A week into the lockdown, when the pandemic had made its way from the television to her small hill town, Careen J Langstieh, a 42-year-old artist, found refuge in her easel. “Nothing felt normal,” said Langstieh, “So I started drawing to keep my sanity.”
Langstieh — a resident of Shillong — drew prolifically over seven months, producing approximately 30 artworks to capture her experience of the pandemic.
She made visual records, in her journal, of people she saw and heard: the lady who surreptitiously opened a window in her tiny shop to sell kwai (betel leaf and areca nut) during the lockdown; the old neighbour who found solace in long phone conversations; and the five-year-old who couldn’t understand why school was shut.
These sketches will now become a part of history, preserved in ‘Khlam’, an archive of the COVID-19 pandemic being put together by the Northeast India Audio Visual Archive (NE AV Archive), based in Shillong. The idea is to document the impact the public health crisis has had on everyday lives in Meghalaya by collecting photographs, video clips, flyers, emails, diaries, and even screen grabs from social media. “Basically, any material which can lead us to not only remember this moment but also learn from it,” explained Nathaniel Majaw, Project Director, NE AV Archive.
The first call for submissions was made in June. “Some call it war; some see end times, some dystopia. But this uncertainty cannot be an occasion for uncertain silence,” said the note on the archive website, seeking contributions.
Months later, only a few have sent in photographs. “It’s still very low key — not many will find it pleasant, nor will they want to remember this time,” said Majaw, “But we are hoping people will understand the importance of this in the years to come.”
The pandemic — an artist’s perspective
The word ‘khlam’ comes from the Khasi-Pnar word, pandemic, or pestilence. “Every society has a notion of a pandemic — for example, in Hindi, you call it ‘mahamari’,” said Shillong-based filmmaker, Tarun Bhartiya, who is a research consultant with the NE AV Archive, “The Khasi-Jaintias have a term called ‘khlam’ to denote a pandemic — there have been stories of khlam happening in the past. People told me of a village, how it is empty now because people abandoned it during a pandemic, but what kind of pandemic…one doesn’t know.”
Bhartiya, who said he had been photographing the pandemic “like crazy”, stressed the importance of documenting an event as it happened. “Usually archives are done post-facto, after the event has taken place, but with an unimaginable one like this, we thought it was important to start documenting it right away,” he said.
While the archive is meant to grow organically, fed by personal submissions from the public, it will also feature commissioned works from Meghalaya’s creative community— artists, musicians, writers and photographers — on their experience of the pandemic. “We partnered with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Japan (SPF) to give grants to the artistic community for short-term collaborations,” said Majaw.
The result is a diverse set of experiences of the pandemic told through films, writings, songs, illustrations and images. “There is no editorial control,” said Bhartiya, “The pandemic locked up everything. And for the artist, public space is important. We wanted to see how they responded to that, as well as support them in these disruptive times.”
To the artists (32 made it to the final shortlist), the pandemic took on different forms, represented by different emotions. While Langstieh sought normalcy in her sketchbook, Gautam Syiem, a 37-year-old filmmaker, found hope in an endemic frog species in his backyard, which he used to tell the story of the lockdown in his 23-minute documentary film, Khlem Poi Pyrkhat (Who Would Have Thought?).
“The world had come to a standstill, and as we tried to grapple with the change, the tiny frog in my backyard remained unaffected. It told somehow me — that life would go on, and that there was hope,” said Syiem.
The archive has tied up with local newspapers and radio channels to showcase the works. Anon Momin, a Garo musician, responded to the call by composing an instrumental song, Rang’spia, which translates to ‘sigh’. “Because that’s what the last few months have been like — a long and heavy sigh,” he said.
Looking back on the 2020 pandemic
The NE AV archive — which was formed last year as an audio-visual repository of the heritage of Northeast India — is run by the Mass Media Department of St Anthony’s College, Shillong and aided by SPF, Japan. “When we had visited Japan, we saw a lot of archives documenting disasters like the Tsunami, recording the natural disaster when it happened,” said Majaw, “This is what gave us the idea of a pandemic archive.”
The archivists have collected pandemic-related government notifications as well as public service announcements made during the lockdown. “In the first few months, some people recorded government vans going from locality to locality, making announcements about safe health practices, or curfew timings,” said Majaw, “Every bit — even seemingly mundane notifications like these — is important.”
Bhartiya said apart from historical interest an archive like this might elicit, it could also be of practical use years later. “These notifications could help map a timeline, allow people to situate themselves in terms of government.”
And society too — reflected in screenshots of posts collected from various social media platforms, such as a bike with a sign that announces that it is “going to a pharmacy” or a picture of a lady, her face covered with a cloth, save for two slits for her eyes. “Difficult for the virus to get in” reads a cheeky caption below the image, which was circulated on Whatsapp. “Social media is considered to be an ephemeral thing,” said Bhartiya, “But it captures a lot of interesting things, even rumours. Ten years later, we can look back at this time, and understand how people responded the pandemic, and figured it out.”
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