Laptop and mobile phone screens have turned into the stage. Home has become an auditorium. Audience etiquette no longer matters. You can lounge on the couch and watch your favourite artiste perform. You can like, share or comment to express your appreciation. Meeting artistes backstage seems a distant past.
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way we engage with the arts. While artistes are exploring the digital medium to reach out, the term ‘performance space’ has gained a new connotation, with the lockdown bringing the curtain down on live shows. And as long as the social distancing norm is in place, the possibility of the auditoriums reopening by the end of the year or even early next year, appears remote. Performance theatre owners across the world are not quite in favour of an interim seating arrangement with many empty seats since it would neither be economically viable nor augur well for a live show.
One of India’s premier cultural centres that hosts more than 700 multi-genre events each year, the Mumbai-based National Centre for the Performing Arts set up in 1969 by JRD Tata and Dr. Jamshed Bhabha, has managed to stay connected with art lovers through the NCPA@home digital series. The series includes contemporary presentations, traditional performances, literary sessions, symphony orchestras and lec-dems.
With five theatres, including the 300-seat Experimental Theatre, NCPA is a sought-after venue for both intimate and large-scale productions. But, with the pandemic forcing its doors shut, chairman Khushroo Suntook, who is also the co-founder of the Symphony Orchestra of India, elaborates on the challenges, concerns and hopes.
How effective can the digital platform prove for the performing arts?
Dissemination on the digital platform has existed for many years. At the NCPA, we have been hosting screenings of operas, ballets and plays for our patrons from institutions across the world such as the National Theatre, London, The Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi Theatre for some years now. For us, streaming archival performances with NCPA@home has helped reach out to newer audiences. We have witnessed a sense of community develop among viewers, who log on to our YouTube channel every weekend at 6 p.m., brought together by their love for culture.
This strengthens our resolve to curate and present performances of the highest order for this ever-growing community.
How do you perceive the future of performing arts? Do you think artistes will have to rethink their presentation style?
Virtual learning and consumption is currently the new normal and we need to adapt to this form in order to reach a wider audience. As things gradually normalise, the performing arts will return to the theatres, however, the digital platform and theatres will co-exist. The evolution of the presentation style of artistes is a continual process, which factors in the dynamics of contemporary circumstances.
How difficult is it going to be to keep a watch on quality of the online content?
For cultural centres that insist on offering the best, this is a constant challenge. The NCPA is committed to adhering to the highest standards in the performing arts and will continue to present performances that live up to this benchmark, whether they are virtual or in front of a live audience.
Some theatres across the world are facing permanent closure. Your thoughts on the situation in India.
In India, culture centres and the artiste community have stepped up to keep art forms alive among their fans. It is vital that the government and art patrons support institutions during such times.
How does NCPA plan to cope with the new set of challenges?
We have already started coping with the new situation through constant investigation of the way forward, approach to programming and maintaining and building on our rich archives, teaching on the digital platform, and creating new material to be put out before we return.
Through our digital initiatives like NCPA@Home and Utkarsh, a lecture-demonstration series, we have reached out to art lovers. We see these times also as an opportunity to explore other mediums for the dissemination of our content so that our audiences across the world can watch their favourite artistes and a host of exclusive performances. The initiatives will continue to run on digital platforms after we gradually reopen our doors to the audiences of live performances.
What kind of measures you think are essential to help artistes, especially folk artistes in dire financial straits?
This is an area where the government must help. Showcasing the folk traditions of India has been integral to NCPA’s programming. We continue to promote the folk performers of our country online.
What about the future of live events?
If one is to see the trends in Europe/abroad, the return of audiences to theatres will be a sure, even if a somewhat slow, one. We are currently working towards implementing sanitisation and safety measures to be fully prepared to bring live art to our patrons after the lockdown.
Do you think the immense response to your @home series reiterates the importance of archiving in art?
The importance of archiving in art cannot be emphasised enough. Archiving has been an important facet of work at the NCPA since its inception and we are looking at using the best available technology to archive our programmes not only for the purpose of documentation but also for the digital medium.
How has Mr. Suntook been spending the lockdown period?
It has been busier than my regular working days with Zoom meetings and conference calls with our team, advisory committees, council members and consultants abroad to brainstorm strategies for the institution. In addition to our performances on @home, I try to keep myself updated with concerts around the world.