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VIEW: Overcoming the COVID-19 challenge for theatres

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Today, as we battle a dreaded virus that has barred entry to theatres, the online broadcast of performances by the SOI and our other genres including Indian and international music and dance is much looked forward to by audiences beyond Mumbai and India.

VIEW: Overcoming the COVID-19 challenge for theatres
To attempt in a short article my journey to a position which suited me like a glove is daunting. It is also disconcerting to recount how the performing arts have reached where they have, after COVID-19, given the intimate role they have played in my life. The background at home, where there was talk of music and exposure to musicians, influenced the shaping of my very personality. A long tour of Europe with my parents and a group of art and music lovers, when I was 15, was an eye-opener, and I recommend it strongly to all parents to take their mind off money-oriented values.
I went through my education and joined my father’s legal firm as an article clerk but realised that grey courtrooms were not for me. After serving as one of the founders of India’s first mineral water company, Bisleri, I joined the Tata Group in perhaps its smallest company, Lakmé, and stayed there for 30 years. As I was about to retire, I was often called up by Dr. Jamshed Bhabha to talk about the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). He was fascinating, full of projects that seemed both impractical and financially disastrous. His extraordinary vision was misunderstood, though, and I gradually came to recognise its sheer breadth. His great monument in Mumbai, the NCPA, a multi-theatre cultural centre, had the stout support and appreciation of J.R.D. Tata. Even today, Tata Trusts and companies are our major backers.
When I joined the NCPA, I set about trying to reorganise it on the basis of my corporate experience. I realise now that administration of a performing arts centre is completely different and is more of an art than a science. You need to deal with artists of different genres who have diverse views on what is best for not only the NCPA, but also for their area of specialisation.
There is also the usual prejudice one has to face on why Western music is relevant at the NCPA. My answer is simple. It is one of the greatest art forms recognised universally, and if all the five continents have their own symphony orchestras, why should India or indeed south Asia be deprived of this vital aspect of global culture. Thus was formed the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), which had fortuitous beginnings. Having heard Marat Bisengaliev’s superb leadership of a small group of string players at a concert in London, I brought my proposal to Dr Bhabha, who agreed that the music director should be invited for a concert to evaluate them. After three visits, I asked if Marat would consider forming a professional orchestra but with as many Indians as possible. He agreed, subject to quality—and the rest is history.
Today, as we battle a dreaded virus that has barred entry to theatres, the online broadcast of performances by the SOI and our other genres including Indian and international music and dance is much looked forward to by audiences beyond Mumbai and India. The performing arts, meant to be enjoyed in a gathering, have been severely hit by the pandemic, and artistes, who thrive on the energy of a live audience, are suddenly facing the prospect of performing before empty seats and inanimate objects.
Yet, as artists and organisers embrace the digital medium, it is art that is bringing comfort to people confined to their homes the world over. Opera houses and theatres are showcasing archival material on online platforms, socially distanced string quartets are live-streaming their performances in empty concert halls, classical vocalists are organising Facebook baithaks (sittings), as are our own members of the orchestra, who have been performing works by famous composers from their homes and having them stitched together to be released on social media. Every working day of the lockdown, department heads and senior executives at the NCPA have discussed the ever-evolving situation and carefully chosen worthy performances—both of recent origin and from our archives—and made them available to a vastly appreciative public online under the NCPA@home broadcast series.
The lockdown has also been a good time to ruminate and discuss the way forward in many respects. This shake-up, and that’s what I call it, could help turn adversity into an advantage. We are looking at innovative ways of presenting our archival and future programmes captured on camera for international consumption, which will widen our audience. It has been our endeavour to bring the best of global performances to Mumbai, but now is also the time to take the best from our theatres to the world.
Undoubtedly, nothing can match the live theatre experience of a performance. But until audiences start trickling into concert halls again, the experience we have gained in disseminating our performances through digital media will stand us in good stead. Also, we will have to tackle the perception of audience members sitting at a distance from each other. It is not exactly the great social and artistic occasion that one cherishes, but the challenge can be overcome by making the performance and our venues as welcoming as possible so that the experience would merit the cachet of saying, “We spent an evening at the NCPA.”
We have to learn to adapt, and that is what we are training to do. The inspiration of our founding fathers always energises us into thinking differently.
—Khushroo N Suntook is chairman, National Centre for the Performing Arts. The views expressed are personal

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