I cannot forget the start of the lockdown – it was exactly a week after my grand-daughter Kai turned four. At her birthday party, there was a ‘last fling’ air. My son said, ‘Remember today because soon we will be confined to our homes’. Exactly a week later the Prime Minister announced the lockdown: ‘Stay home, save the NHS’.
What were the immediate repercussions? Yes, the Songs of the Heart tour Kadam had been working towards, a unique re-imagining of ragas and arias interpreted through abhinaya, had to be put into cold storage. The photographic exhibition scheduled to launch the Banyan Tree project in Luton’s Storefront Gallery, for which we had been measuring up, was now not going to take place. The breathless excitement of delivering a new show and a new exhibition, that adrenaline-fired, full-of-a-sense-of-purpose high was now a busted biscuit.
Was the lockdown personally that dreadful? I have to confess that I am locked down in comfortable circumstances – I have a generously large house and garden; a beloved garden that I have never managed to look after properly, until now. Also, by chance, I am locked down with my colleague and her family, an ‘in-house community’. Kadam has work, as our publishing activities are online anyway. And to cap it, we were successful in securing a National Lottery Heritage award to upload back issues of Pulse on the net. I don’t want to sound smug, but I am grateful that Kadam is okay in the circumstances. However, the pain of our freelance colleagues whose earnings are going up in smoke is a concern and the income we could have provided for our regular freelancers through the ACE Emergency funds has not come through.
There have been some sparkling personal artistic highlights: National Theatre’s co-production with Bristol Old Vic of Jane Eyre, and Howard Brenton’s The Arrest of Ai Weiwei and Drawing the Line by Hampstead Theatre streaming straight into the living room. In normal times, having to keep abreast with dance doesn’t leave free evenings to see much else, so I am very thankful for this opportunity. The sheer originality and edginess of these productions brought home once again how Britain is a world leader in the arts and especially theatre. Sadler’s Wells, ENO and The Globe have been offering mouth-watering treats which certainly softened the blow of the lockdown. On a small scale, the South Asian dance community came together aided by Mira Kaushik and the Manch UK platform to bring stories of dance artists in their own words. It’s not a TV-style confessional, but in the course of the telling some truth escapes.
The acceleration in the use of virtual platforms has been an outstanding outcome of the lockdown, and one from which there will be no turning back. I have been able to continue my weekly Odissi dance class and meditation practice through remote sessions. The class numbers are ballooning – lapsed Odissi practitioners from Dorset in England to Madison, Wisconsin can join in. Truly mind-boggling! Dance teachers have been able to take this opportunity to expand their intake of students. Online classes can never replace the studio session, but certainly, it can be an extension of class teaching, and a boon for the geographically more isolated.
Similarly, working from home, aided by Zoom meetings, has opened up an environmentally-friendly alternative. In a recent training session in Oral History for Kadam’s Banyan Tree Heritage project (collecting life stories of South Asian dance artists), we were able to gather participants from Liverpool, Leicester and London over two half-days, savings hours of travel and dollops of budget. Board meetings need not be such a nightmare to organise; used wisely the virtual set up makes a huge contribution to efficient working.
With the freed-up time and the slowing of pace, one does have more time to stand and stare. Has the spring ever broken more beautifully in all these years? The succession of flowers in the garden – from the yellows of the daffodils in March, through the blues of the bluebells that carpet the woods in April, to the white blossoms of pear that come before the apple which is tinged with pink – have all been clocked. In the socially-distanced meetings in the front garden with four-year-old Kai, we have watched the bumblebees in the cotoneaster and noted a white stripe below the yellow and black on its tail. Why have I never seen it in sixty years?
However, awareness does not stop at the boundary walls of my home. I am acutely aware of how the pandemic has laid bare our grotesquely unequal society. We know that those most at risk are the front line workers: NHS doctors, nurses and cleaners, care home workers, bus and train drivers and supermarket staff. These jobs (excluding doctors) are the most undervalued and the lowest paid. Yet these workers are the ones protecting and caring for us. Will the government remember when this is over? Will it invest in its National Health Service? Will the British populace remember the party that was proposing universal free broadband (and got laughed at), and now so many children have been left out of online learning for lack of access to the internet? These thoughts go through the mind off and on throughout the day. We are stuck with the present government for the next four years, so finally all I can do as an individual is to hold on to values that put public and community above purely personal and individual interest.
As artists and dancers we know that in the final analysis what is seeing us through this crisis is the balm of music and poetry and the physical sensation of the stretch and the twist, the lunge and the plié. Our collective energies coalesce as we perform a movement together, although in spaces removed by a few or thousand miles. We breathe in as a single unit, and in that moment become aware of our collective humanity.