That Claustrophobic Room of One’s Own

FEATURE:  That Claustrophobic Room of One’s Own / Sushma Sabnis

The world is locked down. A microorganism controls our systems, inside out. We have no ability so far to subdue it. These are the facts. However, there are those among us who embody optimism, the artists, the die-hard humans who believe we will survive like we always have. This ongoing article aims to gather those voices who continue to smile through unpredictable times…writes Sushma Sabnis.

Artist Maushmi Ganguly at her mural

In these turbulent times, it would be prudent to call the Coronavirus, the Truth virus for it held up a mirror to our most vulnerable selves dwarfing our ‘intelligent’ human egos. A Truth virus which unknowingly slit open the insidious veins of inequality and discrimination running deep beneath our polished exteriors.The Truth outed in an era of Post-Truth has reduced entire nations into political school-yard-bullies who oppress the weak into oblivion. The weak, as they have always suspected, face the inevitability of their absolute disposability at the whim and fancy of these bullies. The law enforcers themselves behave like perpetrators and the supposedly well-oiled Arc of global economy has buckled under a microscopic Kraken unleashed quietly into already economically sedate waters causing multi level tsunamis. Health ministries have often coughed up contradictory phlegmatic information about the remedial action, even as dubious websites hosted by religious zealots swear by the virtues of bovine scatology in fatal overconfidence. The virus lives on.

History is replete with examples of revival, survival and return to a normal life but it has usually happened after the pandemic has hurled it worst fatal blow. When all hope has been snuffed out, human will to survive and live to tell the tale have made it possible for libraries of memoirs and reminiscences of triumph over disconsolate times. One would note that the Italian Renaissance happened after the onslaught of the plague and the works of artists who survived the Spanish flu are proof that the candle of hope burnt till its end. Poets and bards, writers, playwrights, dramatists, dancers, musicians and song writers, painters and sculptors have all drunk from the same polluted pandemic pond to bring forth the most truthful and stirring works of the centuries.

In this, the 21st century, the coronavirus has evoked numerous reactions like depression, rage, helplessness to cheerful optimism. Social media, if it is any indication, has more viral videos of spontaneous culinary ‘geniuses’ in these difficult times than ever before and we find more impromptu singing sensations, performers, poets, writers, artists and activists all born on by the void that the virus has created in the wake of forced isolation. In the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ the narrator Red played by actor Morgan Freeman says, ’Like I said, in prison a man will do almost anything to keep his mind occupied’ and so seems to be the case with lockdown humanity today. Vocabularies have evolved and seminars are now webinars, and resistance gives way to adjustment and adaptation, virtual is more real than real itself.

World over one witnesses the blatant contrasts between empathy and apathy in all strata of humanity. The very pillars of human belief systems have been thoroughly shaken and every individual stands bare, fragmented, at the brink of changes dreading the future of the entire human race. Apart from the obvious uncertainty, unpredictability and lack of remedial measures, every aspect of the human world has collapsed around itself and incurred a serious loss. Humanity grapples with this loss, of freedom, of routines, of security and of faith in the future. Such crucial situations have brought numerous fears to the surface and while some live life in default mode, others fight a quiet battle within themselves. What is further disturbing is the insinuated post-pandemic scenario of the world which appears bleak as of now. Some artists however have cogently come up with responses to these situations while others choose a more philosophical approach.

Bangalore based psychologist Sarayu Vishwanath elucidates how the human ability to cope varies and the lockdown could actually for some, bring out behavioural changes for bettering themselves. Art according to her has always been a bridge and a solace for troubled minds and it is interesting to note that art has played the role of a catalyst to tide over brutal, unpredictable times for centuries. This article and the following ones aim to bring forth artistic responses from within ‘pandemic-ally coloured zones’ within the country. As we are aware there are now borders and boundaries which have been erected by the spread of the virus, turning people into refugees confined to their own refuges. These coloured zones depict the severity of the spread and the containment units, however one feels that within the recesses of the mind there are zones which have subconsciously cropped up because of the rules, regulations and the restrictive movements. Let us take a look at the works of some of the artists in isolation/containment who have been working at their home/studios recording and registering some of their experiences and exasperations in the manner of drawings, paintings, murals, sketches, and videos.

Mural by Akhilesh Kumar

Mural by Akhilesh Kumar

The Mumbai based collective Po10tial has always had a pulsating conscience and its numerous artists, past and present, have taken it upon themselves to address the pandemic the way they deem fit. Artists Maushmi Ganguly and Akhilesh Kumar are surviving with their two children in a containment zone in Mumbai as their art practice has been restricted to their home. Taking the onus of imparting a message to parents and children stuck at home away from colleagues and school friends, these conscientious parent-artists have created art works in the form of murals within their home with the help of their kids. The paintings/videos done as group activities stand as a testament to their concern and positive approach towards their isolation. 

In an email interview, Akhilesh reveals that he chooses to view the coronavirus as a warning given by Nature, the primary muse for his works, and believes that the virus wants to meet each human being, simply to prove that there is no discrimination of any kind in human beings. That it can infect, kill any and every one, nobody is special or resistant to its abilities and thus all humans are alike. He also reiterates that the ‘lockdown/isolation’ is not new to him as he works in his studio alone, spends hours in Mumbai’s traffic jams alone thinking about work, life etc, which has inadvertently prepared him for a locked down situation. When asked about survival as an artist if the lockdown extended for a year, Akhilesh believes that 80% of the artists community would succumb economically, as they were already struggling even before lockdown. He believes it would be very difficult to manage without paid work or actual sales. Limitations caused by the lockdown, bring about an experimentative bug in an artist, he believes and with the supplies at home, he has created an installation work, scripted a performance art work and a 6-7 min video work. He believes all of these would not happen if he had access to his studio. According to him, the improvised expression due to the lockdown, is a step ahead for him. 



Maushmi Ganguly’s work focuses on the philosophy of refinement of the body viewed as a receptacle. The simplistic forms of pots, containers have played as a metaphor either in drawings, paintings, video art or large scaled installations. The concept of body as a vessel for mental refinement is being further explored in her mural which she paints on one of her home walls during the lockdown. The valuable time to turn the enquiry inwards into one’s self is what she intends to show through this mural. For Maushmi, the mural is just a part of the ongoing process of a containment which is imposed for the benefit of the people in her area. She seems happy that there are no timetables dictating her day, and now there is enough time to spend with family and herself separately. There is a positive attitude in her as she looks at the possibility of a lengthening lockdown in spite of its economic ramifications, yet she believes an artist can survive it somehow. Her work tries to convey the redefining, refining and revisiting of the Self and pulling it through harsh times. 


Lockdown Diaries by Mrityunjay Kumar

Lockdown Diaries by Mrityunjay Kumar

Lockdown Diaries by Mrityunjay Kumar

Photographer Mrityunjay Kumar has a story to tell. Not just his own, but those of tribals or marginalised communities in an attempt to urge some relief and response from the system for their survival. The lockdown has hit Mrityunjay in the sense that his movement has been curtailed and as a documentary and street photographer, this could be seen as a blow to his livelihood. Human interaction is the very basis of his work and in a socially distanced, locked down scenario, this photography artist suffers silently. However, the creative force triumphs even as he creates a new series of works, ‘Lockdown Diaries’ using a window of his home as a ‘frame of reference’. This ‘lockdown window’ opens to the huge branches of summer flowering trees, but still within this green carpet the artist in him finds that small open clearing which frames the street below perfectly between two large branches. His pictures capture the single most rarity of a metro city like Mumbai – lack of human presence. And yet, almost yearning for human interventions, the artist has captured the masked sanitation workers, the masked police, the masked doctors and nurses in a hurry, the migrant family quietly walking home, masked individuals carrying groceries and rushing home, socially distanced bikers etc. Here is the irony of Mumbai, the decibel rich city that never sleeps, captured in its rare ‘silenced’ moments as seen by the artist. A belief that there are humans around, as almost holographic apparitions reassures Mrityunjay of possibilities in the future as seen in his works.

In the next article, we would be seeing how artists Devidas Agase, Mallikarjun Katke and Hema Mhatre from Mumbai,  and Soumen Bhowmick from Delhi and Suvanwita Saha cope with lockdown. 

Till then…

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