation and the beginnings of her gender politics. Returning home she joined hands with Sunanda Raghunathan to co-found GUDUGUDUPPUKKARI - a company that creates original feminist embodied theatre work. The title is taken from the tribe of wandering female fortune tellers who play the small rolling drum in their hands.

As a director, Anitha has helmed award nominated work like "BHIMA" and "Un-Tell, Re-Tell No-Tell" As an actor, she was marvellous in MONKEY AND THE MOBILE. Her latest solo creation is WHAT'S THE MATTER? where autobiography meets humour as a pathway to healing.


Social distancing for performers who thrive on the visceral - of self and audience - is akin to quiet dying. The busiest month transformed into the most reflective month for me. Two repeat shows, one new show, one master class, a month of rehearsal - all postponed. Time on my hands aplenty, to cook and contemplate...

Which got me thinking, of course, about a recurring motif in the tales of saints. Guest and host. Sudden guest and confounded host. God as a stranger who arrives suddenly on your doorstep disrupting all plans, making impossible demands and leaving the household in tears and despair, till miraculously they realise who the visitor was. The virus seeks a hospitable host, doctors say. In this case it has sought hosts across continents, bringing the entire world onto its knees with one fell swoop, upturning every normal thing. Could this be 'paramaatma' in the most destructive 'paramaanu' form - most virulent and inescapable?

During these 6 weeks of forced isolation, I have been feeling tremendously creative. But not in the direction of physical theatre or performance. Instead, I am creating audio visualizations for TANTRA and the COVID 19 podcast series. This has been conceived by a feminist and a historian I admire greatly, Lata Mani.

It's not difficult to wear a contemplative hat when one is not actually dying, you may say. True that. But as an artist, how can I not imbue the material with the symbolic, how can I not seek the sacred in the unlikeliest of places? I do wonder though this time, is it the goddess who's visiting, in her most terrible form? After all, our rapacious profiteering souls have plundered and violated her in every possible way for centuries.


RAMLI IBRAHIM
(Dancer, Artistic Director, Sutra Dance Theatre, Kuala Lumpur)

Each time I step up to the immigration counter at Kuala Lumpur airport, all I have to say is 'I am staying with Dato Ramli Ibrahim", and the officer behind the glass shield would exclaim
"Oh Dato Ramli! He is famous la!", and promptly stamp my passport. THAT is the kind of name recall that my "guru bhai" Ramli has in his native Malaysia. A true icon, pioneer, rebel, dreamer, voyager and institution builder, this former ballet dancer turned Bharatanatyam and Odissi legend has done more for Malaysia's arts than a single lifetime can contain. His painter's eye zeroes into every detail - costume, choreography, gardening, traditional cuisine, architecture, fashion - aesthetics pours into every aspect of Ramli's life and work. SUTRA DANCE THEATRE, his performance ensemble, has spawned several international dance and visual artistes who have excelled in their independent careers.

He pioneered many ideas- the most interesting being the staging of a student's ARANGETRAM for two nights! The first was for the invited guests, family and friends. The second night was a PAID evening- ticketed and always sold out! Such was the faith in the quality of each student that Ramli trained! To perform in Sutra's magical circular stage in his former Titiwangsa home was a gift I received on more than one occasion!

Guru Adyar K Lakshman was our common bond but our friendship has deepened over the past 3 decades. It's a 'sympatico' that goes beyond dance. We inhabit similar spaces of silence, books and poetry, or just pottering about our gardens. We both agree that neither of us want to be in our 20's again - filled with the anxiety that GEN NOW inhabits. Ramli's life has not been all champagne and fizz. He has been persecuted, vilified and accused for practising a "Hindu dance" and shut out of patronage on more than one occasion. But he has ploughed through myopic politics and back stabbing whisperers to emerge as a quiet, dignified and an exemplary spokesperson for Malaysian society and culture.


As Sutra faces lockdown (euphemistically, we call it Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia), I was able to do many things previously I couldn't. The lockdown has been a reflective time, in some way, a godsend. The most rewarding 'foray' was to be able to have ample time to revisit three works of my late guru, Adyar K Lakshman - his signature kirthanam, 'Ananda Natamaduvar' (Purvikalyani) and two varnams 'Nee intha Mayam' (Dhanyasi) and 'Entheni Nee' (Kamas). When dancing these works for oneself, one is reaffirmed of the highly ordered mind of Lakshman Sir who had created them, his perfectly measured thirmanams and how architecturally balanced his compositions were. His creativity emanated from a thoroughly 'Apollonian' mind-construct.

At the same time, I am one person who is not particularly interested in rushing ahead to give on-line ZOOM dance classes without conceptualizing, designing and executing them so that the classes can be thoroughly effective. There had been little time or budget to do this. Otherwise, it's a waste of time which both dancers and teachers can use more effectively by doing other things. For instance, they can use this lockdown time for their own mental and reflective enrichment which previously they had neglected and now need for self-development.

I find myself learning a lot from looking at other dance archival and documentary videos - of ballet, films and others which are available in abundance; revisiting and analysing old classic works and even catching up with reading. A luxury which in normal times we cannot afford to do. We are also documenting our collections of paintings and drawings - works of AV Ilango, Dinanath Pathy, Sivarajah Natarajan, Ramahari Jena and others are being revisited and archived.

Besides all the above, I also take pleasure in tending Sutra's garden or looking after my 16 cats, 3 dogs and other pets!

When rummaging through our paintings collections, I discovered a whole series of my own drawings.... yes, it occurs to me there is still time left of the lockdown to indulge in making Art, myself!


SAM MADHU
(Contemporary Digital Artist, Creative Director PROJECT ASURA, Mumbai / Chennai)

A cocky, confident, borderline brat has blossomed into a social media influencer and a unique presence in the digital arts landscape. SAMYUKTHA aka SAM MADHU is among today's generation of creatives who is forging new and varied paths in visual art design. Daughter of my dear friend Lata Madhu, the owner of Chennai's most elegant boutique COLLAGE, Sam was always a restless rebel while growing up. I sensed real talent fluttering inside that often conflicted persona, knowing that she would find a way to break through. A degree from Parsons School of Design in New York shaped her visual sense and Mumbai is where she found her artistic voice and stride.

Today SAM MADHU's PROJECT ASURA focuses on her childhood fascination with Japanese MANGA (a style which combines cartoons, comics and animation), South Indian demon mythology and the 'DRISHTI BOMMAI' images that she grew up with. Her work is astonishing, provocative and daringly original. Unafraid of ruffling conservative feathers and citing the possibility that "there is a Rakshasa (demon) inside us all", this 25 year old looks at the current pandemic through the refracted prism of a true innovator and dreamer.


As a young freelancer participating in the gig economy, I've seen that the effects of Covid-19 have been particularly devastating on the entire creative industry. I work with people across the music, film and entertainment industries such as set designers, performers, rappers, producers, directors, photographers, event planners and many more. All our jobs revolve around events and creative production - especially those with large gatherings - such as music festivals, concerts, brand events, parties etc.

The nature of our occupations have completely victimized us in this pandemic. Without any public events to produce and conceptualize, we have no jobs. I've seen a lot of my colleagues scramble to figure out the next steps - this includes moving back in with their parents, empty their savings, try and learn digital skills, etc.

I personally decided not to renew my lease in Bombay. So I've given up my apartment and have moved back to Chennai to stay with my parents. I also have a very broad background in digital fabrication, so I can translate my skills into digital projects and communicate with my clients online. So while I've temporarily lost the events side of my work, I still have clients who require my skills for graphic design, social media and brand identity.

Overall, my situation is one of privilege and luck. I have a safe home with a loving family, and I'm still able to score some work and make some money. Which is more than I can say for my colleagues who are struggling to survive. I'm personally using this time to help my friends and family as much as I can, to improve myself, work on my skills, understand the global political situation and find ways to build a better future. I think 2019 was a fantastic year for my generation. We had a lot of success in doing the things we wanted to do. And now with 2020 and Covid-19, we must figure out ways to rebuild what has been broken and once again reach a place of prosperity, happiness and collaboration. Without upsetting the planet.


PRIYA SARUKKAI CHABRIA
(Poet, Translator, Pune)

It was ANDAL that brought us together. At first Priya Sarukkai was the poet "Akka" of her more famous sibling. I saw her often at dance performances, her words becoming the segue between sections of Malavika's performances. Gradually, I started reading her translations and thoughts through books that emerged, like dandelions, between the cracks of a world atrophied with cement and concrete. But it was the queen of Srivilliputtur that opened the door to our connection. Reading Priya's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A GODDESS is like meeting my childhood companion all anew. I am ANDAL mad! And so is Priya. We shared many rehearsals and two sold out evenings of ANDAL - Her life in words and movement - in Mumbai and Kolkata to raise funds for the TATA CHILDREN'S CANCER HOSPITAL.

Through Priya I have met many brilliant and thoughtful creatives. Poets, translators, editors, photographers, textile revivalists. A writer's life is one of solitude. From her lovely home in Pune, this poet writes, translates, re-imagines scientific fiction and illuminates her words into worlds of great beauty and terror.

Pic: Sameer Balwalkar

I feel like a sea pulled by two moons, all surge and sink, moonlit peak and lightless abyss. The best of me surfaces, and the weakest.

Our blinkers have come off. Cosy comforts collapse into an unknown reality. We, the privileged, are forced to look at the ends of privilege. Earlier,I felt secure that I could choose my healthcare facilities. Not anymore. Should I become critically ill, given the shortage of life-saving equipment, I might be the one passed over.

Facing mortality together perhaps we'll become less condemnatory of others, more creative in the everyday, and in work. After all, gems are formed under intense pressure! Time to test what one is made of. Time to turn words into healing waters.

It's the time to explore poetic expression which condenses much in its crucible, like bhasma powder left in an ayurvedic preparation when the unwanted is burnt away. In writing, it's time for tapas, for meditation to simultaneously seek the words in their finest forms and let go of the self-serving eddies around writing. Shed. So that
the dark ink
of words
burns through
the whiteness
of paper leaving
its luminous
shadow in the reader's mind who
shares my thoughts
in a future time.

In the immediate, I've stepped up online readings to build camaraderie across communities and countries. We band together – as in Anita's initiative – to do our bit. It's time to summon more courage, creativity and compassion than one thought one had. Time for giving back big time.
My gratitude.


AGAL DANCE
(Bharatanatyam ensemble, Sydney - Vishnu Arunasalam, Shobana Suresh, Chidambaram R Suresh, Nikki Sekar, Vishni Ravindran, Shriraam Theiventhiran)

I first watched a short video of them dancing by the waters in the great Sydney outdoors. AGAL DANCE. The name did not ring a bell. Soon after, I travelled to Sydney where I met a bright eyed group of smiling faces bathed in Fangirl/boy excitement! The connection clicked! We started chatting in Tamizh (these diaspora kids are starved for the sound of mother tongue and yet can't speak it without the local accent!). I was quickly ushered to a cafe and later, after my short performance, to a lively bistro where we continued our conversation about dance, the "Margam" re-imagined and life! AGAL, a Tamil word meaning a mud lamp, is a grouping of 6 like-minded 20 and 30 somethings - born in Sri Lanka (except for Suresh who was born in India) and growing up in Australia and New Zealand. Very aware of being surrounded by right leaning dance schools with their fixation on student numbers and Arangetrams, AGAL, led by the visually sharp and curious VISHNU ARUNASALAM (who functions as Artistic Director and costume designer), is clamouring to carve out a space of its own.

I have not known them long enough nor have I watched them perform live except for short clips on social media, but I sense a real urgency fluttering inside. This is emblematic of so many young diasporic groups from Durban to Toronto. How do we create? What can we say? How can we make our mark? Who can we look up to? What can be our sources of inspiration? Will anyone notice?


2020. Twenty-Twenty. The name itself carried so much excitement. We had a plethora of plans.

2020 for AGAL was envisioned to be the time we transitioned from Movers into Makers. A time for us to launch our five-year plan into action. When COVID-19 struck, it initially left us feeling somewhat stuck in second gear. However, we live within a resilient community here in Australia, as people of a South Asian heritage. We are fortunate to be experiencing a pandemic through the lens of the digital age, a period where digital media carries the same weight as live stage performances. We as a collective, have learnt to cope with the imposed restrictions placed upon us, especially that of not being able to conduct routine face-to-face rehearsals, by instead utilising Zoom. Thankfully, many of us already use such platforms for our tertiary studies, our jobs, our learning of the fine arts and also the presenting of our works through film and social media, enabling us to adapt quickly to this new norm.

We are so acclimatized to grabbing and then running with our ideas, but the current situation has forced us to take a halt, rethink, replan and remap, creating the perfect opportunity for reflection and offering scope for self-growth. The challenge, however, is whether we can create using our collective dynamic, segregated in our own rooms. We have nonetheless, decided to optimize our situation by digging deeper into our own individual selves and understanding our own vocabulary and unique expression.

What we have realized and must not deny is that we come from privilege, as this pandemic does not mean we don't have the means to put food on our table, no matter how much our livelihood has been affected. Likewise, we can't deny that this has also taken a toll on our mental health. Why is it that it has taken a pandemic to trigger us to take very trivial and fundamental steps, whether it be taking time out for ourselves by talking to family or watching a reality TV show on Netflix, or networking online with a collective of likeminded South Asian artists from Australia?

We think it is imperative we remember to not get caught up in this whirlwind of confusion and the current overpowering online momentum of artists creating, creating and creating, all around us. The spark to create will come when the spark to create will come, in our own time. Not from the pressure we feel after scrolling through Instagram on our phones, or from a pandemic confining us to the walls of our homes and limiting us to weekly trips to our local grocers. It is critical our company does not fall into this trap, but instead, we pause and let ideas brew and marinate.

As AGAL, we would like to use this period as 'the calm'. The calm before the storm? No, just simply the calm.


ANIL SRINIVASAN
(Pianist, Educator, Writer, Associate Professor of Practice-KREA UNIVERSITY, Chennai)

There is too much to say about someone who has grown up before my eyes. Our kinship goes back two generations. Anil Srinivasan, the once shy, tongue tied boy who walked quietly down our common lane in Chennai to his piano class, has grown several heads, hands and trajectories - all glowing with the passion that music has infused into him. Science, business, education, popular and classical music of many streams - he absorbs everything and, like camphor, lights it up with his luminous genius.

A true polymath, Anil glides between Bach and Dikshitar, Ilayaraja and MS Subbulakshmi with the ease of a familiar friend. He connects an Italian sonata with the processing power of the hippocampus and the brain's frontal lobe. In 2005, his partnership with Carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan became a trigger for his new sound and a launch pad for his multifold talents. A generous collaborator, our bond is as exciting as the Big Apple and as sturdy as our common compound wall. His compositions for my productions SEVEN GRACES (2005), NEELAM (2006) and FACES-Blessed Unrest (2007) were pivotal points in creating a new soundscape for my NEO BHARATAM dance palette.

Anil is also a serial philanthropist. During the devastating Chennai floods, this daring musician-citizen stood at the frontline of the rescue efforts and saw the havoc it wrought upon our city. Anticipating the current pandemic lockdown, Anil initiated a 19 day online music festival that raised 10 lakh rupees ($14,000) for the elderly. A passionate educator through the RHAPSODY FOUNDATION, he has used his prodigious talent to impact 4 lakh kids (400,000) about the versatile power of music for the past 7 years. A true Outlier, Anil has the distinct advantage (or not!) of being adored and attacked, revered and reviled, toasted and trolled in turns. A full generation younger than me, I am among the very few people who has seen Anil ride the waves of his life and art as they have crested and crashed. His music has always been the raft.


A period of intense stillness. Arid outdoors, a vagrant breeze. Music is wafting in from an open window across the street and my feet are tapping unconsciously.

I see ants scurrying across the floor doing what they have done for ages. Working in tandem, with structured industry, going about doing something intuitive and profound - collaborate and survive.

The pause button unfortunately does not appear to have touched egos. From presidents to pantry pundits, everyone is living in the "I, me, myself" even in this. Worrying about relevance post the crisis, whenever that happens. Something to learn from the ants, at least now. Perhaps our last chance.

The Arts will have to sit on the balcony awhile. Observe. Not just with our eyes but with our hearts. And be useful. And teach the world not so much to dance or sing, but to work for each other. Work with each other. Create only what helps. And not just ourselves.

To the Earth, this is another day, another year. She knows best. The real question is - are we listening to the music she has been quietly humming for aeons?


SAMHITA ARNI
(Writer, Bengaluru)

Does an illustration of THE MAHABHARATA created as an 8 year old actually sell 50,000 copies and go on to be translated into 7 languages? And how about seeing your retelling of SITA'S RAMAYANA make it to the TOP TEN of the New York Times graphic novels list? The imagery and inspiring tropes of familiar Indian myths and legends have spurred 35 year old SAMHITA ARNI to carve a successful career in revisiting and retelling familiar classics. Her latest - highly acclaimed novel- THE PRINCE, is inspired by the beloved Tamil classic SILAPPADIKARAM.

Samhita and I have met on panels about mythology at Literature Festivals and spent hours talking about Kannagi, Madhavi and especially Manimekhalai - the three female icons of classical Tamil literature. Deeply connected to grassroots women's movements in several cultures, this Bangalore dreamer is like quietly burning ember - her thoughts coursing through time honoured tales and inspiring the young students at SRISHTI INSTITUTE to reconnect the dots of their geographical and cultural DNA.

As Samhita says, "Each generation is different, and for a myth, story or epic to resonate it must be told in a way that relates with their experience in order to touch them and for the story to remain in our cultural psyche."


Why is it important to write in this time? I've been wrestling with this question. Much of my writing life, over the last couple of years, has been lit fest hopping, hobnobbing with the literati.
Overnight, that's changed. I'm surprised to be relieved. Being a writer had become more about numbers - copies sold, advances secured, invitation to lit fests - and less about why I write.
Don't get me wrong - all those numbers are important to being able to make a living out of writing. But this crisis is also forcing me to face the fact that I have become disconnected from my own reasons to keep writing.

Right now, I am a teacher first, a writer second. A teacher, who, in the last month, has taught 59 students. They face an uncertain future -- how do I prepare them for this? My store of knowledge, the skills I have acquired and can pass on, the life experiences I have had - how can these things serve them?

In the future, I hope my writing and teaching will merge. Being forced to see the world through the eyes of my students, to understand their fears and concerns - that forces a deeper engagement with the future, with the choices we face right now, and the potential to use this moment to reshape our trajectory. It's not about me or my success as a writer. There's a bigger picture.

That's what I have been losing sight of, in the last couple of years. That's what I want to bring back into my writing.



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