Shadows of fear

November 22, 2020

A second wave of the pandemic is stifling the cultural activities

A few months ago, it was a relief to see that the pandemic was slowing down. at least in Pakistan. It was a good news for those living particularly in parts of the world like ours, but more so for those who cover the cultural events in the media.

Since the pandemic brought in the lockdown, all activity, especially public events which facilitated a gathering of people came to a grudging halt, so that those who covered these happenings and events had little left to do.

Their work is usually to cover whatever is on the cultural scene and to then review and reassess its worth for the general cultural health of the society. The absence of such work and the single-minded focus on countering the pandemic curbed the general spread of activities and its scope. It was dampening in its uniformity and sameness. In normal times, the activities were taking place all over the city as indeed the country, and it was only the curiosity and the energy that were needed to move to the site and place of it happening. The haunts usually were familiar - the arts councils, the cinema halls, the exhibition galleries and if not so, then public spaces like the shrines and stadiums. Some ventured on an adventure in choosing the street and the squares for their protest-led performances. It was only to dip into the pool of whatever was happening to consider its worth, so that it could be covered, whether it was worthy of being reviewed, and whether it was good enough to draw something valuable out of it.

Usually, it is a two-way track: either the work solicits a proper review or coverage, otherwise it peters out in a low-key response and a lackluster reply that matches the quality of the work itself. It is usually premised that where the work has not generated enough excitement, the critical abilities have not embarked upon a seemingly creative riposte.

One did not have to go looking for what to cover and review – whatever was on offer was being made the gist grist of the coverage mill but the pandemic created a new situation, another set of rules, and new ways of seeing and experiencing. This has recast the role of the reviewer for the coverage to take place. One had not only to go looking for whatever was happening and that too in places not dedicated to that purpose but to figure out in what shape and medium it was being created.

It was no longer the work of an individual or a group that was on display or performed, or acted out on stage but rather the discovery of a new medium in which it was being adjusted. This meant a whole lot of things, switching over from the patent sites and to modes of performance in a new medium, the digital one, and that too to scramble for such platforms to be discovered, and then learn to figure them out in pure technical terms before venturing on to the truth of artistic evaluation. It was, and is, a daunting task –to asses a performance or an act for which there are no rules or for which rules are in the process of being evolved. The pitfall of measuring the new with the yardstick of the old lurks.

And the age factored in, starting to get more sinister in its reality. It was to fumble and learn, or learn anew and repeatedly. It was to be less faltering or to not falter at all. It was not snapping at icons and tentative strikes but to be more certain about the websites and platforms to be clicked on.

The digital divide is becoming another way to separate humankind after the many that already exist. Once it was thought to be the leftover of nature’s evolution. Here it was the leftover of a mad rush to accelerate towards the future, the number of years had started having critical significance. It was just to keep pace with development or change or to be ahead of the pack in anticipation and fore guessing. Just to keep pace took the equanimity away and left one out of breath.

The question, a worthwhile one, had not really been addressed nor approached, whether the instant switchover had any artistic purpose to it. Whether it was worth reviewing or was it just the lackluster effort or lack of it that generated an equally tepid response. The reviews became a slow torture through repetition and boredom, a knee jerk switch over to a new medium, out of lack of options rather than an artistic necessity. This issue was to be tackled later –it was primarily to get to know the ropes as to what this switchover was, how it worked, how to handle it and to perhaps maneuver and mellow it for one’s own use and purpose.

And while the grappling with the digital monster assumed a greater menace, the things just moved on, unstoppable and without any end in sight like a juggernaut that rolled on and knew no stopping at all. In catching up, despite all the earnestness, one was falling behind all the time. Being overly conscious of this, one was receding from the aim even further. It was no longer possible to catch up all of a sudden, let alone be ahead of the change. Even with the best effort, one was left further back and the distance grew. The divide, despite the sincerest effort, was widening and the gap becoming wider, the cracks big enough to fall through. That is how the fear factor overtakes and the change envelopes one. As much as stopping to take a deep breath and reconsider one’s options fills one with the fear of moving in the direction of an abyss.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Shadows of fear: A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is stifling the cultural activities