India’s only daily art newspaper

Sunday Read: Art In The Times Of Adversity

The Pothi Team revisits the pandemic and tells you how art and artists have negotiated such events in the past and why the ‘new normal’ has been about finding newer solutions in experiencing and making art


First of all, let’s start with an apology. Sorry, but the pandemic has to be brought up one more time. Not only because it is making a comeback in Maharashtra currently. This most esteemed virus has gnawed on every facet of life, including cultural institutions, ever since the lockdown started in March last year. And it looks like life will never be the same again.

For instance, all the greatest art festivals of the world, like Art Basel were severely affected by the virus. The art fair, which goes on for a week, attracts over 80,000 people from around the world. Hundreds of galleries showcase thousands of artists, who often make very decent sales and do not have to worry about the rest of the year. An entire business eco-system springs up around the fair, with hotels in Basel filled to the brim. Restaurants to places of historical interest also get a huge chunk of these visitors. It’s not just an art fair, but a celebration of what it means to be human.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the last five years, has brought the city over $1.5 billion. Obviously, having to shut its doors due to the coronavirus means a huge loss of revenue. The NGMA in New Delhi too went visitor-less for a long time due to the pandemic.

The thing about visual art is that it is site-dependent. You can watch a music concert online and enjoy it, though you would miss the vibe of a real concert. The audience itself enhances an event it is watching. With visual art, the fun is even lesser because, well, how can the Guernica have the same impact on a computer screen? If you are the kind that likes installations, it is even worse.

In short, these were serious problems and, often, serious problems generate ingenious solutions. Does COVID have a silver lining for the art world after all?


The pandemic forced museums and galleries to not only go online but also adopt better technologies to make their collections available virtually. Immersive tech made virtual viewing a lot more life-like and fun, and online sales curved upwards. The new normal, incidentally, began to bring in new business. For instance, Sotheby’s held over 100 online sales between March and June, with almost 30% being new buyers. Sales touched $200 million during the period, a real boom considering that in the same period in 2019, sales stood at $23 million from 40 online sales.

Ironically, the lockdown made people understand the value of the arts even more. The oft-cited opinion that art did not have practical value did not seem like a valid viewpoint anymore. It isn’t just the tangible that makes life bearable turned into a mantra during the lockdown. Artists too became far more productive during this time. Without the pressure of “producing” work as per the needs of a gallery or an agent, artists had time to meditate on their work, they could work at leisure and the result was an amazing body of global art that documents our collective history with great insight.

A piece of art that generated worldwide attention was by Nathan Wyburn, an artist from Cardiff. Inspired by the ‘Clap for our Carers’ in March, he invited frontline hospital staff to send their photographs and turned it into a portrait of a health worker with a mask on. It was a collage that contained over 200 photographs. This picture was widely shared on social media, especially by NHS workers. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to the frontline COVID army, something that would have never happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

Artists also took on the job of educating the public about the pandemic with street art. It was a great proof of concept – that artists make a significant dent in how a society thinks and behaves. Indian artist lit up the streets of Bengaluru with colourful murals that sought to raise awareness about the coronavirus and it worked really well. Colour, form and the narratives in the murals were a happier way of talking about an event that took so many lives. And there are countless such examples.

The pandemic firmly established the artist as the mirror through which a society reflects upon itself. The artist as the keeper of a people’s conscience seemed a far clearer idea now. The elitism that surrounds art and the exclusivity of the gallery system broke down considerably, as art spilled onto public spaces and smartphone screens everywhere. In fact, it would be fair to say that art became a part of the survival toolkit.

Conflict and creativity

The thing about creativity is that it tends to happen when there is some kind of strife or tension in the world. However, it is not necessary that inner strife makes for better art. In fact, many artists do better when their everyday lives are in balance. What we are talking about here is external conflicts like war, pandemic, political unrest and so on.

Some of the best poems were written in Latin America by poets who lived in the midst of bloodshed and political


violence. Pablo Neruda was in the thicket of Chilean political upheavals, and the rise of Pinochet deeply disturbed him. In fact, about five years back Chile admitted that the Nobel Prize-winning poet was probably murdered by the Pinochet regime, and did not die of cancer. This incident is a substantial proof of the fact that art impacts the world far more deeply than we give it credit.

The lockdown probably has been the most influential event in contemporary history. As we said yesterday, the curbing of personal and social liberty, the helplessness due to a lack of a vaccine and the immense contagiousness of the novel COVID-19 virus drove many artists in all firmaments to express how they felt. The isolation created that requisite space for meditation and deeper thinking, and it resulted in some very poignant pieces of art.

Why not hear what the pandemic did from the horse’s mouth? Here is what two working artists have to say about the lockdown and the subsequent influence of it on their practice:

“Keep rebooting, never get stagnant”

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, a few artists like 31-year-old Ishan Kshirsagar had one thing on their side — they were used to constantly challenging their art practice and reinventing themselves anyway.

The young Pune-based creator, who has been freelancing as an artist for the last seven or eight years now, has a prolific list of artistic pursuits to his name — branding, designing, packaging, painting, interior design, antique refurbishment craft, wall murals, exhibitions, art heritage walks, children’s workshops and more. But despite him being an experimentative artist, the viral outbreak was not devoid of impact for him. “Suddenly, many artists were out of work, as were people in other sectors. Moreover, at least initially, everyone was conserving their buying power amid all the uncertainty,” shares Ishan.

“At this point, I had already decided long ago to never limit myself to a particular canvas that could get stagnant or frustrating. I always believe in broadening my perception of how to manoeuvre around art. And so, I decided to reach out to people, instead of waiting for them to come to me. I reduced the size of my paintings and began focussing on palm-sized watercolours, making at least one every single day. These were sold at throwaway prices that could be affordable to all, and in this process, I began creating something sustainable and consistent. At the same time, the pandemic brought an opportunity for people from all walks of life to go inwards a little bit and think about the spaces they are in, and why a little art could be essential to these places. In a way, it was a golden mean of sorts for art.”

Any lockdown trends he thinks will carry on? “One thing many people realized when they were cloistered at home was that they usually splurged a lot of money on retail therapy and unplanned buying in sales or online — which they didn’t always need to. People began to think a little about how and where they are spending. At the end of the day, art is viewed as a luxury. With more reluctant spending, art needs to step out of its gilded cage and connect with the masses about its essence in their lives. Artists should represent their art so that people want to come and buy it. If art spaces have shut down, community centres and cafes have welcomed art. We can always find new ways to collaborate as artists. All we need to do is be ready to reboot and never underestimate change,” says Ishan.

“The experiential aspect of buying art has to be overcome”

In a way, Covid-19 was a great leveler of sorts. From young artists to established ones, they all found themselves caged in the lockdown, with uncertainty looming ahead. This was also the case with senior Pune-based artist Bharati Pitre, whose only saving grace, she shares, was the birth of her little granddaughter during the pandemic. While a few months of time were taken up by caring for the infant, soon the artist — who began her journey with art in 1998 and has since featured paintings, papier-mâché sculptures, installations and more at Kala Ghoda, Jehangir Art Gallery and the Kochi Biennale — felt the pull of artistic inspiration again. “Many artists were forced out of their cocoon at this point during the outbreak. I have been lucky to have some business experience in my career that has always helped me to put my art forth. But for others, this was the first time they had to sell their own work and stand up for themselves, amidst great economic doubt. Others started writing about their work and sole breadwinners realised they cannot hide away any longer. Best of all, many got some peaceful time to create art,” says Bharati.

Referring to the shifting post-Covid paradigm to the digital world, even in the sphere of art, she says, “There are also more tools at the disposal of artists. Virtual art galleries, for instance, can revolutionise access. However, one setback that has to be overcome there is the experiential aspect of buying art — it is less easy to buy it on an impulse if one cannot experience all its dimensions. But where there is a challenge, there is a way out!”

At the helm of the Devrukh-origin collective Olee Maatee (which makes creative lifestyle products of terracotta/ceramic, bamboo and papier-mâché for charitable causes), Bharati also weighed in on another challenge, adding, “Teaching art is also something that cannot be done solely online, in my view as a teacher. One needs the human touch to teach art, and it is also important for students to observe their peers and absorb from their styles and mistakes. This is a big gap that needs more discussion.”

As you can see from what these artists are saying, the fact is a new normal has arrived and it can be negotiated with a new mindset. The old must slowly give way to the new and we must embrace newer ways of thinking about art. What is certain is that there are as many stories as there are artists, and not all of them might be hopeful.

Art, the eyes through which we see ourselves

World history has quite a few examples of disease striking entire swathes of humanity and how such epidemics have affected art and how, in turn, art has affected such times.

In 1943, when the Bengal Famine hit India, killing millions it wasn’t reported or even documented the way a calamity of such proportions should have been. Of course, the fact that Winston Churchill was responsible for this man-made famine ensured the famine was kept out of sight.


However, the Communist Party of India chose artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and a photographer Sunil Janah to visit the affected areas and document what they saw, especially in Midnapore. The art portrayed the tragic reality of the famine with such incisiveness that the British seized and burnt all the pamphlets. Only one copy survived this desperate act of censorship. The pamphlet was aptly called ‘Hungry Bengal’. This was also an artistic act of rebellion, and today it informs our thoughts on the Bengal famine.

Similarly, during the black plague in Europe many artists documented the tragedy through some wonderfully crafted paintings.

This is what Thomas Worchester, professor of church history and president of Regis College in Toronto, had to say in a discussion with Columbia College Today:

“Like Franco, my interests are Renaissance to early modern [history] in the European context, and plague was something that recurred frequently in that era. Most people know of ‘The Black Death’ of the mid-14th century, but the bubonic plague recurred locally in various cities into the 18th century. It’s a major factor in the history of Europe in that period on all kinds of levels — the medical level, of course, but also, more broadly, on a cultural level and a religious level. Italy, for example, is a Catholic culture with a great deal of emphasis on the visual, so it’s a topic that touches upon a whole lot of issues of culture and society in that period.”

In the same discussion, Franco Mormando, professor of Italian and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Boston College, said how plague has been a recurring theme in the European cultural landscape. “As I am a professor of Italian, the subject caught my attention because two of the most important, canonical works of Italian literature have plague as a central theme. Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ in the 14th century and Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ in the 19th century are on anyone’s top-10 lists of Italian masterpieces. I realised that plague was the key to understanding not only the development of Italian and European history, but also the European forma mentis, the attitude to the world,” he elaborated.

To sum this up, situations that put humanity in a lot of stress and disquiet informs the art of that time, and the art then becomes a vehicle to understand what transpired. It becomes the conscience and a mirror of such adverse situations.

How the isolation worked out for many

Now that we have probably braved the worst of the pandemic, what wisdom do we really glean from it? One important but often forgotten fact is that people need time by themselves to do they really like with a certain degree of expertise.

The lockdown also resulted in social media becoming a massive global exhibition of skills, craft and art. From cupcakes to portraits, people got back to doing what they love doing but did not have the time for earlier. Isolation forces us to rethink what we truly are and what truly makes life meaningful. Just raking up your bank balance cannot always bring you inner succour, although that is an important part of life.

The lockdown revealed to the world that an accountant is also an artist, that a manager is also musician and that a doctor is also a dancer. The silver lining of the lockdown clearly was the grand collective reconnection with the inner individual. The lockdown resulted in great amateur art, some of it were so accomplished that one wondered why the person did not choose art as a profession.

The lockdown also showed many of us the value of practice. There are both happy as well as not-so-happy stories. For instance, people who had given up their art to pursue a profession, when forced into isolation wished to return to what they actually loved. To their dismay, they found that art is demanding mistress. Without practice, talent can only do some much. Sweet singers sounded pitchy after 20 years of not singing. But that very same extended isolation also gave the singers a chance to get back to their art regularly, and they saw themselves getting better. That in turn renewed their hope that it is never too late to start again. By doing what gives them the greatest joy, by doing it again and again. Iteration is a virtue in any creative process.

As for the professional artist, they had a lot more time to meditate upon their art and process. Quite a lot of great art


comes from a time where nothing really happens. Leisure and elbow room to think is a great well of creativity. They did not have to be unnecessarily be productive because of market pressures. The whole aspect of having time to reassess what one does results in a certain spiritualisation of the creative practice.

In conclusion, conflict breeds a bigger thinking mind. A mind that seeks to understand what it is going through and how to resolve the crisis at hand into a comprehensive whole, makes art a larger human experience.