Ever since the lockdown began, I have been devising ways to stay productive. It started with a set of routines designed to fill the hours — online teaching being a faculty at Krea University (this semester I taught two courses — “Design Thinking” and “The Business of Creative Industries”); thinking of ways to keep my team and the lakhs of children we reach out to at Rhapsody diverted, my venture with schools and of course, helping in the household with skills I did not know I possessed.
All through these various endeavours, there was a niggling pain at the back of my head. It wasn’t helped by the non-stop social media feeds highlighting the plight of daily wage earners, migrant labourers, the elderly without help, the job-stranded and retrenched, the furloughed and many of India’s various communities that are far more vulnerable than I am.
Among these voices were also those of my peers and colleagues within the music fraternity, who have suffered a setback due to cancellation of performances. The voices got louder so much so that on the day of the Janata Curfew, I decided to call out to fellow artistes, art makers and learners to keep us all sane, creative and at home. The “Janata Curfew Online Festival” started as a single, unheeded post on my social media handles for a few hours until a friend picked it up, and then another — within a day we had received close to 181 artistes from 18 countries or so, all of them singing, playing, composing, reading, painting, cooking and making sense of the new world order in their own myriad ways. Creative Collaboration at its best I thought, and in a small way, a reminder that the human spirit could triumph.
How terribly wrong I was.
In the days following, and as we endured the three-week compulsory lockdown, I realised that sharing Art, while noble and beautiful, did not help the “ringing in the ears.” I spoke to Subha J Rao, my dear friend, writer and partner-in-crime on various crisis missions (we worked together during the Chennai Floods and again during the Kerala floods) and I came upon the idea of #PlayItForward, one way in which a fund could be created for vulnerable communities, if artistes could reach out to their fans and followers on a consistent basis. We set ourselves a target of Rs 10 lakhs, which seemed about right, and chose Bhoomika Trust, an NGO working towards elderly care and providing food and medical supplies (including PPEs) to migrant workers. The idea (like the concept of ‘pay it forward’) was that each performing artiste would nominate another for the next day, and thus keep the chain going. I started it. Soon it became a multi-media collaboration with actor Andrea, lyricist Madhan Karky, actors Prasanna and Arya, fellow pianist Stephen Devassy, collaborator and vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, Vedanth Bharadwaj, singer Shaktishree, storytellers Janaki Sabesh and Vikram Sridhar.
In about 12 days, we collected over Rs 9.8 lakh. And while it felt good to do this, especially during a lockdown, I do not believe this means I would not hear those voices ringing in my ears anymore.
My own musical family is in trouble. My friends in the media fraternity will suffer severe cutbacks in the months to come. Middle-class entitlement means that many maids and domestic helpers are still on the move and some are being treated shoddily. There has been no dent in domestic abuse, sexual predators are on the rise and so are miscreants or lawbreakers. Using my privilege as an artiste with a platform that is clearly now of some use means that I could direct my attention to all of these and more.
But my students at Krea University reminded me of the limits — the extent to which I can stretch myself. While it is a noble thought to keep wanting to do more, we also need to attend to ourselves and to those close to us. It is equally important to gather our thoughts at this rather bizarre time, when the world is about to change, perhaps forever.
My own experience with people tells me that things will change, but we as a race don’t give up easily on habits. I fear that people will forget all that they have learnt during this enforced lockdown, go back to exploitative and unfair ways of one-upmanship and land the world in another crisis..
Meanwhile, this is what I have learnt. I did share some of these insights on social media, but I reprise them for the benefit of a larger readership:
A. Stay safe, stay connected and stay home. This is the perfect opportunity to understand yourself better.
B. Each crisis teaches you skills and survival tricks. Embrace the possibilities.
C. Try to help one person, other than your immediate family member, everyday. Start with your neighbour. Call that elderly aunt and just listen to her describe her day.
D. Believe in the best, and prepare to face any adversity that may come your way. Perhaps a great time to keep our heads down thumbs up, learn to be manifold useful by expanding skill sets.
E. Grow in compassion. Grow in love. Love is all we need.
(The writer is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai)