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Creativity and Corona: Responses of Artistes

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Dil dhundta hai phir wohi fursat ke raat din

Baithey rahe tasavvur-e-jaana liye huye…

Garmiyon ki raat jo purvaiyaan chaley

Thandi safed chadaron pe jaagey der tak 

Taaron ko dekhtey rahe chhat par parey huey…

My words for Gulzar’s lyrics taking off from a Ghalib couplet?

Once more, my heart seeks 

Those days and nights of leisure, 

To simply lose them

In thoughts of the beloved!

Or, the balmy summer night 

When the Easterly breezes in,

To stay up till it’s dawn 

Only gazing at the stars…

Lying on cool white sheets 

Spread out on the roof…

Gulzar Sa’ab, how many more stanzas would you add to these lines, now that we have endless fursat ke raat din (days and nights of leisure)? 

A lot of people are seeking — no, not days and nights of leisure but ways to harness the close-door hours that are stretching on and on, yet leading to heated debates the world over whether to end or to extend the lockdown for some more days/weeks/months…

Meanwhile, the students and teachers of FTII — Film and Television Institute of India — have been making short films exhorting us to stay at home. Bollywood stars led by Amitabh Bachchan and including all others, have made a comedic short wherein they’re all searching for Big B’s misplaced chashma or glasses — from the confines of their individual homes.

Celebrated actor-director Aparna Sen has used the distancing hours to translate and audio recite evergreen poems of Tagore and Jibanananda. Members of the Contemporary Dance group Sapphire have been recording their creations conceived and executed in artistic isolation. Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad of Windows have come up with a series beginning with Hing or Asafoetida, a short about how being locked at home is providing new insights into the role of homemakers. Director Debesh Chatterjee has used Nabarun Bhattacharya’s concept of Fyataru – flying humans – to cinematically comment on the plight of people stockpiling food. 

With Tobu Maney Rekho (But Remember),  actor-anchor Aparajita Ghosh has initiated Galpo Toru, an audio series recording stories by contemporary authors from Bengal and Bangladesh. My dancer-actor niece Priyamvada Kant, living in Mumbai away from her Delhi-based parents, has made a short that asserts social distancing does not mean Dil Se Door (Far from the Heart). Documentarist Arindam Saha Sardar has crafted Ghaire Baire (Home and Outdoor), and Manush O Maanchitra (Contours of Human Subsistence), both involving his seven-year-daughter, Rupkatha. But what I’ve been most taken up with is You Can Fly by Kumaar Chowdhury wherein a little boy climbs up to the  roof or chhat and lets loose his imagination… 

Because? It comes closest to my experience of rediscovering the chhat — the key word of Gulzar’s lyric from the feature film, Mausam. Every flagstone of the open terrace on my house in Kolkata is shining like marble. Not one dry leaf in sight, and not just crows but doves and sparrows, bulbuls and mynahs are flocking to drink  from the earthen gamlas (basinets) I fill up for them. Ever since Biplab and Biru — the brothers who water my obsession with plants — bowed down to the lockdown, I have been going up to the terrace sharp at 6 pm, armed with a khurpi (hand trowel) and pruning shears. The hundred-and-more plants have never been so happy. The buds are blossoming into lilies and roses, adenium and petunia, genda and mogra, jaba and sthal padma, birds of paradise and orchids too!

This has prompted my husband to spend an hour in the morning and three every evening on the rooftop. The morning walk up the stairs mitigates his lack of exercise, and he paces the terrace too — a necessary part of the recovery process prescribed by doctors for his recent illness. And in the evenings he lies on a cot looking up at the stars and listening to music and jokes and stories on his handset. 

But bear with me: this piece is not about us. I have been amazed to see how many people have brought their so-far neglected rooftops back to life. Biswanath, CA by profession, finishes his brisk 30-minute walk on the house to our left. And on my right Bubai, my son’s childhood mate — in forced separation from his wife and baby girl stranded in Pune — is watering the plants for his mother. Across the street, Kailash has been putting to good use the cycle his ailing Mama is unable to exercise. As the boys are back from their campuses, the Bagadias next door have added clotheslines to sun-dry the joint family’s washing. One house away, I spot Aalo’s Dada assiduously keeping his mask in place when he alternates with his wife on the rooftop walks! From the adjacent terrace Ramola Di waves back a “Howdy?” in reply to my “Kemon achho (How are you) ?”

Diagonally across, on the rooftop of a multi-storied structure, I see three heads — one salt-n-pepper, one bald, one raven black — bobbing up and down.

“Are they playing badminton?” I wonder to myself. For, the terrace of the stand-alone next to theirs has been converted into a maidan by a lone child who’s scoring run after run with his football!

This brat, away from school, is not wanted downstairs where his mother is juggling with the mopping-chopping-cooking-serving-washing-cleaning as her kaajer mashi (home help) cannot relieve her from the drudgery of chores, while his father gravely sits before his laptop to comply with the ‘work from home’ ruling of his bosses. This child is not allowed to play with the neighbourhood kids, nor is he permitted to fiddle with his parents’ mobile phones. Lonely? He is. Forlorn? He is not. For he has his football, his terrace, and the liberty to let his imagination fly!

It is this liberty to fly, riding on imagination, that has fuelled the aforementioned Creativity in the countdown times of Corona. For, as Vilayat Khan once said to me, “If I don’t play my sitar for 2-3 days, saaz bhi kitne nakhre kartey hain ( even the chords will play up)! I have to put so much effort to appease them before I can tune them.”

A true artist can, then, never sit idle.

Remember Bengali litterateur Manik Bandopadhyay’s Madan Tanti? When the weaver of classy Balucharis grew tired of idling the days of bandh (strike), he sat on his loom all night, weaving the warp and weft — without a single strand of thread!

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screen writer Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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