It’s a humbling moment when human beings have to take the difficult decision to hide in their homes to save themselves. When it happened earlier this year, with the COVID-19 calamity turning into a pandemic, the world turned to the arts — earnestly, urgently and even as a remedy. Be it the Italians and Spaniards singing and performing from their balconies, or the citizens of Wuhan chanting from their windows or numerous musicians singing, dancing and playing instruments in their homes and reaching our living rooms through the internet, there was the hope that it would help alleviate the load that was constantly piling up — the fears around work, life, survival and even death.
The morbidity of these thoughts has been difficult. In all the science, numbers and politics surrounding the virus, the one thing that has been a significant source of comfort is the arts. Music and dance have given a sense of self-awareness, community, identity and solidarity. We, the people of the world, have a song for every occasion. Like birth and death, the pandemic is also being sung about. In this scheme, as surreal as the pandemic is, it is not special. And when it isn’t special, it is likely not to be insurmountable.
When famed American cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in his living room and performs live on the internet, the warmth, the despondency and the joy of it all makes one want to get out of bed and go about a fabricated routine, in the hope that things will be normal one day. He may not know it himself, but it’s remarkable to watch how a great cellist is looking after the mental health of so many people all over the world. Or when Carnatic classical vocalist Bombay Jayashri Ramnath allows us to enter her music room, letting us be a part of her riyaaz and teaching session — that world of Muthuswami Dikshitar compositions wasn’t available to us like this before. Concerts are a different ball game.
“Sing it out baby… Just remember, we’re gonna get through it,” said Jon Bon Jovi in one of his recent videos. And right after, he strummed his guitar and gave us a song, If you can’t do what you do, do what you can. In the vacuum of lives at this point, it stuck. Then there was the art of movement that strummed the heartstrings in another way. When New York-based ballet dancer and performer Ashlee Montague stepped out onto an empty Times Square in New York to dance in March, in a gas mask, her grace lingered. “Art will endure. Art will survive. Art will thrive,” she wrote on Instagram.
Flipping through the pages of world history, one finds that music and disease have always been joined at the hip. In the 16th century, during the second wave of the plague pandemic in Europe, the Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, asked citizens to sing from their doors and windows during quarantine. He was concerned that processions could encourage the transmission. A hymn, Stella celi extirpavit (Star of heaven), a plea to Virgin Mary, appears in various documents and has references to “ulcers of death”, inflammation — one of the symptoms of the Black Death. In the early 16th century, when the plague prompted Henry VIII to shut his court and be quarantined in Windsor, he chose his doctor and the court organ player Dionisio Memo to stay. The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, in 1723, wrote his Cantata No. 25, titled There is Nothing Healthy in My Body, a year after the great plague of Marseille, France, which had left 1,00,000 people dead including his wife and half of his 20 children. In this, Bach called the world “a hospital”. The piece is not just documentary evidence of what transpired but also a musical expression of what the world was going through.
So why was music deemed so important? Probably because art has helped when nothing else has managed to get through to the crevices of our self.
But if we fathom the significance of art, how do we not consider the artistes worthy? We may say emphatically, that we do. But the situation on the ground is different. The artiste has been deemed “non-essential”. With some of the most notable concert halls shutting down all over the world, a lot of them permanently, orchestras and classical musicians out of work, folk musicians are struggling to make ends meet. It’s turning into an extremely challenging situation, especially in India where coronavirus packages don’t mention artistes.
But the arts may help with COVID 19 too. Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), are attempting to understand the pandemic and the structure of the coronavirus by setting it to music. The spikes made of amino acids have been assigned a note in a musical scale, thus mapping the virus’s movement in the form of a music score to better understand the pathogen and make the world hear what it cannot see. This understanding may help us find a life that isn’t marred by the coronavirus. To me, it attests to the fact that in the high stakes battle that the entire world is fighting, the arts are fighting alongside — in an attempt to give hope, to tell the world to “have faith”, hang in there. We’ll make it out of the maze. Just hang in there.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 24, 2020 under the title “A song for the pandemic”. email@example.com
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