Art shows a mirror to life, although we process art as per our experiences. In many ways, art in terms of cinema or web-based series or books has helped us understand and make sense of the pandemic. The consumption of ‘content’ on OTT platforms has skyrocketed across India and the wider world. As per media reports, Netflix has gained 16 million subscribers in the first three months of 2020 and Disney Plus has 50 million subscribers all over the globe.
Smart phones and affordable data packs have created a ‘portable theatre’ culture. The post pandemic world will further accelerate this digital culture. It has taken a quarter of a century to take the smart phone to every corner of the world, cutting across socioeconomic class, keeping aside vanity devices in part to prioritize mass manufacturing.
The new generation of content creators – influencers – on YouTube and TikTok have created a new genre which is the next frontier of entertainment. These content creators include stand-up comics or podcast hosts who produce the entire show on a camera with a tripod, an editing software installed on a laptop, or an advanced, standalone smart phone. The raw creativity is the real value-add of the process.
Good art does not require a ‘Bahubali’ scale budget. One of my personal favourites on YouTube is Ranveer Allabadia of ‘The Ranveer Show’ on The Beer Biceps Channel. The Ranveer Show is an is an inspirational podcast-talk show which interviews super achievers. The quality of the content is at par with any international current affairs talk show, and the focus is purely on the conversation and the fibre of questions asked.
Traditional artists have taken a hit. Major galleries, museums and theatres have shut doors and laid off staff. To pivot to the digital, galleries have moved their exhibits to their websites and Instagram pages. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has an excellent app with excellent background narrations in various languages.
I was a regular at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai when I was based there last year. It is one of the best global art galleries I have been to, and it is now putting its money into grants to support regional artists in the Gulf during the lockdown. Jameel Arts Centre has also initiated several excellent online engagements with its patron community.
The local government in Berlin has promptly released grants to artists and creative freelancers to cope with the economic slowdown. So has Singapore, to support its arts sector, which is a significant driver of tourism income in the city-state. The globally renowned Royal Albert Hall in London has been livestreaming theatrical performances online as a substitute in this lockdown. And this year’s Art Dubai has moved to the digital space, with its curator Shumon Basar curating a panel discussion to mark the move.
Art is, however, found in between the space of the performance and the audience. When we watch a live performance online, we watch the non-existing interaction of the actors and singers with an empty theatre. The humanity of the artistic ethos is lost. We are not experiencing art, but a recording of art. The magic of live art lies in the spontaneity of the moment - the improvisation of a dialogue for an illustration, an extra pause deviating from the text. It is what makes live sport equally attractive as there is no pre-formulated script.
Facebook is allowing artists to charge on live streaming of performances, which is one way to monetise intellectual property. The absence of live events will hurt and in the new normal of social distancing, we can foresee large musical festivals or theatrical shows curtailed. This mere fact will change the cultural consumption landscape, in the words of tech strategist Venkatesh Rao of Ribbon Farm, in the form of a ‘Narrative Collapse’.
The Indian movie business is project-oriented, and each major movie provides 300-odd jobs. As shootings have come to a halt, most film crews are unemployed. Movie stars are raising fundraisers on Instagram to raise cash for the most vulnerable in the sector, those such as light boys or makeup artists. Yet, the fat cats of Bollywood can surely do more, by cutting back on that fancy holiday which they had planned later in the year.
As the world changes, people’s aspirations and expectations from art also transition. International content is available, just a swipe away. Dark phases inspire powerful storytelling, as in Albert Camus’s ‘The Plague’, written out of his experiences of a dire plague in Algeria.
Newer ways of indoor storytelling with the minimum size of a production crew will be the way ahead for the entertainment business. There are no new film releases apart from OTT ones; during this lockdown, film critic Rajeev Masand has video-interviewed almost all actors, producers, and directors as well as a Sonu Nigam based in Dubai, and Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra, who never reviewed a web series earlier, has started to do so.
The reality is that no new web series or films are being filmed; soon, the content pipelines will dry up. There will be newer ways which will utilise mobile cameras and DSLRs to tell new stories in the most mundane of locations, such as our homes. As far as India’s regional content is concerned, we have just scratched the surface. The next media growth story is in the native languages of India and South/South East Asia.
Cookery programmes have also picked up on Instagram as people are revisiting cooking in the absence of easy Swiggy/Zomato deliveries. Everyone is channelizing the inner Ramsay or MasterChef Australia fan nowadays.
As a writer, I am excited. Bleak times make for the best poetry or textual art, as art is bled on a page metaphorically. A post-pandemic lit genre is up the anvil. Art gives hope, and in the acerbic words of veteran Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, the escapism real life cannot provide.
Adding to his perspective, art is the soul of a society lost between motions. This global stop has resulted in an uncomfortable slow pace of time. Art provides the language to understand this stop if one looks for it in the right places. Art is the therapist in these sick times.
Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.