As we drown in the shadows of a new lockdown here in the city of Mumbai, only weeks after the one-year mark of the first nationwide lockdown and as we see a surge in COVID-19 cases all around us, what better can we do than locking ourselves in an isolated room, attend a few zoom calls, procrastinate endlessly, and then finally…just type about it?
I sit in front of the only thing that has tirelessly brought light and breathing space into my dark and confined year: – my laptop screen. I’ve found ways to read, write, draw, create, curate, film and edit all on this 13-inch window that, unlike my occasionally lazy self, once charged – just keeps running. But that has been the lived truth for millions, maybe billions, of people across the globe. Students in India, especially now, have become familiarised with stress of all kinds. The anxiety of bad Wifi networks ruining presentations, zoom classes becoming an intangible tool of killing inspiration, the stress of the uncertainty of our futures, and lack of ability to invent or reinvent in the midst of a global pandemic along with daily emotional drains- and that’s not even all of it.
To have this discussion be more populated and peopled than my every day is, I decided to talk to a few students – specifically university and college students studying art and design much like myself – to understand how they’ve been keeping afloat. In our country, art and design is often side-lined, discouraged, undervalued and not looked at respectably, and often labeled merely as a ‘hobby’ to be taken lightly. But guess what every single human being found solace in during this lonesome year couped in our homes? In the art of books, the magic of movies, the fervour of music, the escape in storytelling, the lyricism within poetry, delectable baking, sketching, illustrating and more! And let’s not forget- everything is an art all its own.
Graphic Design student at MIT, Pune – Kareena Vaswani, says studying has been ‘pretty seamless because everything within my field can be done online, fortunately.’ But she mentions how it still feels different, ‘There is this palpable change in the way we as students interact now. We used to sit on tables and attend lectures, we’d have music playing in the background as we worked in our spaces, and it was an open and artsy space to create in, now, we’ve (collectively) lost all of that.’ Being a third-year student, with that loss of grounding and lack of peer support we are additionally plagued with ‘insecurities of working to land internships all in isolation’.
Design student Khushi Kothari studying in NID, Ahmedabad, talks about how this past year after she and her friends finally decided on their majors to work with the medium of textile within the realm of design, it’s ironic that they’ve played with it the least. ‘Doing more research, making more books and creating with other scraps and items around us has been a new reality. The way we practically worked in college, with access to all the material and tools is just not there anymore.’ For a textile design student, their language of working, thinking and creating often requires access to looms, studio spaces, print labs, and so much more. And for these students, in the absence of these technologies – their hands become their primary tools. She adds how ‘working from home involved more explorations and experimentations rather than final outcomes.’ And the same thread of thought is brought up in my conversation with Kareena.
She adds, ‘My work started deteriorating during the lockdown and it was very hard to make peace with the fact that just as I was narrowing down on what I loved to do, I was not at my creative best.’ Kareena also points out how as artists and designers we are often required to emotionally detach ourselves from our work, ‘separate the art from the artist’. But in the four-walled gallery-cum-bedroom-cum-workspace of your home, the distance between you and your work is erased.
‘It becomes even more frustrating not having any sense of achievement in that constant monotony of half-baked work’, mentions textile-design student Ishani Kamat. For her, the thrill that comes with the ups and downs of working on a project were just cast away and – ‘every day was one big meh’.
Despite all the plate-banging, candle-lighting, clapping and hair-pulling we might have done in this last year, I feel like each of us can relate to that intense physical and emotional drain of hopelessness. Truly Meh.
After all, for creatives, inspiration comes knocking from what is around us, from our day-to-day lived moments, from being exposed to new happenings, mentions Kareena. But with nothing happening, other than the endless cycle of doing chores at home, ‘the routine ends up putting you in a rut.’
In contrast, some students can look back and see it as a positive moment to have been given a break from the usual. A time to step away from the race and competitive environment universities and colleges can foster. The endless and restless labouring without the juncture to really rethink, review and re-analyse what we truly want. Meisen Jamir, another student at NID, talks of how the sudden and immediate departure from college and heading back home has been an interesting opportunity for her to step out of the same circle of colleagues and limitations of exploring. This newness gave her a renewed point of view. Often, in an academic environment, pursuing specialised degrees and subjects, our vision and our passion is made to fit into the letters that make-up the chosen Bsc., BA or BComm. Degrees we have chosen for ourselves.
Khushi aptly brings up how this time away from college also gave her moments of self-introspection and she realised what she might pursue academically does not have to be the only thing that makes her feel whole as a person. If you do design but love poetry, if you do textiles and enjoy painting, or even if you enjoy art history and are pursuing physics, none of that has to be exclusive. This lockdown has taught us all the importance of how much we need to keep learning, consuming and being open to new ways of seeing. That is the only way we can keep growing even when everything around us seems like it is regressing or frozen in place.
For Vaishnavi Khadatare, another art and design student from Mumbai, the endless scrolling through social media, actually gave her the chance to become conscious and aware of everything that was happening around her. ‘The way artists like Smish Designs and so many others, speak up and talk about the injustices we are all quietly letting pass, has inspired me so deeply. I also want to use my platform to make room for these larger issues via my embroidery and ideas.’ Being in the bubble of an institution and caught in the overwhelming demands of our personal and work lives, she mentions how she would’ve never got the chance to have this awakening if not for this past year giving her time to herself. ‘Before this, half the time I didn’t know what my schedule was and the other half, I didn’t know what India’s schedule was!’
Too many of us have felt a tangible sense of relief being evacuated from possibly exhausting and taxing work environments. Pitting individuals against other students and breeding fields of insecurities in our mental landscapes. The mindless need to be the ‘best’ and most ‘perfect’ according to conventional standards placed upon us and miscellaneous other norms in our society, is now all being dug out and exposed to scrutiny and change. The matters of contention are not just art schools, not just engineering schools and not just schools. A new normal, for the students who are fighting their lived environments and realities and fighting for the environment and better realities, will involve feverish freedom of expression and a new age of varied ideals.
‘In this new normal be happy with your art no matter where it goes, you’re not doing this for other people,’ Vaishnavi beautifully states.
Further, Kareena poignantly brings up what truly helped her cope with all the burnout, existential dread and artistic blocks she’s been dealing with, ‘I think it was in AIGA- The Eye on Design Magazine, and while discussing it in our online class, they mentioned something along the lines of how it is a bad time so, do mediocre work, go to sleep and keep going! It was so casual and brutally true and that has still kept me working and creating even if what I make at this time is incomplete/ undone or different than what I would otherwise.’ She believes that we can all make it ashore after this global storm of social, global, economic and political epidemics.
After all, we are each a different blueprint, each body itself with a set of 10 diverse fingerprints. So how can we all be on the same journeys and identical timelines?
How can we all feel the same way, agree with the same sentiments, swallow the same norms and go through this pretending as we have all along, that nothing needs to change?
(Although I will add, the one thing we should all truly feel the same way about is wearing masks!)
This is the time to unlearn seeking validation for what your heart wants you to do, or not do. This is the moment to find the play and joy within your work again. Get aboard the journey to find what got you to art school, what led you to study computer science, find that core of what drives you and your reclaimed centre of gravity will attract the best of what you deserve.
These artists have kept carving, sculpting, stitching and designing their own way through the verisimilitudes that greet us every morning, (or any other time of day during quarantine) when we wake up. And that’s all we need to do – keep on talking, sharing, ideating, keep on being. Just keep on…