Perspectives on a Crisis

Intellectuals and artists around the world on the social consequences of the pandemic © Kitty Kahane


A virus is showing us how globally networked and yet how fragile our public life is. What does the pandemic mean to and for each of us and for society as a whole?

We invited three Bangalore-based artists and writers, whom we have worked with over the years on various projects, to share their thoughts on the pandemic and the crisis it has generated.

We were in New Delhi with a play for a national theatre festival in the middle of February, watching the news from Wuhan. But we flipped the channel quickly to know what was happening at Shaheen Bagh. It sat strong: an emblem of the will of ordinary women who feared the legitimacy of possible disenfranchisement — and not just for themselves — owing to a citizenship act in India. Echoes of protest had been ringing through Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong and the USA among many others countries and continued to. At the time COVID-19 was still a China problem; it hadn’t torn through the world, although it certainly had. We just didn’t know it. There was a shooting in Hanau, Germany. A senseless echo of xenophobia. We’d seen this before. A few weeks after, there was bloodshed on Dehli’s streets. Communal riots; another echo of that darkness. We’d heard it before; videos of mobs attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. Relief work continued, citizens mobilised funds and supplies to the victims of the February 2020 riot. All of it came to a startling, alarming halt. A lockdown was announced, but before that protest signage and art was painted over, as if to hastily unrecognise what had been building in the country for the last three months. Then a pandemic. Another echo from history.  We’d have here before too. Videos of migrant labourers embarking on 800-kilometre-long journeys, being sprayed with disinfectant and reports of starvation deaths began. The virus won’t kill us, hunger will, they said.

COVID-19 relief funds are now back: for sanitation workers, waste-pickers, folk artists, construction crews, sex workers.

This is a chance to look closely at ourselves and our societies. But some of more amplified messages remain the same: work hard, work from home, watch Netflix, value conventional family structures, and #whenallthisisover, you can go to your holiday in Thailand (a scaled down version), continue purchasing fast fashion, and every now and then buy an organic product to salvage your soul.

Inside the house, the great Indian middle classes have been called upon to grudgingly let go of their domestic help. It’s time to wash one’s own bathroom, tend to one’s dishes, hopefully confront oneself. Suddenly men are privy to the answer to that question: what do women do at home do anyway? Some try to come forth heroically to make food and document their efforts, others turn aggressive and domestic abuse cases rise. For some, nothing has changed. Their wives and mothers double down on house chores, meals, keeping children active and healthy, while they go on remote meeting overdrives, and look at the migrant labourers on TV with disdain.

On some fronts in social media, glory and sunshine prevails as people put up videos of kale and quinoa salads and how much they’ve achieved in the day. In other corners, people talk about how to take care of mental health and recognise the effect of this crisis on the body and mind. Blind optimism and garden variety motivation are annoying, but so is the atmosphere of dread; and we are mostly walking the foggy pathway between the two.

Why am I writing down what you may already know? Because that is what it seems to me a meaningful exercise in this time: to remember. To bear witness. It is my most keen, curious and  listening self that I can try to bring to every waking day.

Many friends asked me if I was thinking of doing my cancelled performances online. A journalist called me to check if the future of theatre could be imagined on Zoom. Was I planning to launch an innovative online theatre project? Was a I writing a play about COVID-19? What was I going to do if we couldn’t ask people to come to the theatre for the next six months?

 It had only been 10 days of the lockdown. My most immediate  and active response had only to be part of fundraising for food and supplies. And to keep my body moving. For the rest of it, I was as adrift as anyone else. As for the slickly predicting future of the performing arts in this changing world —  I had no answers. I still don’t.

But what I can do is to remember. I can listen deeply. We all can.

We can read people who’ve thought and written about the world and civil society. We can try to look past the warlike nomenclature of this time and find language that looks out for the collective. We can define our ‘we’ and find ways to expand that definition, non-humans included.

We can listen to the many people who have been warning the world about the connections between climate change and fascism, between big surveillance and capitalism. (This is not a definitive list of articles. Please make your own.) We can listen to community leaders and ancient wisdoms.

And most importantly: We can look for the line between we have been failed, and we have failed. The thickness and clarity of that shapeshifting line will be different for each of us. We can try to pin it down, if only for a fleeting moment, really try.

 We may not have designed many of the problems that we sit inside of right now, but we did participate in them. We can recognise when and how. Did we choose to pour our efforts into building an Instagram following, rather than actual collective action? Did we chose to meekly forward articles to our bigoted families, rather than engage in conversation?

We can choose and vote better. We can participate in daily democracy. We can build global solidarities. We can write, think, donate. We can get behind the voices that speak for those who’ve been wilfully silenced.

We can make compassion essential to our blueprint for living.

We can change our minds. We can change our minds. We can change our minds.
And we can remember. We can hope that this is a warning bell to which we will pay heed, so the final acts of calamity don’t befall us as swiftly. And it seems that in the scheme of things ‘final’ will be a long drawn out hundred(s) years of terror and deficit and heat.

For artists, we must know that this — isolation and distance —  too is a part of our practice. We may not be inside our theatres and studios for a long time. We will have to rummage through the disappointments of cancellations in our inbox and face our dwindling bank accounts and accept our loss of momentum. But a large number of us will be able to cross this threshold. And when we do we have to be able to recount, rebuild and reimagine. And we will have to continue to remember.

During the protests in India, a poem by Aamir Aziz  (also famously recited by Roger Waters) affirmed the need for the witness of history as it unfolded. Sab yaad rakha jayega, he said. Everything will be remembered. He was referring to the attacks on the students of Jamia Milia Islamia, but it soon became a call for a profound kind of documentation. Even if every other source of information seemed available to bend for power, we would still remember everything that happened, as it happened. 

Maria Popova, known for her curiosity project (and advertisement-free) Brainpickings that led to her lifelong search for illumination, writes in the introduction of her book Figuring (an apt title for her transformative quest).
“We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and where the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static-selves that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models for things themselves our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgements and chance.”
These ‘shipwrecks of judgements and chance’ are present in dangerous and manufactured ways now. And our memory is the only compass that can help us navigate to the shores of meaning.
Deepika Arwind © Malavika Varadan
Deepika Arwind is a theatre-maker, playwright and performer based out of Bangalore, India. She works as the Artistic Director of The Lost Post Initiative (TLPI), a theatre and performing arts collective that works with diverse artists, largely around gender and women on stage.

The first image that comes to mind on writing this essay: a lone juvenile deer at the crossroad of the tunnels in the underground Nara Station in Japan. I’ve never really thought of myself as a nature person, or even an outdoorsy one but there’s something sad about this image. It seems unsure, unsettled, uncertain. Well, if you don’t see sadness in the image, I hope you’ll see the distortion it manages to pin down.
A little more than eleven days ago (at the time of writing this essay), I’d brag to other people about the camaraderie and sense of community in my little neighbourhood of Cooke Town in Bangalore, South India. The way that we’d shout “Good Morning!” to one another on the street, the way the people living on your street weren’t necessarily friendly but familiar: meaning their way of being kind wasn’t motivated by information but intuition and the ways that difference and diversity didn’t cause dilemmas in this hood. But during this lockdown, all this was undone: neighbours turned into vigilantes keeping a hawk’s eye on each other, watching everyone’s movement spotting for a violation. Neighbours began calling officials from the Public Health department to other neighbour’s apartments for the smallest of slip-ups. At any other time, they might not have even noticed any of it. And then it turned into calling out people for everyday acts that were simply amplified by the stillness of the lockdown: playing music, smoking weed in their balconies, having phone conversations and so on. A little more than eleven days ago, I’d thought of this neighbourhood as having an old world charm: meaning transgressions were simply thought of as human. It was an escape from the new money sparkle and values of the rest of bustling, booming Bangalore. The lockdown has revealed the enemy for someone like me – femme, queer, Black – is much closer than I had previously thought.
This fear of the lyncher, the torcher, the killer next door doesn’t seem a far-fetched conceptualisation under the leadership of the present government in India. And if it was ephemeral, evanescent before the most recent amendment to the citizenship bill – where for the first time religion will be used as a criterion for nationality in a constitutionally secular nation – has confirmed that diversity will not be counted in this country any longer. And if that legal maneuver wasn’t enough to send shudders down the spines and chill the hearts of the various minority communities in the country leaving them with the question – Are we next on the chopping block? We were shown so with brute force. First: they attempted to silence the protests. Then: they killed and burned down houses in the worst communal violence – the nation’s capital – had seen in decades. And if we’d imagined that this virus – the cropping up of a common enemy – would put a stop to this pogrom against the Indian Muslim community, we were swiftly shown that there is always room for the unimaginable, that the impossible is nothing. (How twee that it echoes the capitalist sentiments of a corporation too?)
This unplanned, unprepared, unexpected lockdown announced at 8pm on the 24th of March by the Prime Minister was used as yet another publicity move for himself and his political party – like everything else he has done so far. Though, this time instead of playing the brash economic visionary that he’s hoodwinked us with before, he essayed the role of the family patriarch. And has shown us, he doesn’t just lack a wide range, he doesn’t have any depth of character either. Instead of a socio-economic plan to placate the populace during the pandemic, plate-banging on balconies as a show of appreciation for the health workers was offered up as a solution. And while he’d distracted all of us with his performance and passing sense of solidarity, the police were busy clearing up and dismantling the site of the 100-day Shaheen Bagh protest in New Delhi – the beating heart of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests – and other sit-in protests across the country. Yet again another attempt at erasing the dissent of Indian Muslims, and even a memory, a whiff of it. One wishes that the government took the same speedy efforts to sanitise and make hygienic the quarantine wards in hospitals and provide protective gear for health workers across the country.
If the Indian Muslim body was the site of dissent and deserved the State’s violence before, then it has only turned worse now in the time of this lockdown. Now: the body of the Indian Muslim has also turned into the site of the virus’ origin and seems doubly deserving of the State’s vitriol too. All guns and gun-throated anchors of the 24/7 news channel variety have turned their barrels to the Delhi headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat – an Islamic missionary movement – in the capital city’s Nizamuddin area for organising a meeting even before the lockdown was announced. And while the fact remains that this meeting has turned out to be a hotspot for the community transmission of the virus, it has given more reason to witch-hunt, scorn and vilify the Indian Muslim body, the Muslim citizen. If you follow the logic of the right-wing spin doctors, you’d be convinced that it was a bio-weapon that has been created by the Indian Muslim subject to destroy the dream of India as a Hindu State.
Why am I writing about the protests against the present government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, increasing State-sanctioned police brutality and violence, demonising of the Indian Muslim citizen, the failings of our Prime Minister, Home Minister and his government instead of focussing on the lockdown, the over twenty deaths (as of the eleven days of the 21-day lockdown) caused by this haphazard lockdown itself and not even the virus, the failures at the level of testing, medical-grade protective gear or hospital infrastructure or even the lack of an economic relief plan at this time of standstill? It is because everything before the arrival of this pandemic seemed to be leading to the undoing of many falsely-held beliefs. It felt like we had reached an impasse with the impunity with which the current right-wing government was acting and something was going to give. It felt we were tired of their myopic decisions that hadn’t borne any fruit and the communal cracks they were exposing in our communities. It felt like enough was enough.
In looking at this present government handle the situation has given me some hope even in these dark times. We are witnessing the falling apart of this polite consensus we call the State. We are realising that we should be asking for more solid commitments to humanity from our government – not eyewash. Things are terrible now: with the government requesting a gag order from the Supreme Court on the media’s releasing of information about the virus with editorial oversight by government officials that was thankfully denied. But increasingly, we’re being tasked with having to sift fact from fiction and with this looming stress, it might just be harder to do. But perhaps, this enforced isolation has given us the time to look around us and see that things are falling apart. Maybe we will use the time to see the way that deep-seated prejudices against creed, caste, class and the caravan of genders and sexualities have found their way into even seemingly non-partisan domains of power and authority.
I’ve come to hear the beginnings of whispers of something new emerging – and as always, we’ll have to turn to the bodies that have been subject to the violence of this system. Because if we can take care of our most vulnerable, we’ll be doing good by the rest of us. I’ve come to see the ways that these voices of difference, diversity and dissent are subverting pre-existing dynamics, and it feels like it will continue. In these times, we’ve come to see that our value systems must change, our ideas of a successful person and a first-world nation must change, our hopes for the future must change. Hopefully, the new world will be willed into existence.
After many, many hours of staring at this image, I’ve also come to see that the lone juvenile deer at the underground station has only one choice: it needs to get out of there. It feels like within the Indian context, people who wanted more for this nation and its citizenry were already pushed to do something, and hopefully this pandemic promises a path outside of these prisons we’ve built for ourselves too. I hope we’ll learn from the wisdom and whimsy of art, from the ways that marginalised bodies move through spaces and that the attitude of authority figures to the least of us speaks volumes. In each of these actions, gestures and moves, we are being given a blueprint to the other side. We need to get out of here. We can’t be here any longer.

Joshua Muyiwa © Suhas Entur
Joshua Muyiwa
is a Bangalore-based poet: who also uses performance and collaboration with artists across media as a way to present his poems outside of the publishing format to audiences. He is also a columnist – Gazing Outwards in the Bangalore Mirror and The Queer Take on Firstpost besides writing on the city, art and culture, and human interest stories on challenges faced by women and the sexual minority communities for various national and international publications.

When the future comes, in weeks or months, perhaps even a year, the world might not seem all that different. When we are no longer contained to the privacy of our homes—those of us who have homes to find refuge in—we can easily slip into the same old same old. The same ways of meeting our friends, of travelling carefree, of living out our days without constantly having to watch the world burn.

History has taken us through many epidemics. Populations have been wiped out by disease—natural or manmade. And despite those horrors, life seems to have moved on. What has persisted instead are prejudices and cycles of obliteration. Native Americans, those whose ancestors survived smallpox, are barely remembered as citizens. Anti-Semitism has thrived in the centuries following the Black Death. And today, people around the world are calling a virus “China-made.”

To move past disease, as a society, is not always to recover or heal from it. Often, it is to return to a kind of social equilibrium, a romanticised time before the crisis. But the past is a story of bloodshed. And to move on from crisis is a privilege not everyone can afford. Normalcy is calculated in permutations of economy and military strength. Those who continue to perish for it, are dismissed as collateral damage. The world has always been thus.

Locked in my fifth-floor apartment in an affluent Bangalore neighbourhood, I read the news. I scroll through Twitter and Instagram and Whatsapp forwards. I despair at the sight of people walking hundreds of miles to reach their villages—with the State having shut down all transport, migrant workers have no practical way to reach home. Some die of exhaustion along the way. Others starve. The few who are lucky to reach are blamed for the contagion. A healthcare worker makes them squat by the roadside, and hoses them down with bleach.[1]

I shout at people around me in rage, as if they could change the world. In the evening, equipped with mask and hand sanitizer, I walk five minutes to buy vegetables. I pair them with the Insta-friendly artisanal bread I baked that day, while, in a village a few hundred miles from my city, a farmer, with no way to sell his crop, pummels his cabbages into the earth.

This time is ripe for tyranny. For fascism to dig its heels into the ground, then trample it. The police brutalise those who have no choice but to be out on the streets. The Prime Minister calls for symbolic gestures in balconies—clapping hands, lighting candles—that will flash as propaganda across social media and television screens.[2] These are the portraits of what they call an emergency.

Emergency is not that doctors have no protective gear as they treat the infected. Emergency[3] is the muzzle over dissident voices, the weight upon bodies—certain wreckable bodies, always the same. Be sure, this isn’t a problem of the so-called third world. Calamity reveals the ugliest truths about how we treat others’ bodies, wherever we are. See who are being denied food, wages, and medical treatment in the richest countries in the world. Observe the lopsidedness of the news. Italy comes to us in videos of people singing from their balconies. But of China and Iran we see only grief and affliction. Dignity has always been a word with reservations.

To be horrified seems insufficient. To be unperturbed, more horrifying still. But if we are fortunate enough to have the time to ponder this conflict, perhaps it is also our responsibility to think about how we got here. The truth is, even when we aren’t living through a pandemic, someone who could have been spared is dying each moment. And it is the same set of powers at play now as were then—governmental neglect, corporate greed, middle-class apathy, caste dominance, patriarchy, racism, religious prejudice.

We might feel like the world is ending now and that too little is being done by the powerful to stop it. But every second, we who are reading this, are the powerful, too. Power is relational. And every second we live, someone else loses the bargain. That isn’t to say that we have been unsympathetic. But we have been able to look away quickly. It is the only way we have been able to maintain the ‘normalcy’ we cherish. The cycle of apathy is as old as power itself.

The difference now is that in these times of social isolation we have more time and fewer distractions to sit with information. To contemplate what seems—and is—morally wrong. The world’s cruelty  seems more proximate now, especially because we could be the victims. But such injustice ought to have troubled us even when it seemed far away, simply because someone else suffered.

To live every moment of joy with the guilt of being joyful is not what we need. Ethics are not meant to be a practice in self-flagellation. Instead we have immediate responsibilities to attend to. Donating money. Sharing food. Helping those near us in simple ways. But increasingly, I have found myself thinking beyond the coming weeks and goodwill.

The bolder and more difficult task is to consider this: now that we are burdened with sorrow for the world beyond us, what can we do?  When the pandemic is over, and the future comes, how will we live in that future? How can we not nestle back into the same old same old? There hasn’t been a better time to interrogate our responses.

The word “crisis” has its origins in biology. In Latin, it is the “decisive point in the progress of a disease,”  the point at which change must come, “for better or worse.” Tied to this definition is uncertainty—for better or worse. The future beyond crisis is not writ. What is etched is the past. There is nothing novel about the novel coronavirus in the way the powerful are reproducing their legacies. But if the future after crisis is not certain, then we can turn to the past to shape that future differently. A malleable future with open arms.  

For myself, I am not thinking of Herculean changes or playing saviour to the world. Instead, I have been thinking of the future in simple tasks: Vote responsibly. Speak patiently to family and neighbours with whom you disagree. Battle prejudice with information, not rants. Pay people better even when you believe you can’t afford to. Listen to what makes you uncomfortable. Make space. Take time. Rest. Show up.

Artists are often accused of idealism. I have often asked myself, what can art even do in a crisis? While art can’t replace a vaccine or a ventilator, it can remind us acutely that people are suffering. Art can disrupt complacence, work against apathy. It can indict, and it can build sanctuary. So many of us, through this period of isolation, have turned to music and books and cinema to hold us through.

“The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy,” Jeanette Winterson writes. “Art has more work to do than ever before but it can do that work. In a self-destructive society like our own, it is unsurprising that art as a healing force is despised.”  We are too quick to dismiss the efficacy of art because we assume that art is privileged escape. We deem escape an unworthy goal even though, by another word, it could mean solace. We forget that art has, for centuries, if not toppled governments, showed us when they need to be toppled urgently. And it has helped us find meaning in our fated, often tumultuous, lives.

After all, art is a responsive creature, made of the world it lives in. Whatever form it takes, it is a historical document. Today it might be reactionary or rabble-rousing. If it survives, it could be a lesson on how to inhabit the world differently. In its survival, art often does the necessary work of kindling hope.

To want to make sense of the world is not the right of a privileged few. Hope should not be guarded under lock and key. So maybe we shouldn’t be contesting the efficacy of art at all, but the fact that art has for too long been restricted to hallowed halls.

If we are thinking of what we might do to prevent us from repeating the blunders of history, maybe for artists, art can be our instruction. And it can be the terrain of rebuilding, too. For each of us, that will mean something different. But what we can agree upon is a basic vision—an idealistic, preposterous, ridiculous vision—that our paintings and poems and dances might roam in wider circles. This isn’t simply about making art accessible. But also reimagining whom our art speaks to, and who can speak back to it. Maybe then, art could break ground for the future, that promised land.

Poorna Swami © Sarah Martin
Poorna Swami
 is a choreographer, dancer, and writer based in Bangalore, India. Her performance work is interdisciplinary, with its roots in formal investigations of the body. She writes on literature, culture, and politics for various national publications.

[1] On March 24, 2020 the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced a three-week country-wide lockdown in an effort to battle the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, millions of daily-wage migrant workers across Indian metropolises were stranded without work, and were desperate to return to their villages. Because all forms of public transport had been suspended, workers were forced to make the journey by foot. On March 30, a large group of migrant workers who had returned from New Delhi to the Bareilly district in northern India were sprayed by hazmat-suit-wearing medical and fire department officials with what was later determined to be a solution of bleach and water. Knowing that the solution was hazardous, the officials had instructed the workers to close their eyes before they were sprayed.

[2] Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for two mass public gestures, supposedly meant to boost national solidarity in the face of the pandemic. The first was a call to all citizens to stand in their balconies at a designated hour and clap their hands to symbolically thank healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. The second was a call for citizens to light lamps and wave flashlights to fight darkness with light. Critics have called these incidents publicity stunts and government propaganda. The Central Government has been accused of disregarding the plight of the poor through the crisis, of failing to provide proper safety equipment to healthcare professionals, and of withholding crucial information on the progress of the disease by imposing what is, in effect, a media gag.

[3] With COVID-19, India is facing both a health and economic emergency. However, given the increasing curtailment of media and free speech, many of the current Indian government’s actions are reminiscent also of the official state of Emergency of 1975-77, during which the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was able to rule by decree.

Here are some more responses from intellectuals and artists around the world with regard to the present predicament and what lies in store for us afterwards.