Web of venues

May 10, 2020

Individuals and organisations that previously hosted arts and cultural events in the city have embraced virtual platforms, though this means having to modify formats to suit the requirements of the digital world. This also helps create a semblance of normalcy

Nirvaan Nadeem, the director of Ajoka Theatre, holding the Art of Acting session online.

The lockdown of public spaces such as cinemas, theatres and bookstores amid the Covid-19 pandemic, has reflected gravely on the already limited venues available for cultural activities. Several private individuals and organisations related to arts and literature have therefore taken to the virtual space to keep their events alive and going.

This also helps create a semblance of normalcy for those who miss walking through the aisles of bookstores or cinema halls. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the author and creator of the StoryKit programme, which introduces the art of storytelling to children, was among the earliest prominent literati to put up pre-recorded sessions on YouTube, with free access to all. In his own words, “Stories are made and written to be shared, and Storykit is a great opportunity for that.”

Speaking to TNS about eliminating age and accessibility brackets, he says, “There is really no age bracket for a good story. It can be enjoyed by people of all age groups, including children and their parents. That is the feedback we’ve received.”

The Last Word bookstore has begun its weekend storytelling sessions for children via Instagram Live. Another interesting crowd-puller of theirs is the unboxing of the cartons of newly arrived books.

Nirvaan Nadeem, the director of Ajoka Theatre, has continued with Art of Acting classes, except that these are now called Online Edition. According to Nadeem, when he started the sessions, no one took him seriously, “[But] now it looks like we may have to contend with several waiting lists for applicants eager to attend the [virtual] classes.”

Some of his students who attended the classes at Ajoka’s workstation on Sarwar Road came from as far as Kasur and interior Sindh. “It was always difficult infrastructure-wise to expand out of Lahore,” he says.

Nadeem claims to have received entries from all over the country. As for Ajoka’s screenplay writing course, the candidates are required to film a 10-minute long skit each with their smartphones and send it unedited. There is “a handsome prize money” for the one with the best entry.

“Challenging situations help us experiment more,” he declares. “The response to our maiden class has been very heartening,” he adds, “apart from the fact that managing a batch of 20 students online is quite a task!”

It’s a task especially considering the routine network/internet issues Nadeem says the students face.

Kanwal Khoosat, the director and founder of Olomopolo, a popular community space in Lahore that would regularly hold cultural and literary events, readings, film screenings and open-mic sessions etc, suspended all activities when the city was locked down in late March this year. Khoosat says she didn’t succumb to the temptation to take her events online: “We didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of creating a false vibe of normalcy. Of course, these aren’t normal times, so people have to stay in touch with one another as much as they need to reconnect with themselves while keeping busy.”

She also speaks of Olo’s latest project — an e-zine, called Quarantine Magazine — which was launched on May 7. “We invited contributions [for the magazine] in the form of recorded monologues (audio as well as video), poetry recitals, one-act plays and short films,” she adds. “The entries shall be judged by TV and film personalities, and the winners will get the chance to showcase their work at our upcoming festival, Ghost Lights.”

Over the past month and a half, Lahore has seen an increasing number of people and groups initiate talk shows, music jamming sessions, discussions with authors, psychologists, lawyers and the like — all on social media platforms that offer the option to go live. Sukhan’s Isolation Central is one such web show.

Kanwal Khoosat, the director and founder of Olomopolo Media, speaks of their latest project — an e-zine, called Quarantine Magazine — for which “we invited contributions in the form of recorded monologues (audio as well as video), poetry recitals, one-act plays and short films.”

Run by Hammad Anwar and Fatima Arif, the show routinely brings readers, writers, doctors etc together online. “It gives us a chance to connect with friends and colleagues from different parts of the world, and to talk about issues that affect our personal, communal, social and national lives,” says Anwar.

Book readings by authors have been quite a rage with bookstagrammers. Tamreez Inam and Mariam Tareen, famous book reviewers, are running a series of author talks online on Instagram. The idea is to encourage people to “stay at home to read.”

Lovers of Urdu literature have also been active in the same way. One platform, Joy of Urdu, run by Zarminae Ansari, began a campaign, titled Ghar Bethiye, Kitabein Parhiye (Stay home, read books), in the initial days of the Covid-19 threat, which encouraged readers to post videos of themselves reading their favourite pieces of prose or poetry. The campaign ran scores of videos from amateur poets, singers, reciters and celebrities alike.

Ain Adab, managed by Usman Qureshi and Ali Mazhar, runs a weekly session on Facebook Live where the poets read their own works and also invite other poets to recite their verses. “This helps people cope with the loss of social contact and gives them something to look forward to,” says Mazhar.

Miniature artist Heraa Khan is ‘exhibiting’ her latest work, which is inspired by her surroundings during the lockdown, on her Instagram handle. (Seen here is a self-portrait by Khan). — Images: Supplied

“Art helps me,” declares Heraa Khan, an artist whose work has been featured in several books and magazines. Lately, Khan has been ‘exhibiting’ her new work, which is inspired by her surroundings during the lockdown, on her Instagram handle. “I paint from segments of reality around me and add a hint of humour,” she says.

“Sharing my work online gets me a few chuckles from people known as well as unknown, and we all derive strength from one another’s stories, especially when I am told how my paintings connect with them.”

Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures, they say. As book recommendations, author talks, art exhibitions and virtual talk shows go on, along with other work, the common feature among these projects is providing for a healthy and helpful timeline for people on their social media applications, which are replete with straining news of the ongoing global pandemic.

The writer is the author of fiction books including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Coronavirus lockdown: Web of venues