Dance 'Caro-Na': Can we dance in the times of Corona?
April 6, 2020
I saw a series of videos about what happened on 22nd March at 5pm across several towns of India, and was not happy to see that after a day of Janata Curfew, things went out of hand. Instead of encouraging and acknowledging the work of corona warriors like medical staff, people had read the five o clock call to "taali and thaali" to be a festive assertion of community. That is why it saw many people standing together, in close proximity with scant regard to the idea of social distancing. The images even caught a policeman, who should have known better, blowing a conch shell- a conch shell for the love of God, that need to be blown outwards creating thereby, pathways for oral secretions to be blown out. In other videos, I saw dancing of all types, as if there was something to celebrate. No, my dear, there is nothing to celebrate just yet. In fact there is much to be worried about at this stage. I realised within an hour or two after 5pm, that after what appeared by all news accounts to be a good start to social distancing and a voluntary home bound curfew, we had messed it up by abandoning all the good sense shown, at 5pm. I needed no further proof of the fact that as a community we had not understood the gravity of this public health crisis that is facing us.
This little, tiny, virus, seems to have the power to make the world stop. As I am writing a dance column, maybe I should not say stop, but say instead, dance to its tunes? Don't be misled. By the time this piece gets to you, all scheduled dance performances would have been officially stopped. Dance festivals have been hurriedly cancelled. Big dance shows have been postponed. We sincerely hope that they have only been postponed and not cancelled. Dance schools have moved beyond the "Use the sanitizer at the door" and "Wear masks when you are stepping out" instruction stage, and have been indefinitely closed.
While we are still sitting on the fence deciding what we do during this enforced social distancing, dance has indeed come bubbling to the top of the cauldron in these tough times of corona. I refer to the amazing instructional videos brought out by the police of four states. These are known as the hand washing videos. The first to appear, and almost instantly go viral, was by six police men from the southern state of Kerala, a state that has seen a noticeable number of COVID-19 positive cases. This was their attempt to help "flatten out the curve," and reinforce the message that national and international health organisations like World Health Organisation have been attempting to convey.
The idea apparently came from the policemen themselves, who are in the front line of the state's response, and within four hours they had the choreography in place.
In this video, the six mask wearing Kerala policemen, demonstrated the correct way of hand washing, to a song from a recent movie "Ayyappanum Koshiyum", a 2020 Indian Malayalam-language action-thriller film based on a clash between two policemen- Ayyappa and Koshy. Because of its theme, it was believed that people would be able to connect with it instantly. The video that was released on his social media page by Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala, as part of the state government's efforts to #breakthechain, indeed seems to have connected well with the people and has gone viral. In its wake came other similar videos from state police forces.
The Punjab Police came up with its own version of the hand washing dance to fight the Corona virus.
It used Bhangra steps and the traditional 'Bari barsi khattan gaya si' bolis to highlight, additionally, the need to cover faces while sneezing and coughing, using soap and sanitizer frequently to keep hands virus free, and to use the traditional folded hands greeting of 'sat sri akal' from a distance rather than shaking hands. The state of Punjab has been rather proactive in its fight against COVID-19, and has become the first state to impose curfew for the whole state. This video was released by the Director General of Police, Punjab, on his twitter handle.
Tamil Nadu Police once had one of the best Karaghattam dance troupes in the country. Karaghattam is a folk dance from Tamil Nadu. It celebrates Mariamma, the rain goddess. The dancers carry water filled pots on their head, balancing them rather dexterously, as they dance. In fact, the performance of this dance has closely been associated with Tamil Police recruits, so much so that other central forces, with a sizeable number of recruits from Tamil Nadu, often perform the dance in different parts of India, a testimony to the country's diversity. Just a few years ago, the Tamil Nadu contingent in a CRPF battalion posted in Jammu and Kashmir, performed it there, as part of a National Day parade. The Tamil Nadu Police has today joined the fight against Corona, making their statement in the language of dance. Regrettably, in the past few years, disciplinary action has been taken against police staff for making TikTok dance videos. Consequently, the enthusiasm around this initiative from the local police community is somewhat restricted.
Not to be left behind, a 30-second TikTok video doing the rounds shows members of the Andhra Police force dancing to capricious beats while wearing disposable gloves and surgical masks, but successfully conveying the essential message of protection by washing hands thoroughly and not shaking hands. But this has led film director Ram Gopal Verma to describe it as buffoonery.
On his post Verma stated, "The police themselves might not know it but public like me look up to the police and I request them not to do this Sampoornesh Babu (he is a comic actor in Telugu cinema) kind of buffoonery... I want to feel the police strength in the Corona times and not to appear like a joke."
I beg to differ on this count, Mr. Verma. I believe that the Andhra Police force is acting in an extremely responsible manner. Prevention is India's best chance to defeat this public health pandemic. Since the bhakti movement, dance and music has been used to carry the message and educate the population in a society arranged on a literacy level continuum. It is precisely because people look up to the police, as strong people, that they are effective mediums to convey the message, in a fast and effective manner. Imagine the impact when they realise that if even the policeman needs to follow the rules of hygiene and social distancing, can a common man afford to ignore them?
Fellow liberals may point out to how the police is the violent arm of state power, but here they are not just essential services, but in this endeavour they are showing their soft face and soft power, and only adding to the superhuman efforts needed to counter Corona. I request all influencers, sports persons, film fraternity artistes, dancers, musicians and celebrities, to carry forth scientifically based, medically authenticated, correct information and strong and clear messages that could reach even the last man. Our only chance is if we can comprehend the seriousness of the issue at hand and adopt preventive behaviour to protect ourselves.
Indian policemen are not alone in realising that they can play a proactive role through dance in the times of Corona. In the small town of Algaida in the Majorcan region of Spain, a group of policemen pulled up in their cars and amid loud sirens, pulled out a guitar and began singing and dancing with the population that even while joining in song, remained confined in their homes. Not only were the police aware of the fact that the citizens needed to stay isolated in their homes, but carefully maintained the mandatory one meter distance between themselves. Yes, using music and dance responsibly to keep up the morale, is another way that dance can serve the fight against Corona.
I would like to end by drawing your attention to a scientifically argued and factually robust article on the spread of the Corona virus. It is titled Corona Virus: The Hammer and The Dance. Do read it.
Looking forward to when we can all dance, together.
Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.
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