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Perspectives: Artists on Art, Survival and Relief During the Pandemic

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated India. As the rage of the virus ebbs and flows, the artist community weighs in on the triumph and toll of art.

Rolling Stone India Jun 11, 2021

Lending their perspectives, artists unveil the price and power of art during the pandemic. Photo (clockwise from top left): Andrew Whitton, Ron Bezbaruah, Pranab Doley, Ronit Sarkar.

For as long as we can remember, art has been a witness to history. Whether through a children’s nursery rhyme on devastating plagues (“Ring a Ring o’ Roses”), poems that encompassed a citizens movement (Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge”) or songs that documented climate change (Swadesi’s “The Warli Revolt”), artists have been the recorders and chroniclers of humanity’s triumphs and travails. As we collectively grapple with a difficult period, in the midst of the raging second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we turned to artists to ask them about how they now view their art. Lending their perspectives, veteran rockers Uday Benegal and Bruce Lee Mani, pop artist Mali, fusion musician Bryden Lewis, singer-songwriters Nikhil D’souza and Vernon Noronha, as well as Spotify India’s Vasundhara Mudgil, actor Ruhi Singh and digital creators Vaishnavi Naik and Vishal Pandey, stitch a telling tapestry of the times to unveil the price and power of art during the pandemic. Read below.

Last year, there was plenty of chat about “art healing” people with regards to the pandemic and how everyone at home relied on art to keep going. With how the situation is this year, even worse so than last year, from an artist’s perspective, do you think “art can heal us” right now”?

“It is your interaction and what you hope to get from that energetic output that can either work for you or not work for you,” says Uday Benegal. Photo: Pranab Doley

Uday Benegal: Art heals people every single day, in the worst of situations, in the best of situations. One has to broaden the definition of art itself. It doesn’t necessarily mean an intense form of creative output. In some way, even the commercial forms are artistic forms, because they’re all creative. Now, in terms of the healing part, it’s a matter of what you make of that art, whether it’s music or film, or dance or anything. It is your interaction and what you hope to get from that energetic output that can either work for you or not work for you. In terms of the music that people listen to, whether it’s upbeat music that causes you to dance, whether it’s melancholic music that takes you deeper into your own sense of grief or sadness, or whatever it is you’re going through, it has its own healing properties. Whether it’s music that you create or just music that you absorb, it absolutely, always, has the power to heal.

Mali: As artists, we have a responsibility to do either one of two things in a time like this. To provide a reasonable distraction from what’s going on, or to provide perspective on what’s going on and highlight issues that people are talking about, timestamp collective struggles in music or art. But I really do believe that any kind of art is important for people to get into at this time. Like my mum recently (she’s not an artist or anything) went to an art store and picked up a bunch of paints and canvases and she’s been painting. Every day, she talks about it as a form of achievement, and my dad actually even bought a painting from her. So it’s really cute and there’s something really gratifying about seeing something go from mere ingredients to a final product. It’s the same kind of satisfaction people get from cooking. And so I think art, being a self-care matter that’s viewable to everybody, is definitely something promising. 

Vernon Noronha: The only escape all of us have right now is a place of imagination and that spot has been frequented by artists. If there was no form of art around us, it would be difficult for anyone to get into an imaginary space. More so, art is keeping our hopes up. At a time where everything around us is dark, the different forms of art available around us is taking our minds off it and puts us in a good mood, and yes, healing us from the wounds of this current pandemic.

“I’ve been putting out a song every single day. And I’m doing this to keep myself in some frame of mind where I’m not angry, sad and miserable all the time,” says Bruce Lee Mani. Photo: Ron Bezbaruah

Nikhil D’Souza: I think it’s a much more complicated situation than last year. Last year, we thought it was temporary and mild and everything would be back to normal by the end of the year. We were hopeful, trying to make the best of our time, etc. I think this time around, the mind needs a bit of time to process the craziness we’re in. Art or creating art might be taking a back seat to survival and general anxiety for most of us. I think when we’ve emerged from the worst of it is when we can allow any sort of healing to begin.

Bruce Lee Mani:
I don’t know if it’s for healing people. For me, last year was difficult. I wasn’t in the state of mind that I am in right now and April was pretty, pretty crazy. It was pretty bad. And right now, I’ve been putting out a song every single day. And I’m doing this basically to keep myself in some frame of mind where I’m not, you know, angry and sad and just feeling miserable all the time. I’m just using it to channel all the things that are going on in my head into some creative direction. So that I feel reasonably okay during the day. Otherwise, it’s really not a great time going on. 

Bryden Lewis: I think art has healed us as a human race ever since the beginning of time. It’s therapeutic not only for the ones consuming it, but for the artists themselves too. You can see everyone consumes it in various ways, in their own capacity, and sometimes the message lingers. It comforts people and I’ve seen it bring people together. Artists themselves have turned into warriors; all of my artist friends have turned their following into platforms for information and help. I also see a lot of my artist friends indulging in art, especially as a way of coping, dealing, and healing. And in the process, it’s healing multiple people. While circumstances are much more grave than last year, right now we know the names of the people who are dying, we hear ambulances and it’s gotten closer to home than ever before. I think more and more people are holding on to the little rays of hope in times like these, in times of despair. I, myself, find art to be very therapeutic.

While there have been releases still coming out from artists and of course, it’s completely fair that they put them out as they’ve worked hard on them, at the same time, some artists have also held back releases owing to the current situation. What are your thoughts on this?

“Art serves to do two things: one is to distract from the situation, the other is to better express it,” says Mali. Photo: Ronit Sarkar

Uday Benegal: I would hold out and I am holding out. I’m not creating right now. I think honestly, for me, it feels to me a time right now for introspection and for going inward. I am not ready to put anything out as yet. Honestly, even if I did have a batch of songs right now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but I’m not saying I would wrestle with the idea. For one thing, the way things are right now in the country, on a holistic level, I just think, let the country and let the people in this environment go through the pain that they’re meant to go through and let them emerge from it before I would want to sort of say, ‘Hey, listen to my music and what I’ve been up to.’ So that’s my personal thing. On a separate level, on a secondary level, if one’s even looking at it strategically and from a business point of view, this isn’t really the best time to be putting out material if you’re hoping for any kind of commercial gain or any kind of attention. Like again, it all comes down to the individual, it comes down to the individual project. If I had created, for example, an ambient or semi-meditative or a meditative bunch of musical works with the intention of providing some kind of solace to people on an energetic level, now is the perfect time to put it out, healing music. But if I got a bunch of songs like, you know, just generally introspective songs about life in general and existentialism in general, I wouldn’t put it out right now, personally. Because I think people are really caught up at a crossroads. I think the human race is at a crossroads right now. And we should give it some time to settle down before we jump back into the next barrage of things we want attention for.

Mali: I recently had a chat with my friend. He just released a song and this is something that he was debating as well. He’d been working on this for over a year and for various reasons, it had been delayed. And finally, he took the decision to put it out, but a huge conundrum on everyone’s mind, if you’re releasing music or putting out any kind of art, is whether or not putting it out would be insensitive, given the circumstances. So it almost feels like putting art out that is relevant to what’s going on, suddenly starts becoming the norm. And that’s not necessarily the case. Like I said, art serves to do two things. I mean, one is to distract from the situation and the other is to better express it. And I really don’t feel like people should hold back. In fact, I think what we could do at this point is a distraction every now and then. And, yeah, though I understand where that’s coming from, I do have the luxury of having just released an album (Caution to the Wind) which to a great extent somehow automatically lines up with what’s going on and it’s been easier to talk about it. But yeah, it’s definitely hard for people who’ve worked super hard on it and had these deadlines in mind and timelines and they’ve had to completely revisit and reschedule all of that. It takes a huge toll on you as an artist, especially when you’ve invested time and money from your own end.

Vernon Noronha: Tough call here, but again this goes back to your question about art healing people. A song can work in many ways, and maybe a new release can connect with someone in need. There are many who find comfort in music and there’ll be others who’ll light up knowing that their favorite artist will be releasing new music. And right now, there’s a big need of cheering up people at home.

“I personally feel that as artists we should look at our art and creating music as a ‘job’ and not as a hobby,” says Nikhil D’souza. Photo: Andrew Whitton

Nikhil D’Souza: Firstly, I think some artists are genuinely affected by the current situation and feel like there are more important things right now that they can use their time and influence to do — like amplifying the needs of others. Secondly, the perception among artists is that releasing music and asking people to stream it might come across as insensitive to the desperate situation around us. I personally feel that, as artists, we should look at our art and creating music as a ‘job’ and not as a hobby. If people who work in media/advertising/accounting are not holding themselves back from doing their jobs, we shouldn’t have to either. Third, there’s another category of artists who feel this might not be the right time to release their work purely because they think that most people are not in the mood for it; I don’t have an opinion here since it’s a matter for quantitative research.

Bruce Lee Mani: I can’t speak for other people and what makes them tick at this time. I’m just kind of doing it for myself and putting it up. And if people like it, and listen, and if they think that it makes a difference, great. This is not a commercial thing, I’m not monetizing it in any way. In terms of the band (Thermal And A Quarter) and releasing [music] right now, we were actually in the middle of writing our ninth album, and we have four songs done and we were supposed to be in the studio in the middle of April. But, of course, that’s not happened. And now it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll get back to doing that. So yeah, this is just me sitting at home and trying to put some energy into something productive, that’s all. 

Bryden Lewis: As for releases from artists, I think it primarily has to do with the state of mind and the state of being. There are multiple reasons for a release to happen and not happen. I think primarily it’s from a business angle as well because in order to back a release, you need to tour with it, you need to perform, you need to go live, you need to talk to your audience and there’s so much of a back end solution that is needed at a time of release. Honestly, not too many artists are inspired or in the mood to celebrate anything at this point. I think it’s getting harder and harder to put something out with conviction and to honestly celebrate it loud and proud. The more indie you are, the more in control you are of things, but if you’re tied with a platform or with labels, you’re obligated to put something out, and it’s really not in your control at different levels. To each their own. I don’t think there should be any room for judgment for art to be released because art is great in any case. 

And if you must know, Bryden-Parth, we are on the verge of releasing our debut album, but we haven’t recorded it yet, and we’re obviously holding back on doing that anytime soon because of the circumstances around us, the lockdowns and everything. It’s been the hardest period for us ever since we started six years ago. We have so much in our control and yet, we don’t have so much in our control. This was supposed to be the most exciting time for us but we feel defeated more than anything. Honestly, we’re just holding on by a thread to keep our minds together as a band and to get through this. For now, the focus is on surviving this, it’s keeping everyone safe. The lineup and our families. I think that’s most important right now.

While it’s challenging for anybody, including artists to survive in this climate, apart from creating brilliant works of art, do you think there’s more the artist community can bring to the table and help towards matters related to the pandemic?

“The one advantage that the artist community has is using their audience and fan following to get the message out,” says Vernon Noronha. Photo: Sukruti Anah Staneley

Uday Benegal: Artists are often called upon to get involved in these fundraising events, to help out people. And yes, there was a brief surge of it last year when the industry said we need to look at ourselves. The entertainment industry, whether it’s music, film, drama, theater, dance, whatever it is… because there are plenty not just onstage in your face, or in the limelight performers, but there’s a massive operation, a massive crew of ancillary supports to this entertainment business that we need to give attention to. So my question here often is who are you raising funds for? I mean, I’ve done stuff like this in the past, but today I would be very reluctant. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in doing it. But by and large, when activities like this happened, my point is, who are you raising money for? And why is it that artists are called to do more fundraising things? Unfortunately, the other aspect of what the music industry has turned into is it’s very difficult to raise one’s funds through music anymore. People don’t want to pay for music. So even if I put out an album and I had all the best intentions… I’ll say 100% of the proceeds of this album are going to go towards COVID relief, my first problem would be how the hell do I sell this stuff? Who’s gonna pay for it? I’m sure they’re gonna be many questions being asked these days, questions like how to take something like this and grow it into a worldwide support system? It’s not just a community-based thing anymore. When I say community, I mean music community or film community, it’s human beings, it’s society at large.

Mali: I mean, unfortunately, at the end of the day, we are artists. I think creating art is the biggest thing we have going for us, at least people who have released music, who have built up somewhat of a following on social media, it’s the greatest resource we have at this point. Besides, our ability to create art is really our ability to influence people. It’s a powerful tool, and I think that should be used wisely. Some people are picking their battles and I think that’s a really important thing. At this point, you can’t really help fight a pandemic and the entire fallout of it from just posting Insta(gram) stories. It doesn’t work that way. But there are people taking the initiative to post specific things, like some people prefer to post about oxygen availability in different cities, some are posting requests for plasma donors and all of that. Some people will post more about fundraisers, some people post about the misinformation that is spreading. So, I think it’s great that everybody seems to be doing their own part. 

Also, I know that there are a bunch of artists who are creating fundraisers like the F16s for example, they literally just released something which they are selling and the proceeds of it are going towards NGOs helping with COVID relief. And some people are doing live-streamed concerts as fundraisers. So I think the artist community is really doing as much as we possibly can. 

Vernon Noronha: The one advantage that the artist community has, while being at home, is using their audience and fan following to get the message out. And while I say this, artists are already doing their bit and it’s really heartwarming to see that. Of course, so many of us can’t and should not go out, so this is probably the best thing they could do for others in need right now.

Nikhil D’Souza: Artists could use their social media and influence to amplify genuine needs, as most have been doing. Also as artists, as thinkers, who can look at our current situation from artistic/unusual points of view, those of us who are capable should focus on interpreting and preserving the current time — the love, hate, despair, loss, hope — in our work. Some have written songs, poetry, created artwork incorporating these things and they are necessary as a record of this time we’re living in.

“I think the entertainment industry needs very strong representation on the government front. Like in the indie scene, there should be guilds and associations that give relief to people who are at the absolute end of things. It should be more of a viable option to be an artist in India,” says Bryden-Parth’s Bryden Lewis. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Bruce Lee Mani: Well, artists that have the wherewithal to help are going to do it, but there are so many other artists who need help themselves, you know. And that’s the tough situation here. But there are many people who have depended on music and so on. Of course, they are teaching and trying a lot of things right now, but it’s been really hard. So like, for us, yes, we’ve got the school, so we’ve been okay over the last year, and we’re doing our bit in terms of already quite a few inquiries for this year for doing charity gigs and so on. And we’ve been completely open. So that kind of stuff is happening. It’s too big to really sit and analyze what different people are doing, what different communities are doing. It’s hard to even hold the whole thing in your head and to even continue caring about it after a while. How much can you care? How much can you be angry? How sad can you be? After a while, you’re just doing what’s in front of you. 

Bryden Lewis: I think the entertainment industry, as a whole, needs very strong representation on the government front. You know, like in the indie scene or in the Bollywood scene or film and this and that, there should be guilds and associations that at least give relief to people who are at the absolute end of things. It’s just insane to see everyone scrambling and left on their own, when we are such a large family and such a large unit. I know a lot of people are doing individual compensation and charity even, but that’s not the solution. We need this to be a little more organized, and it should be more of a viable option to be an artist in India and in the world. It’s 2021 and things should only get better for us, but I think a pandemic like this has destroyed careers. I know so many artists who are not artists anymore only because of financial reasons and whatnot.

As for contributing towards what’s going on around the pandemic itself, I feel artists are doing plenty by just turning their pages into mass platforms of information. I don’t see that even on government platforms and social media pages of government employees. I think that’s already a great way of helping. 

Mali: Our job as entertainers and artists doesn’t end just because we don’t have a stage to perform on. In fact, I feel like because we have something like social media, we have the Internet, we all have the ability to create content. We shouldn’t stop. It’s in our best interest to continue to power through the situation so that post-pandemic, we have a slightly higher chance of resuming work with the audience we began with. It’s important that we all fight to stay relevant and that we keep pushing, we keep putting out stuff, as per our pace and capacity, and take each day as it comes until this whole thing is finally in the backburner. Another important thing for artists during this time is being willing to change plans in the spur of a moment, to adapt to the situation. For example, I had a completely different release plan and a completely different release timeline for this album and I’ve had to change the order of the songs and create content on the go. I did some sort of crowdsourcing. I managed to plan a really tight shoot twice for two music videos. All of it was challenging but you need to just be able to put yourself out there and say you know what, if we have a shot at making something, I think we should do it. If it doesn’t work, or if it does, you still have a great story to tell at the end of the day, so just keep it going.

What are your professional and personal observations, over the past four months, since February?

“Independent, Indian Pop and Punjabi music have been consistently released,” says Vasundhara Mudgil. Photo: Spotify India

Vasundhara Mudgil:  There have been regular music releases in the last three months. As you can imagine, the film releases continue to be limited across Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu (Radhe was the only big-ticket release) as the lockdown prevailed, but non-film music continued its journey. There was no evident slowdown or increase. Independent, Indian Pop and Punjabi music have been consistently released. Listening dynamics remain more or less the same. The last three months have been volatile in the country, so we’ve seen consumption go up and down, but remain steady overall. It is in line with what the overall audio streaming industry is witnessing.

“Take your judgment out of the equation and tune into your sense of humanity. India has emerged as a very united country during these times; people across the nation are helping each other out,” says Ruhi Singh. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Ruhi Singh: Everybody is grieving, everybody is trying to heal, everybody is trying to do their bit to support each other. On top of that, we’re all also supposed to be paying our bills. The healthiest thing to do right now would be to not interfere and judge other people’s way of working during this time. Let people be. Do what suits you, do what’s right for you. Focus on yourself and your family, and keeping your loved ones safe. Take your judgment out of the equation and tune into your sense of humanity. India has emerged as a very united country during these times; people across the nation are helping each other out. I think the artist community too is reflecting the times and it’s great to see us all banding together to amplify aid and resources during the pandemic.

Our content is glamorous and it looks like we don’t care about the outer world. But that’s not true. Just like others, even we are working from home,” says Vaishnavi Naik. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Vaishnavi Naik: We influencers are working from home and are making our content. The only difference is that our content is glamorous and it looks like we are enjoying and don’t care about the outer world. But that’s not true. Just like others, even we are working from home and posting our content which people watch and enjoy, which makes them forget about their worries for a while. Everyone has their own perspective to look at this scenario. Posting content or not is completely a creator’s choice. Unfortunately, many people have lost their jobs in this pandemic. But that can’t be the end of the world. Many startups and new influencers have been born in this pandemic. And I feel this could only happen because the artist inside them woke up and that’s why they could bring new ideas for themselves to survive. That’s the power of art.

“This is the time for all artists to come together and support our nation however we can,” says Vishal Pandey. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Vishal Pandey: The lockdown has given me a new perspective towards my art. I relied on my art to heal me and to survive. I hope I can reach my fans and also make them feel the same way during this pandemic. As artists, we work hard to portray characters and promote them. While the release date is the prerogative of the director and the producers, my personal thinking is that the work shouldn’t stop. Apart from entertaining people, work is also providing employment to hundreds of people. If we stop the releases and the work, how will hard-working people earn their living? The show must go on, but maybe be aware and sensitive towards the situation around us.

We always have many eyes on us and people are kind enough to listen to what we have to say. We can use this power to create awareness, fundraisers, helpline numbers and help others. People are coming together to create awareness and share resources. This is the time for all artists — influencers, creators, actors, celebs — to come together and support our nation however we can.


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