Surviving Covid

July 2020

Perhaps the experience of this program would not be complete without catching the dreadful disease. How can one really talk about creating a place for performance amidst the pandemic without having suffered Covid oneself? I have suffered incarceration from the state-imposed lock downs to self-imposed physical distancing. I’ve cared for my wife while she suffered from it in January this year. However, it’s only now, after about thirty months of the disease having traumatised the country (longer for many other parts of the world) that I finally caught it, or it finally got me. Although all four participants have fortunately tested negative, Prachi has been under home isolation for the past ten days because her family members have been successively suffering from Covid.

The mishap was inevitable and always on the radar. As early as February, when the third wave was ebbing, there was a forecast of the fourth wave coming in around June and July. There couldn’t have been a foolproof way of scheduling the program to avoid a wave or chance infections. We had to work with an intuitive and unspoken preparation of dealing with it, if and when it hit. Neither can I munch on whether I should have been hit earlier or later. Either could have jeopardised the program more than it has now. We have made a decent beginning and completed the first phase; I also managed to initiate some embodied processes for the residency leg of the program. It’s only that about ten days of our in-person engagements have been taken away. So, it seems that the best time for both the good as well as the bad is now.

However, while the ‘when‘ is hardly ever open to deliberation, the ‘how‘ is, as I learn in a bitter lesson, a matter of principle. I have imagined, proposed and marketed this program as a ‘residency.‘ This is an informed critique against the education industry which seems rather gleeful in its continued management of training through online meetings, in spite of the pandemic. I was myself very hurt mid last year on receiving the news of the Government of India’s Gazette notification stating, “architecture cannot be taught online.” I felt disregarded as a creative individual  and my efforts as a teacher disrespected. However after two years of the online education game, I realised that I was making the same mistake as the other over-enthused educators, education businesses (not sure if they can be called institutions) and bureaucrats articulating and issuing gazette notifications. We were all, and perhaps only, looking at the teaching dimension of education. Learning, on the other hand, is an altogether different story.

Learning cannot happen without human social engagement, without the glances from the corners of our eyes, without overhearing what wasn’t necessarily meant for us and definitely not  without our skin in the game. We were all feeding each other our manicured close-up frames and feeling snub about how well-behaved everything is. Learning, however, is very messy.

One of the online session in Phase-2 – Residency – isolation necessitated by Covid
screenshot: courtesy Ketki

I wanted to create a social and diverse environment of learning outside the institutional restrictions of disciplines, assessments and abidance of the state’s pandemic protocols. I wanted to explore the potential of collective choice. Besides bringing all participants physically together, the residency, in principle, also provides for the possibility of creating a safe bubble outside which the participants need not venture and thus protect the program from the instability and threat that the world is otherwise facing. Accepting the funding cap, which is half of what the program actually needed, I deviated from this basic principle of the residency, favouring the survival of the studio. In the over-excitement of feeling validated by IFA’s support for my proposal, I moved away from,‘we need to live and create together!‘ to, ‘we need to create together!‘ This isn’t a cliched lament on how things could have been. Instead, this is one of the several self-critiques which the pandemic seems to make possible. My disdain for urban life is embedded in this critique: the pandemic has been and still is most brutal in the cities for all the grandeur as well as the garbage that they are about. However, what is pertinent here is that I seek to create and sustain a community which can imagine a place for performance robust enough to work even in times of a pandemic. Such a community needs a boundary that it can inhabit while keeping the irrelevant and the threatening outside. However, a group of people who travel across temporal, cultural and material geographies every day to congregate for eight hours does not become a community in four weeks. The air and aura that we bring along and exchange remain indifferent for long unless challenged by embodied work and honest conversations, which got interrupted for us because of Covid.

Having accepted a four week duration for the residency with an equally long precursor of online meetings, the venue for the residency should have been anything but urban. Running it in New Delhi with the participants living in different corners has made a difficult challenge nearly impossible and left me coughing and out of breath even as we are about to begin the critical phase. Notwithstanding the kind gestures from friends and family of contributing to my postcards project in support of the residency, I did fall short of effectively reaching out to potential sponsors who could provide for the boarding requirements of the participants. I wrote to several individuals and organisations to support the accommodation part, but all in vain. Perhaps it needed a different strategy. In hindsight, I feel that it was a mistake to categorise the program as core and accommodation as secondary. Given the context of the pandemic, it is essential that all participants live and operate within a safe bubble. I can only imagine and envy Kirtana Kumar’s call for a sustainable pedagogy for theatre at her Infinite Souls Artists’ Retreat outside Bangalore.

Clockwise from Top-Left: Prachi, Charvi (on the left) & Ketki; Mugdha; embodied work; preparation for the ball game
photographs: Siddharth

Nevertheless, we are at a cusp in our processes where we can begin to address the questions: What is performance? What is an individual? What is the community? How are they all related to nature? How can a place of performance bring all of these together? 

These reflections on our journey are from July – mid-term – while we prepared to unfold our processes further. The deliberations (hyperlinked below to various article across this site) follow the categorisation of our preparatory processes themselves:

                          Drawing: the discipline of observing
Theatre & Performance: learnings from recollections and short researches
       Context Summaries: listening to practitioners                 
Site & Design: delineating and mapping the place of intervention