How Indian traditional and folk artistes are adapting online to survive the pandemic

Artiste and teacher Biju Bhaskaran shifted his Kathakali classes online after the second wave of COVID -19   | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Dhola village near Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, is veiled in darkness as the electricity snaps, interrupting Sua Devi’s Zoom call.

Undeterred, the 46-year-old kalbeliya dancer, asks her son to rev up his motorcycle right outside the room. Under the powerful headlights, which bounce off her glittering jewellery, she continues her class, dancing in front of the smartphone positioned in her living room, teaching students from across the world.

The artiste who has lived most of her life on stage — Sua has been dancing since the age of seven — now handles a video call with dexterity. She says the pandemic forced her to find ways to adapt: “I was able to learn something new in between this crisis. I have a family of 13. Thanks to online classes, I am able to feed them and also help others in the village.”

Sua Devi, a kalbeliya dancer

Sua Devi, a kalbeliya dancer   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Sua, like a clutch of other folk artistes, has pivoted online out of necessity; she has not been on stage for a year and a half. But there still remain many who are outside the digital economy, struggling to make ends meet. Of the artistes performing and teaching online; some are individual pursuits while in other cases, NGOs and private organisations help with the transition.

Sua is supported by the arts platform Kalbeliya World, which was born during the pandemic in May 2020. Run by three women — Aakansha Maheshwari (USA), Chritsina Gomez (USA) and Ayla Joncheere (Belgium) — Kalbeliya World connects traditional kalbeliya dancers from Rajasthan with students and fellow artistes from around the world.

A screenshot from one the classes organised by Kalbeliya World

A screenshot from one the classes organised by Kalbeliya World   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

When the lockdown began in March 2020, Ayla was in Rajasthan, where the seed of this idea took form. She explains, “There were these traditional dancers and musicians whose artforms were very interesting but for whom, going online was difficult. On the other hand, we also had a huge international network of dancers who were already practising kalbeliya. We thought we could bring them together.” Registration and payment is done in collaboration with a US-based fitness platform Mindbody and earnings from the class are directed to the respective teacher.

While the traditional dancer teaches, their ‘buddy’ from the international dancing community volunteers to take care of the technological side and virtual communication. In many cases, the buddies have been the teacher’s student at some point. The team tutored their Kalbeliya teachers on how to download apps, set up meeting links, and portable wifi, as well how to angle the camera and prep the background, says Aakansha. The response was overwhelming.

“We had over 600 students from over 20 countries in the first month. Each class was priced at $10,” says Christina, adding that they have 12 teachers — six dancers from Pushkar, three from Jodhpur (including Sua) and three from Jaipur. Each teacher has more than one family in their village that they directly or indirectly support.

A year on, though the number of students have visibly decreased with gyms and studios opening up internationally, the platform soldiers on. They plan to make the initiative hybrid once travel restrictions are eased, where dancers can fly to India for physical workshops.

Meanwhile, Kasaragod-based mizhavu artiste Kalamandalam Sivaprasad has developed the Natya Arts Learning App, which offers courses in English and Malayalam on Indian traditional and classical arts, including a soon-to-be-introduced beginner’s module on Kerala’s percussive instrument chenda, seen in temple concerts and festivals. Live and recorded classes on Kathakali, Ottamthullal and Nangiarkoothu are also in the pipeline.

A screen grab from one of Natya Arts Learning app’s recorded classes

A screen grab from one of Natya Arts Learning app’s recorded classes   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“These are art forms that were not conceptualised for an online space. It took us a lot of time to prepare a module that could work in the virtual system of learning,” says Sivaprasad of the app that took over two-and-a-half years to create. Today, it has 7,500 downloads on Google Play Store. Recorded classes come with accompanying notes explaining rhythm patterns and scales on the screen. “We have 50 students from France, the US and the Gulf countries as well,” says Sivaprasad.

Temporary breather

This increasing interest from students outside India transcends genres. Chennai-based theatre and folk artiste Vishwa Bharath, who has been teaching paraittam (where the artiste moves according to the beats of the parai), silambam (a weapon-based martial art of Tamil Nadu) and devarattam (derived from movement celebrating victory in the battlefield) online since last year says the latter has dominated the 2021 lockdowns.

Devarattam is a spinal and leg movement-oriented form where you need your body warmed up... You have to move while chanting the swarkattu/sollu (rhythm signatures) and be in the frame at the same time,” explains Vishwa.

Theatre and folk artiste Vishwa Bharath

Theatre and folk artiste Vishwa Bharath   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Recognising that it is not easy to transition to virtual events, Vishwa has also opened up his home studio in T Nagar for senior artistes who wish to use it for online classes.

Vishwa currently has six online students. Karthik Gowrishankar has been his student since 2019, and has had a taste of both physical and online folk arts classes and would choose the former to the latter, any day. Currently he is learning devarattam online. “There is a lot of history behind the artform, about how it is being practised and propagated, that is taught,” he says. A designer by profession, Karthik finds these one-and-a-half hour classes, twice a week, a welcome diversion.

Miles to go
  • Despite these stories of grit, a majority of traditional artistes lack the resources to experiment online. This year has been brutal: along with financial strains, many have lost family and crew members to COVID-19. Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna along with his team has been helming fundraisers, raising money via online concerts. He says, “If we are looking at the larger spectrum, it (the number of folk artistes who were able to create a presence online) is only negligible. We have to work very hard on the demand side and for that social mindsets have to change.”

“For a student who has had a few years of training, moving to an online medium is not tough. But for a new student, it is not easy,” says Kochi-based Kathakali artiste Biju Bhaskaran. His student base comprises a mix of both. They are first taught the kaal sadhakam (footwork) followed by chuzhippu (body movements). Thalam (rhythm) and mudras come much later. The one-hour classes are held on Google Meet.

Before the pandemic hit, he taught in Aluva and Paravur in Kerala for 12 years. Even after lockdowns were lifted, there were safety concerns. But by the second wave in 2021, Biju decided to take things into his own hands and started teaching online. “Kathakali is an art form that has to be taught in the physical space. But since we have no option, we had to migrate online.” He now has about 20 students that he teaches virtually.

Biju, who started classes in March, restructured the process for the online medium by focussing more on theory. “Theory is extremely important for a kathakali dancer. I felt this time could be effectively used to learn the theoretical part.” Biju also concentrates on the vaaythaari, the rhythmic sequences that decide timing in kathakali. He says, “If the students learn this, once the physical classes start, it would be easy for them to adapt. They would just have to perfect their mudras then.”

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 12:31:56 PM |

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