[email protected]: Keeping your cultural diet healthy

Many versions of the lockdown and varying degrees of concessions later, the newest addition to the COVID-19 parlance in India is the word “unlock”. It is, however, a paradox that in these strange times, viewing some form of art is what has kept us in touch with the beauty of human creativity, and yet when life returns to a semblance of normalcy, gathering in theatres and concert halls to experience the arts live wouldn’t perhaps rank high on the list of priorities.

Cultural centres the world over recognise this, and are carrying on steadfastly with live-streaming and webcasting their content. Entering its third month is the [email protected] initiative by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, India’s premier cultural institution. The YouTube broadcast series began on 3rd April and continues to present a wealth of performances from across the genres of Western classical, International and Indian music and dance, curated from the NCPA’s archival library. Week after week, viewers have watched Zakir Hussain’s concerto for tabla and orchestra, Peshkar, the Symphony Orchestra of India’s presentation of Puccini’s La bohème and several other great orchestral works of renowned composers, full-length concerts by the New York Round Midnight Orchestra and Mud Morganfield, classical dance presentations by Mallika Sarabhai, Aditi Mangaldas and Malavika Sarukkai, and more.

For an organisation whose raison d’être is the propagation of the finest quality of arts through live performances, meeting the demands of the digital medium has been a new experience; one that was embraced with an openness to adapt in the best and quickest manner possible. The [email protected] broadcasts are, therefore, duly subtitled with commentary wherever applicable, while text accompanying the videos helps viewers appreciate the nuances of the performances. Artistes are regularly invited to interact with viewers using the Live Chat option on YouTube as their performances are streamed online. Recently, introductory videos by experts have been added to the streaming of classical concerts. Starting June 3, the digital series is adding another dimension to its weekly broadcasts. In addition to its showcase of cultural events from Thursday to Sunday, the NCPA has joined hands with Tata Literature Live! to stream a stimulating session from Mumbai’s annual literature festival every Wednesday.

A result of these concerted efforts is that the digital series has opened up the universe of the NCPA’s offerings to not only members and patrons but also to an entirely new audience beyond Mumbai and India, taking the number of subscribers to its channel from 13,000 to over 25,000 in just two months.

Dr. Suvarnalata Rao, Programming Head – Indian Music, NCPA, speaks of the virtual reception the genre has received,

“The audience response has been overwhelming in terms of large numbers and wide geographical reach. Considering the unpredictable and heterogeneous nature of the online audience, we have been careful in selecting concerts representing a wide variety, from art music to semi-art, popular, folk, devotional and contemporary genres. The feedback indicates that the Mumbai audience who had missed the actual concert at the NCPA is happy to have this chance to watch the same. The feedback also suggests that people who watched it live were thrilled to relive the magic of the online presentations.”

Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, Head – Programming (Dance), NCPA, concurs.

“We have had a very warm response from the global dance audiences towards our [email protected] initiatives. From senior exponents of dance to young students, our Live Chat on YouTube regularly receives encouraging comments from a wide spectrum. It has been especially heartwarming to see many audiences mention that this was their first experience of Indian dance and they loved it. We have been editing the videos to include translation of the bol used in the choreography so that those members of the audience who are not familiar with Indian culture and literature are also able to understand the content. This idea was our Chairman Mr Khushroo Suntook’s and it has been appreciated by artistes and audiences alike.”

Dasgupta adds that she now receives messages every week enquiring about the upcoming presentations.

The series, for many viewers, has become a part of their new routine under the lockdown. The social media team at the NCPA receives a steady flow of pictures from viewers as they paint, cook and go about with their lives while watching a performance on its digital channel. Viewers have also indicated that the YouTube Premiere feature, with a countdown to the broadcast at 6 pm, adds a sense of attending an event and though it can’t be compared to sitting in a concert hall and watching a cellist play with intense concentration, it is as close as it can get to the real thing in these extraordinary times. The online viewing experience has also helped build a community of sorts, where regular users exchange notes on a performance with fellow connoisseurs. “We are grateful to the [email protected] team for bringing to us a refreshing change from Netflix and Amazon Prime. Thank you for helping us get through these trying times,” remarks Sir Dinshaw Petit, an NCPA patron who is continuing the practice online.

In better times, when audiences return to the theatres, this experience will only serve to guide the organisation in its future endeavours. Farrahnaz Irani, General Manager – International Music, sums it up,

“It is the beginning of a new era for us at the NCPA to experiment and push our creativity through a technical vision to audiences via digital platforms.”


By Snigdha Hasan. Subscribe to the NCPA’s YouTube channel here.