When the lockdown was announced in March, artist Sudarshan Shetty was preparing for a solo at Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris, in May, followed by another exhibition in Germany in August. With COVID-19 dramatically changing our world, the artist suddenly found himself confined to his home in Mumbai. Away from his studio, he used the time to introspect. “There was distress but, as an artist, it was also a productive period for me to step back and look at my own work and what I could do,” says Shetty.
During one of those days, he also posed for a selfie at the behest of Delhi-based photographer Parthiv Shah, who invited personalities to share their isolation with a photograph and accompanying text. “The need to socially move away from others in the time of the pandemic made me look within. With new announcements each day, there was an air of uncertainty. Locked up at home, we started identifying with certain areas and objects, and I felt it was a good time to ask people about themselves,” says Shah.
Conceived during the early months of the lockdown, he titled the project “Self Portraits in the time of Social Distancing”. The overwhelming response from actors, filmmakers, authors, fashion designers and artists, among others, led to an expansion of the project to include more than 150 narratives that Shah intends to publish in the form of a book. “Few years from now, this would be visual history, an archive telling us what these people were thinking and doing at the time,” he says.
The diverse accounts from across the globe speak of varied experiences and perspectives. If we see dancer Aditi Mangaldas “trying to find expansion within constriction” while practising her craft, Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam used the time to do things he “never had the time to do before” — photographing “the rain, the clouds and dewdrops on cactus flowers”, but, also the “people crying out for rice in the streets” at night. If Carnatic music vocalist Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam turned to yoga and meditation, theatre veteran MK Raina is seen refining his culinary skills. Delhi-based photographer Vicky Roy shares his entire routine by bringing together multiple frames in one.
While for several, including Shah, it was also time to reconnect with family, there is an acknowledgement of privilege at a time of loss. Standing in a Boston park, economist Abhijit V Banerjee shares how he spends “much more time with the kids”. “It does not take away the sense that we are just marking time, trying as hard as possible to not think about the ways in which our familiar world may be irretrievably lost, but it does return us to the very elemental pleasures of cuddling among the flowers,” he writes.
Writer Amitava Kumar, meanwhile, recreates what he describes as “a portrait of privilege”. Posing in a bathtub filled with no water but books, he writes, “For writers, the enforced isolation wasn’t unusual (and, for some, not even unwelcome) but what I have been inhabiting, like the rest of the planet, is the general feeling of disorientation. I am extremely fortunate; I have been spared acute distress.”
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