Back On Stage

What is a theatre without its artistes and audience? The last 18 months revealed a sombre facet of a scenario that seemed inconceivable in the forever busy corridors of the NCPA. But with theatres been given the green light to reopen, the buzz has returned. Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook and the heads of genres reflect on this unparalleled time that only strengthened their resolve to emerge stronger. The stellar line-up of opening performances that await you is a testament to that.

Whoever imagined that even with our state-of-the-art weapons to fight all sorts of diseases and pestilence, a virus called Covid-19 would bring the world to its knees in the 21st century, but that is exactly what happened. While we thought it was a temporary aberration, its venomous claws clung on to humanity for more than 18 months and it is still not eradicated.

In March 2020, we had just come back from a very successful Delhi trip, where the SOI played to an appreciative audience and later went to Bengaluru to complete a triumphant tour. Soon afterwards, a notification was received from the Government of Maharashtra that all theatres had to be shut down due to a pandemic which threatened to endanger audiences, and disallow any sort of gatherings and assembling of people. Such was the virulence of the virus that several thousand people lost their lives and all the might of 21st-century science was not able to stem the tide and the entire universe was wrapped in panic. Flights were cancelled, performances delayed and/or cancelled, family life was disrupted, schools were closed and the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men went awry.

It was a moment to gather our forces and plan during what now seemed to be a long period of introspection and silence. We decided that defeat was certainly not acceptable. We began organising Zoom meetings and, wherever possible, teachers taught by way of electronic media. However, by the time we entered mid-2021, this not only became tedious but it was also not very productive or enjoyable.

To stare into a box and expect results was not our cup of tea. Planning was a necessity and it was decided that online dissemination of our wonderful archival material and recordings and onward transmission of future concerts and recording sessions was the answer, or at least temporarily so. After much thought and discussion, an investment in a studio to edit old material and purchase equipment to record fresh concerts was an inevitable choice. Discussions were held with several content producers and eventually a Head of Department was brought in to assess our archival material and supervise future recordings. This was not very successful and the hunt is still on to provide a viable alternative to future concerts.

During this time, we were fortunate that negotiations had been held with a celebrity firm called ARUP, who were experts in the area of conceptualising state-of-the-art theatres and would probably have been commissioned immediately to advise the way forward. Similarly, among several companies, Tata Elxsi was approached to assist in distributing the completed content of not only our archives but also future recordings. Both these decisions seem to have found favour and are now in the process of execution.

Our musicians were practising at home. The various people, who are stymied in the NCPA without access to outside presence, employed their time profitably and sought each other’s company, and continue to show creativity. As we near the end of this dark period, perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt through it all. We certainly are stronger than the period before the epidemic disrupted our lives.

– Khushroo N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA

It was Friday, 13th March 2020. We had just concluded masterclass sessions with renowned vocalist, Ajoy Chakrabarty, and were scheduled to present him in ‘Meet the Maestro’, a conversation series with renowned sitar player, Arvind Parekh, when we received a notification from the authorities to shut down our auditoria. We had no idea then, that it would be a good 18 months before we would be allowed to reopen our doors to welcome our esteemed audiences.

Of course, it was not complete silence at our end. Before we realised, “online” became the new mantra. We plunged into our invaluable archives. Our online presentations featured recordings of past events with great masters. This initiative was received enthusiastically by audiences worldwide. Some of them had earlier missed our live events and the others didn’t mind reliving the magic.

As the months passed by, the pandemic raged on. Amidst the pall of gloom, we kept reaching out to the practitioners—this time with several workshops under our CSR initiatives. The topics were varied and aimed at honing allied skills like mind control, sound recording, legal issues, etc. At some point around the new year, when the rules were relaxed a bit, we invited promising artistes to our studios, and presented the recordings online.

Now we have adopted a model to professionally record online workshops, which will be made available on our OTT platform, to be launched soon. Thanks to the newly created recording and editing facilities at the NCPA, some of the public concerts will also be available on this platform.

The pandemic has shown us how fragile and uncertain life is. At the same time, we have also discovered the potential of the digital world. Enabled by the technology available today, going forward, we plan to explore possibilities such as a hybrid model, where one or more artistes are logged in virtually while others are physically present. We will leave no stone unturned in our bid to remain connected with both, the artistes and the audience.

– Dr Suvarnalata Rao, Programming Head – Indian Music

After the stunning silence and the taste of life without theatres, concerts and live performances, it is good news the theatres are coming alive with performances once again.

The past few months have been very hard on the world. Although many countries had taken measures to curb the coronavirus crisis, it had an immensely stressful effect on people’s personal life and behaviour.

The arts, theatres and artistes have experienced significant economic setbacks for the past 18 months. Across the spectrum of artistic and creative endeavours, various restrictions have taken a devasting toll on the sector. The full scope and scale of impact can be hard to discern, in part because of the size and diversity of the industries that constitute art and culture.

The global pandemic has seen livelihood and careers ruined or transformed for many performing artistes. Making a living out of creative industries had become precarious. For some, it was a curse and a blessing at the same time since no travelling for performances meant it was a good opportunity to stay with family, create and compose music and learn a new world of home studio rehearsing and recording.

Due to the closure of venues and curtailing of public performances, many performing arts institutions adapted to digital services, online streaming of archival performances as well as bespoke crowd-sourcing projects. Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram became new digital platforms for artistes to collaborate and conduct workshops.

During the pandemic, the NCPA broke the silence from time to time by implementing various programmes. NCPA@home, an online initiative, showcased local and internationally acclaimed Grammy-Award winning icons that have graced our stages ranging through a variety of musical genres—jazz, blues, soul, funk, Latin, etc. The NCPA ‘Let’s Talk Jazz’ series was an initiative positioned towards introducing lay listeners to jazz to broaden their musical palates through a Facebook Live lecture series.

International Jazz Day, officially designated by the UNESCO and Herbie Hancock Institute of Music to bring communities together through jazz, saw a three-day online celebration. Performances paying homage to the greats featured over 70 artistes from the largest jazz hubs all around the world. We have maintained our associations with such organisations and institutions through the lockdown in view of live collaborations in the future.

– Farrahnaz Irani, General Manager – International Music

As a child, I always felt that doing something the second time was much more difficult than the first. When you do something for the first time, you don’t have to worry about history- or legacy-matching up as much as you do when doing it again. All you have for the first time is hope, dreams and happiness (when it’s done). The second attempt brings a lot more responsibility. It is much more adult.

So, here we are trying again and this time with much more conviction, much more experience in dealing with failure and greater thirst to begin. We have many unique plans coming up in Dance, both with international and national artistes. There are premieres of new works scheduled and exciting collaborations in the offing, ready for the curtain to rise.

Now, if you have waited for so long, why not a bit longer till we announce the other upcoming events in our ON Stagemagazine? Remember, here is where you hear it first, so do keep renewing your NCPA membership to get your complimentary copy of happy news every month.

And in the meantime, thank you for your support. We are excited to conduct online classes across six schools for less privileged children again this year and equally looking forward to the 30 online/physical dance lecture demonstration sessions that would reach out to schools across India as part of our new initiative, NCPA Vistaar.

When we closed in March 2020, we closed our theatres in Mumbai but now when we are opening, we are opening up to the world. This period has taught us to appreciate what we already have and has made us stronger for the future. See you soon.

– Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, Head of Dance Programming

In early March of 2020, the SOI embarked on a tour to Delhi and Bangalore—what would turn out to be our last live performances in a long time. The coronavirus was just gaining prominence in the news, though at that point few perhaps realised the intensity with which it would hit and that it would lead to the longest shutdown in the NCPA’s five-decade history, as it did with most arts centres around the world.

The SOI continued operations throughout the pandemic. We moved all lessons of the SOI Music Academy online, conducted digital workshops, and streamed performances to an audience numbering in the tens of thousands. But, the heart of any arts centre and orchestra is performing live for an audience. Our brief re-opening in February 2021 to a sold-out (with appropriate distanced seating) house brought a glimmer of hope, but only made it harder when the second wave necessitated another shutdown.

As we look forward to stepping onto the stage again later this month, there is a cautious optimism in the air. It is an odd feeling to be have had almost two years away from doing something that was once second nature. But, like the proverbial bicycle ride, it is a feeling that at once is familiar.

And while I believe we must rethink certain things in the “new normal”, and that the digital space will continue to have an expanded presence in our lives, live performance can never be replaced. The beauty of live performance is that it is ephemeral, and the indescribable feeling of sharing that experience with your fellow audience members and the artistes on stage, knowing that it exists only in that moment, is the moat against digitisation that lies deep around live art.

– Xerxes F. Unvala, General Manager – SOI & Western Classical Music

From 1918-1920, the Spanish flu (or the Great Influenza) gripped the world following the end of the First World War. It was an illness that claimed the lives of tens of millions across the world. What followed was a period in history commonly known as The Roaring Twenties. It was a period of economic prosperity and cultural dynamism the likes of which the world had never seen. Dance, music (particularly Jazz) and theatre were rediscovered and new forms were invented. Moving pictures and radio brought technological modernity to the era. After a period of war and pandemic, the world was once again connecting, expressing and communicating.

There are many parallels between that era and our own—technological advancements in communication, methodology of artistic expression, medical advancement, and awareness of the value that lies in simply being together. As we emerge as one world from this pandemic, we find that whilst we may not have all been in the same boat, we have all experienced the same storm.

The definition of the word art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” If we focus on the first part, we find that an artiste is someone who applies their creative skill and imagination. We have seen that all around us in businesses, individuals, charities, pharmaceuticals. Innovation has thrived in the most challenging of circumstances.

As we process this global event, our artistes are more important than ever. Living is about more than mere survival. We must, think, feel, laugh, cry, reflect, grow. The arts are food for the soul, what it is to be human. What a glorious thing to celebrate. And celebrate we must.

This time has been used for contemplation, planning and connecting with companies across the country. We have been looking forward to welcoming artistes and audiences back to our stages once again to our place to behold. The theatre we produce and present at the NCPA represents the country and the very best international talent. We look to honour our heritage while pushing boundaries—entertain, educate and enthrall.

– Bruce Guthrie, Head – Theatre & Films

I consider myself fortunate that I have been associated with this prestigious photography gallery of the NCPA since its early days when I had my first exhibition in 1989. The NCPA’s Founder, the late Dr. Jamshed Bhabha, started it on the initiative of Mr. J. Jehangir and the late Praful C. Patel. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition was Through Indian Eyes, by Judith Mara Gutman, a noted photo historian from the USA, who exhibited photographs from the 19th- and early 20th-century India.

Since 2009, when I joined as head of Photography and the gallery, nearly 250 photo exhibitions, talks and workshops have been organised. Some noted photographers whose works have been exhibited include A. L. Sayed, Ashok Dilwali, T.S.Satyan, Homai Vyarawalla, Gayatri Sinha, Tarpada Banerjee, Aditya Arya, Chandu Mhatre, Gopal Bodhe.

We had just wrapped up the photo exhibition by Dr. Mukesh Batra in mid-March 2020 when the lockdown was announced, which kept getting extended indefinitely. While the gallery walls remained bare for almost 18 months due to various government restrictions, we started with online photo exhibitions and webinars.

Currently, we are giving a face lift to the gallery and will open very soon.

– Mukesh Parpiani, Head – Piramal Art Gallery

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the November 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.