Gauri Diwakar on surviving two years of the pandemic
|Gauri Diwakar (pic: Anoop Arora)
Each dancer and artist has responded in their own distinct ways to these two years of COVID-19 restrictions and the absence of physical performances for most of that duration. There was the obvious and immediate financial distress caused by a sudden loss of income in March 2020. But apart from that, the overnight suspension of all art and cultural activity left many artists, especially dancers, without their daily ‘fix’ of riyaaz and performance for many months. Being unable to practice their very physical vocation, combined with the fear and paranoia of COVID cases and deaths and the lack of physical interaction with others, took a toll on the mental health of many dancers and artists, many of whom have spoken about these struggles.
I spoke to Kathak dancer and teacher Gauri Diwakar, a leading performer and choreographer, about how she survived without even riyaaz for nearly five months in 2020, how her dance life slowly took on a new form in the ‘new normal’, and how she has gradually chosen a side in the debate over online performances.
Responding to the lockdowns as an individual and as a dancer
I did my last tour in February 2020 for SPIC MACAY and I remember thinking, it’s been far too hectic recently, let’s take a break for a week and then start doing riyaaz again. I had a show in Kokrajhar on 16 or 17 March anyway, and before that, shows in Delhi and lec-dems for SPIC MACAY, so that’s when I took a little break, in February 2020. And right after my break, all these shows started getting cancelled one by one. I had been in London in January before that, I had seen what was happening (in terms of the spread of COVID and the restrictions), but I had not imagined anything of this sort happening in India. At first, I cancelled my classes sometime between January and March because there are many children in my batches, and after that there were all these show cancellations. These came as a shock; this had never happened to me before.
It started with the Janta curfew on 19 March 2020. That day we were rather excited, what with all the thali bajana (clanging plates) and all that — we took that very positively. A few days later, my neighbour, a young man, about 33 or 34 years old, was diagnosed with blood cancer, and on 25 March 2020, the lockdown began. We were all so disturbed, we couldn’t figure out what to do. I was not able to sleep on the 22nd; I had definitely started feeling anxious about all the cancelled shows and what all was going on. Soon, I developed insomnia; I could not sleep at all. For a few months, I was definitely unwell.
But in 2020, it was still under control. We were all also trying to be positive about the lockdown. We spoke to neighbours we had never spoken to before. I could not dance because I live in DDA flats in Delhi — mere sirf pair marne se poore building mein awaaz aati thi (just stamping my feet can be heard all through the building). So from about 15 March to 10 August, dance toh chhoot hi gaya (I practically did not dance). 10 August was the first time I stepped into my studio after all those months, even though my studio is within a kilometre of my home. But Dilshad Garden in east Delhi, where my home is, was in the red zone, so I couldn’t go out.
I was determined to keep myself engaged, however; seclusion was not good for my health. On the 29th, therefore, I took an appointment with an oncologist and went to see the doctor at Safdarjung Hospital with the medical reports of my friend who had blood cancer. Everything was shut the day I went there, and you might say I saw the ‘real Delhi’ then. There was no one on the road except for police officers, officers from the paramilitary forces, and some sweepers sweeping the pavements. Us din maine Dilli mein patthar mein bhi phool khilte hue dekhe the (that day, I saw flowers sprouting from stones in Delhi). Vasant ritu ka time tha, thoda thoda Holi jaisa mahual bana hua tha (it was the spring season and it felt a bit like Holi). It was so beautiful – there was no one out, and I saw the city at its most beautiful since 1995, which is when I moved here. That was one positive thing about that time, even though what I had come out to do was not positive – meeting a doctor. Despite that, seeing Delhi so beautiful and so empty really raised my spirits.
After that, I was back on the road. In the larger context too, I returned to that phase in which I was able to do nothing except jhadoo pochha bartan (sweeping, mopping, dishes). The only time I did something else was when I would take my neighbour for his medical appointments. He was in the hospital for a few days and he was neither able to drive at that time, nor to find a driver due to the COVID-19 restrictions, so I was the one taking him. In these ways, I was keeping myself busy and occupied somehow. I was not being able to dance, my anxiety was increasing, and physically also, I was feeling worse than before – all these things together were weighing me down.
|A still from Gauri's piece in 1 X 1
Then Aditi didi (Kathak veteran Aditi Mangaldas, whose Drishtikon repertory Gauri is a senior member of) decided that it was time to do something about the situation. She had been taking online classes regularly all that while. And then when I saw that everyone had gone online, I too went online. I had always hated online classes. I had received offers from the UK, the US and other countries in the past too, before COVID, to teach online, and I had always said no even though it would have meant good money. But then COVID brought us all, big or small, established or new, all artists, to the point where we had no option but to learn and teach online. I started taking online classes, but that was twice a week, and then again there was nothing besides that to do. Aditi didi decided that our production ‘10x10’, in which I had done the numbers 9 and 1, would be reinterpreted as ‘1x1’ for the lockdown from our homes. But I said, we will not do numbers. I said I will not fake it, I will depict in my performance only what I am really doing in my home: the exercise I was getting running up and down the stairs in my building, the cooking, the cleaning. And as for the dance I was not able to do, I had been experimenting with making shadows on the walls using my fingers, and that’s what I showed in the video. My piece on the number 1 in ‘10x10’ was on breath, and I showed how I had been managing to keep breathing in the pandemic. And then I thought of one more thing: lighting a diya.
|A still from Gauri's piece in 1 X 1
Of course, we would always light a diya during pooja in our homes, but that was a new thing during COVID – I would light a diya every day, and I derived great positivity from that. At least it was a small change, mentally, physically, emotionally. But I was often feeling disturbed and wasn’t feeling physically very well also, and then I learnt that I had developed both hypothyroidism and high cholesterol – it was not very bad, but the imbalance was there. I had been struggling with that also and had started putting on weight. We were not even allowed to go to the park. Some people were going, but only those who absolutely had to, those with severe diabetes whom the doctors said had no other option. That was not the case with me. I was also doing dance exercises in the home, but not cardio, and so I was not able to do anything about my physical health. I thought, if I jump and dance (as I normally do in Kathak riyaaz), the downstairs neighbours would be disturbed, so I didn’t do it.
2020 went by like this. There were two shows that year after performances resumed – one by Drishtikon and another at the Konark Festival. Without Aditi didi – she was watching us rehearse online – we did those two shows. Guru Geetanjali Lal gave me a slot in her online festival and then I performed online again in the Kelucharan Mohapatra festival. Everything was online, which again I’m not usually interested in because I feel I’m not suited to the camera. I feel I don’t look good on camera, but still, I thought I must push myself (to do things the new way). I did about four shows in four months in 2020. Then I thought I shouldn’t do online shows. It was not because of the money or anything. It was because I felt I didn’t look good on screen. We all know what criteria there are for screen performances, and I do not meet those, so I decided not to, and I did not do a single online show after that.
2021 was worse for me in the sense that things in my housing society were quite bad, especially during the second wave. I was doing all that – arranging oxygen cylinders, flow meters, oxygen masks, PPE kits etc. I was literally begging – ek bhi hai to de do (please give me even one if you have it). I engaged myself with the people around me. My very close neighbour, who lives in the house right opposite mine, also passed away. It was a terrible time. There was only negativity all around me.
When that passed, Aditi didi got an offer to do a show in Moscow, and at first, she was of a mind to refuse. Maine kaha ke yehi to positivity hai – aap nahin lengi toh hum kahan jayenge (I said, this is the first positive thing to happen in a while – if you refuse this, what will we do?). Everyone was struggling mentally. I told her, let’s take this offer and do the show; we’ll take care of everything. We did it very well – in the sense that we took many precautions. At first, rehearsals were online only. Then, when we began to go to Drishtikon (the studio in Delhi), every single day, each one of us, including Aditi didi’s staff, took a rapid antigen test. Before we went on the tour, we were there for about a week in a bio-bubble. Nobody went home; we stayed at Drishtikon for a whole week. And then RT-PCR tests were conducted four times, from Moscow to Delhi and then on the way back.
After that, I received an offer of a solo show from Kalakshetra – they said there would be no audience, but you would have to come to Chennai and dance at Kalakshetra. I quickly said yes, I will do it. I went there. Of course, there were camerapersons etc. – but 20 Kalakshetra students were also permitted to attend and watch, and it was a very nice feeling to perform there. This is how I have gotten through 2020 and 2021.
|Pic: Anoop Arora
Starting her own online chat show and attending others’
I participated in many chat shows. (Unlike online dance shows) Those I never refused. Screen ke saamne baith ke bolna hi toh hai (all you have to do is sit in front of a screen and talk)! I did lots of chat shows, and through my trust, I hosted shows featuring mostly young and some established dancers and artists, called ‘Aazaadi Mann Ki’ (freedom of the mind). That was a very nice show. Generally, only senior people speak. Young people were usually not asked about their journeys. So I thought of this. I did a hundred shows, starting with the first on 16 May 2020. It featured artists from all classical forms and all art forms – painters, cinematographers, lyricists. Everybody spoke very well and very candidly. That time was so wonderfully spent, hearing these people speak every day. The whole world heard them too; it was a very nice experience.
I participated in other hosts’ chat shows whenever I was invited. It was wonderful. One must do that also. We only dance on stage. When I started ‘Aazaadi Mann Ki’, I decided that we would not ask questions. I told each participant that you have full aazaadi (freedom) to tell your story, just don’t be fake. Whatever your journey is, please tell it and inspire young and even established artists. Many senior gurus were listening too. Some of the younger ones said amazing things, things you wouldn’t have thought of – I was so inspired. It was important to hear these narratives: how they were doing online shows, some were making mistakes, others were fed up of all the online activity.
Most importantly, I realized the importance of riyaaz fully when I wasn’t able to do it, when I was sitting at home from March to August and I couldn’t wear my ghungroos and do riyaaz even once. And when I entered my studio on 10 August, I rehearsed for three-four hours to the point of exhaustion. When I came home, I was dead on my feet, I had rehearsed after so many months. And that day, I realized the struggle of those who don’t have the space, the privilege or the infrastructure to practice; how difficult it is for them not just to access a studio, but everything under the sun.
Choreographing performances specifically for video
Actually, no, I wouldn’t want to do that. Whatever you watched in ‘1x1’, my daughter filmed. She is much better than me at technology. I told her, beta, main jo normally kaam kar rahi hoon, ghar ke kapdon mein, woh aap shoot kar ke do (dear, whatever I do normally, in my house clothes, you film and give me), and she did that. Most people are more adept at technology than I am, the younger people and even Aditi didi, who shot some videos so well even though she was doing it using phones in her home with the help of her son, daughter-in-law, house help etc. But more than videography, it’s editing that’s important. I was getting to learn and see these things. But still, I can’t do it. I am technologically inept, totally dependent on others. My students are much better at this. I’m not proud of it but I thought, when my students can do it, when you can get it done from somebody, perhaps for a fee, so that it helps the other person financially, why not? At least it gives them an income, and they are certainly doing it better than me. The two videos I shot as performances were done by Innee Singh. I told him to make just straightforward videos so that there was not much need for editing. Too much editing also makes it look fake. This also I have gathered in these two years — that it’s important for things to look natural as well. I can’t make my face look pretty with editing, that’s fake. Zabardasti sirf online ke liye woh dikhane ki zaroorat mehsoos nahin honi chahiye (you should not feel the need to show something artificial just because you are doing online shows).
|Pic: Anoop Arora
I refuse online performances now. What I did in Udaipur for Aditi didi in November 2020 had a small live audience, the Konark festival was done with a physical audience . . . of course they also went online and I got bad feedback for myself because I have put on weight. But I know I’m not a 16-year-old girl anymore, I have crossed 40 and I have medical issues now, so I have said no to everyone. People might think I have become arrogant, but I don’t look good on camera. That’s the fact, and one should accept it. I know I have been made for the stage, not for the screen. In Chennai, at Kalakshetra, there were 20 students and camerapersons and others – I danced for them. I forgot that this was going live. For the Parampara series performance too, I had a small audience in the auditorium. It didn’t make a difference to me that it was going online as well; I was more concerned about dancing for myself, about my new production, which I had danced only twice, and I danced in full mazaa for myself. Even if there are 5 people in front of me, I will dance freely as long as I have a physical audience.
I do certainly feel the absence of the audience. I always say, when I am asked how I feel before and after a performance, that nervousness is always there. I get very tense; I don’t know why I have still not become very comfortable. And then, show mein jab taaliyon ki gadgadahat milti hai (when I hear the thunderous applause of the audience during a show) and the vibes I get from the audience – whether they are liking you or not, the vibes from the audience, the ambience of a proscenium stage, and the sound of applause – it really keeps me up at night with excitement. There’s nothing better than that in life.
Note: This interview first appeared in narthaki.com