Art in the Time of Corona — How Indian Artists Coped with 2020

2020 wasn’t the easiest year to survive through– to put it lightly. The Covid-19 pandemic and the worldwide lockdown forced people to stay inside their homes for months at a time, without getting to socialize or even step out for a moment. The entire world came to a standstill and nothing was the same as before.

But as with every other change, we, humans, learnt to adapt to it. And so did plenty of artists, whose livelihood was severely affected, like millions of others across the world. While some tapped into their artistic side as a means to find peace in solitude, others turned to creativity to find a new direction in the midst of all the uncertainty.

We got in touch with 6 Indian artists to learn more on how the pandemic affected their art, how they managed to cope with the year and what they look forward to in 2021.

Hemlata Pal

I am Hemlata Pal from Dehradun, Uttarakhand. I make customized cross stitch hand-embroidered hoops after having recently resumed an old hobby in my 50s. Taking one day at a time, I am gradually discovering and learning new things everyday and enjoying every bit of this journey. My work involves simple patterns and I love to work on more Indian themes and Hindi-Devanagari scripts while stitching. I try to experiment with new products like cross stitch bookmarks, cards and cushions. We have also introduced DIY cross stitch kits for people to take up cross-stitch again, just like I did. All our orders are dispatched with a little thank you postcard called “chachi ki chitthi” where I add a handwritten note in Hindi.

When the pandemic hit, I was with my family at my home in Dehradun. I was busy with regular household chores as usual. While the pandemic definitely affected us all, in my case, it was the pandemic that made me restart my old, forgotten hobby. Due to the lockdown, my whole family was back at home. While deep cleaning the house, I came across some of my 20+ year old artworks including paintings and hand-embroidered cross-stitch pieces. It was my niece, Kimi, who noticed my artwork, loved them and saw an opportunity. She asked me, “Chachi (aunty), why don’t you start cross stitching again?”. On the very same day, she opened an Instagram account for me and uploaded photos of my old artwork. There has been no looking back since then.

And that is how I restarted cross stitch again. With my niece’s help, I started stitching new designs based on whatever was happening around me. For example, during the rainy season, I made a design on “Barkha Bahar ” with an umbrella. Later, I made a hoop as a gift for my sister-in-law’s newly-born boy, Yug. It was during the month of September when Srishti Tehri gave me a shout out on her story and I got my first handful of queries asking for prices and custom orders. I never thought that someone would like to buy the Barkha Bahar hoop all the way from Kolkata. Again, on the very same day, my niece and I took up the opportunity and started figuring out pricing, packaging and delivery.

Today, after more than 3 months, I have successfully delivered several custom hoop arts across India, made my first personal bank account, collaborated with Platform for Artists, made my first online store with the help of the InstaMojo team, exhibited my work in Dehradun, made many new friends on Instagram (mostly all young kids), and replaced my afternoon sleeping breaks with new exciting projects.

Cross stitch is a great stress buster. It kept me happy and engaged throughout the lockdown period and it also enabled me to spend time with my family at home. Starting a small handmade business amid lockdown can be tough in terms of stepping out and sourcing the right materials. To my luck, the circumstances have been quite favourable and everyone has been very supportive but yes, there have been new learnings at every phase of setting up “Chachi Cross Stitch”. We are still looking into sourcing the best materials and creating mindful yet delightful packaging for our products.

Another reason things have been easier for me is because I am not alone in this venture. I would not have imagined doing all of this by myself. It is because of my niece who is always there to help me with things that I can’t handle by myself- like procuring materials, handling the social media and helping me with making digital patterns. My daughters and I have a small chat group where we discuss and share everything about Chachi Cross Stitch. My husband also could not resist getting his hands on the hoop and ended up making some cross stitch bookmarks which were received very well.

After my marriage when my daughter grew up, I always wanted to start something of my own. I underwent NTT (Nursery Teacher Training), thought about opening a crèche and also wanted to stitch clothes for newborns but nothing really worked out. Today at 54, when I am at home with time in my hand, loving family members to help and platforms with supportive people online, I feel the right time is now and it is never too late to start something new. I will keep creating till I can.

This year has been tough for everyone but has also made us stronger in different ways. I look forward to 2021 to be kinder to each one of us. Personally, I hope my work brings more people joy and makes them happy when they put these hoops in their homes. I hope it reminds everyone of their experiences and memories with the hand embroidery and inspires more people to get back to cross stitch or any old forgotten hobby as I did. It is all these lovely anecdotes and heartwarming messages that people share with us which motivate us to keep going and stitching.

Pranay Maheshwari

I am Pranay Maheshwari, the founder of Sustainity. I always dreamt of becoming an Investment Banker, but eventually, time drew me towards becoming a lawyer. This choice later motivated me to fight for environmental justice and the need for preservation of natural resources. I developed an interest in business and did thorough research on bamboo, which is the best alternative to the single-use plastics and fully biodegradable in nature. With a growing hype towards small businesses across the world, I wanted to begin a startup too. That drive helped me launch Sustainity on World Environment Day 2019. Initially, I just had my closest friend as an ally. She fully supported me during the ups and downs that come along with starting any new business. Eventually, we became a small team of like-minded environmentalists who loved to work tirelessly and produce new thoughts, ideas, and designs that fit the framework of being sustainable and eco-friendly.

Everything was going perfect– we were getting recognized by people from every corner of India, but then, the pandemic hit. I was in Lucknow, the city of nawabs, enriched with the flavours of Mughlai cuisines, when it happened. Everything seemed like the end of the world; governments taking sudden precautions and placing restrictions, everything getting closed, travel becoming a nightmare. We were in our transition phase when the pandemic hit, planning some risk-taking tasks for the future of the firm and how they could be beneficial towards the conservation of the planet, especially for the marine ecosystems. We were finalizing our associations with few environmental organizations based in both India and abroad. We were to start education drives in villages in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Everything seized, certain NGOs and private organizations started refraining from any associations until the pandemic eases and things become normal.

As far as the pandemic is concerned, the majority of the small businesses across the world started to either shut down or limit their operations. We feared for any shutdown on Sustainity. To cope with the new changes, we adapted to virtuality as the new black, starting our product sales on Flipkart and our own website. Since people had been in difficulties due to the lockdowns in every state, we prepared ourselves to manage with limited resources, laying off our marketing members. In the initial months of the lockdowns, our e-commerce sales went well, with a few prominent hotel and resort chains signing up as our clientele. However, since August, the pandemic brought down our sales to a minimum.

We are presently focusing on reaching out to people via social media platforms and newsletters with the hope that once the pandemic vanishes, there lies a good future for every small business and entrepreneur out there, along with ours. The pandemic has so far shown no silver lining, but we pray and wish for some great achievements nevertheless, which we had hoped for a long time.

We are prepared to face 2021 with high expectations. We hope that it brings more awareness for the need to stop mass usage of single-use plastics and switch to reusable and sustainable daily-life products. We are hoping to associate ourselves with leading hotel chains and restaurants. Hopefully, 2021 is expected to be better than 2020, which was filled with deaths and miseries globally. It would decide whether Sustainity lives or ceases operations for some time. We send good luck and wishes to every entrepreneur and small business who have managed the pandemic so far by adapting to such stringent lockdowns and government reforms.

Bandana Jain

I am Bandana Jain. Though I am a qualified artist, I began my journey as a designer catering to the premium category. It took me years to realize that my medium and I both are meant to cater to the art segment. Art is more global where the choice of medium is simply a way of expressing one’s thoughts. Initially, it was all about spreading awareness about this unique material which I adopted. It depicts my love for recycling, upcycling, and my approach to sustainability. I mostly do commission work. I take months to make each piece and create either a limited edition or an exclusive piece.

The pandemic– this tragic event often makes us recall where we were when all of this began. For me, I just had a beautiful business trip to Paris, the capital of arts and the city of lights, where every artist wishes to find a true prospect to his/her calling. Filled with ample opportunities, in an environment so dynamic and enormously rich in culture, I knew I had to meet the right people there to create a wider audience for my art. Unfortunately in the middle of March, I found myself trying to figure out about this “viral infection” and how it spread. It was hard to gain a perspective when you are in the middle of such uncertainty, to make sense of what is going on and how the future will emerge.

2020 at its beginning– those first 3 months were quite exciting for me. My Paris business trip was followed by a lot of interesting collaborations and opportunities. I got a chance to collaborate with Gauri Khan Designs to celebrate Maison & Objet’s 25th year, where I showcased “GAJA”, an elephant artwork very close to my heart. Soon after, it was DCode; one of the best luxury lifestyle events in Mumbai wherein I designed limited edition momentos for some of the prestigious architects of our country. Many similar collaborations were in the pipeline for April, May, and June, some of them got extended/postponed for me and the others simply didn’t happen due to the pandemic.

Fears were abound during the pandemic. Such uncertainty. “How long will it last?” “How the business will get impacted”, so many other insecurities. Other emotions: resentment, anger, deep sadness, frustration rise as we faced projects and collaborations that were — after months in the planning — being disrupted, trips are being either postponed or cancelled, business got ruined so many events that enrich our lives were not happening. But does that mean we give up?

If asked, “what did the pandemic eventually teach us?,” I would only say how stronger and evolved I have come out of this critical period, wherein each day we have all evaluated ourselves on so many aspects and tried to overcome our weaknesses. Surely many of us have lost a lot of things along the way, but that only made us face our fears and overcome them with the help of love and togetherness. I think of this period as the golden period. It’s the period when creative people, scientists, etc. have often taken out time for themselves to go into isolation. Isolation ignites inspiration. Take Einstein, for example, who proved his theory of relativity during the Spanish Flu when a quarter of the world’s population wiped away. I for myself observed things very differently compared to when I wasn’t quarantined.

Expectation would ideally not be the word I would like to use for the year of 2021, but surely we can inculcate the word “hope”. Expectations, if not met, can leave us disillusioned but we can always have a ray of hope among our hearts to elevate ourselves this year. I have beautiful things in the pipeline like, I am working with Amazon-India for a project termed “Amazon Karigar”. We are trying to bridge the gap between the Indian artisans and the mass by introducing a designer. I am working on block printing with artisans from Rajasthan to uplift the Indian handicraft industry. I want to make them able, so does Amazon. It’s a collaborative effort to uplift our rich craft. This year, I am doing a lot of other interesting work plus I am entering into art curation. Rest let’s see which way the wind blows.

Ayushi Singhal

I am Ayushi Singhal, an interdisciplinary designer and visual artist based out of Delhi, India. I graduated from Symbiosis Institute of Design (Pune) in the year 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree (B.Des) in Fashion Designing. Even though I’ve worked at the core of the fashion industry, I never restricted myself to it. My work generally dabbles amongst graphics, zine-making, printmaking, illustrations, surface patterns, textile, and product design. Embodying circularity in design and adding functionality to my art has always been my core principles. You might find my work colorful, uncompromising, eccentric, frisky, raw, and mostly created from discarded materials.

I had moved back from Pune in Dec 2019, back to my family home in Delhi. So luckily, I was with my dog and family in Delhi when the pandemic first hit. Back then, I was fresh out of college. I was hunting for jobs when I heard the news about fresh cases sprouting across various parts of India. I have never felt as directionless and hopeless as I felt during the first few months of the pandemic. I was clueless about how to even approach this situation. Whatever I had done and mentally prepared myself for, was wasted. Eventually, I spent some time evaluating, assessing the situation, and seeing what options were available for me.

2020 has been a loss of 1 year of my initial career, industry exposure, experience, and bank balance, which I am still grieving about. But on a brighter sight, my past internship experiences taught me a great deal and I realized the value of having a side-hustle. That is why during 2020, I decided to explore and try an art style and projects that I have been delaying for a long-time. That is when I started my small art brand “Nazarbuttu” with the idea of making my art functional on a platform where I can create without any restrictions. I hold immense love for exploring unconventional materials and upcycling them into functional art. I specifically started #ProjectWasteNot to reduce waste, so under it, I upcycle dry waste and textile scraps into hand-stitched notebooks, bookmarks, postcards, and more utilitarian products.

Working towards Nazarbuttu gave me a sense of mission and kept me sane during the entire crisis. The pandemic was an opportunity in disguise as it gave me the chance to explore many different yet correlated aspects that come into operating an art brand adequately. I started looking into topics like logistics, MailChimp, content creation, newsletter design, email marketing, and beyond. I understood how these areas play a pivotal role apart from my own designing and creative skills, which grew in the process. The year 2020 was tough, but no matter the hardships – “learning” is always that primary take-away irrespective.

In 2021, I am looking forward to exploring more unconventional materials, zines, printmaking, different illustration styles, and having a consistent, stable source of income. As the saying goes – “one for the kitchen, one for the soul”. I worked my soul out in 2020 towards Nazarbuttu, my art brand. However, now I aim at being able to pay my bills and stabilize an income source so that my kitchen and my soul stay in perfect balance, as all things should be.

Kasturi Mahanta

I am Kasturi Mahanta. I was a full-time communication designer until I founded “Moromere” in August, amidst the pandemic. Moromere is a sustainable clay home decor and jewellery brand, all handmade by me. As a designer, working 24/7 with digital software was not really something I was looking forward to doing everyday. Experimenting and hand-building with clay started when I found that I had a lot of time to spare for myself during the WFH period. After a lot of failed projects and learning, I realised that this is like meditation to me and I didn’t mind spending hours and days holed up in my room, playing with clay and creating items out of nothing, literally.

When the pandemic hit, I was working and continuing my regular life in Gurgaon. I was busy with a full-time job which involved me looking after the entire visual aspects of that brand, along with handling a team. Though work was going slow, the brand was coping with the lockdown well and we were all thankful for that. But my inner voice was telling me to do something of my own and it finally grew so loud that I gave in and listened to my heart.

The pandemic time was a time to mindfully slow down for me. I completely surrendered to the situation and went with the flow. “Bloom where you are planted,” they say. So I did exactly that. I started illustrating on software and building with clay everyday. In the process, my illustration page on Instagram flourished quite a bit as my quality and skills improved, and so did my clay work. And in a month or two, I was confident enough to showcase my skills to the world. I participated in Platform For Artist’s first online flea market called Unseen, and launched Moromere officially.

As scary and frightful as it was to be away from my family and friends for more than 7-8 months at a stretch, I used this time as a total self development and introspection period. There was no rush and no deadlines to meet anymore. I didn’t have to travel for work or be in meetings the entire day. I had this time to myself and instead of focusing on what was going wrong, I tried to focus on what I could make right at that moment for myself. Also working and learning new things made me less anxious about the pandemic situation, so I feel very thankful about that.

If there is one thing 2020 has taught me, it is to not expect but to do. I plan to work a lot more in 2021, expand my small business, and use new methods of growth. I want to create more and keep on learning. Another lesson I have taken from 2020 is to be agile…to adapt, survive and move on. Being more like water in 2021 is another motto. And oh also…to keep wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding crowds!

Rabraj Saimy

I am Rabraj Saimy, a multidisciplinary schizoaffective artist from Mumbai and Bangalore, India. My tryst with art began the first time I read a book on Dali at the friendly neighbourhood bookstore in Mumbai that allowed patrons to read books in the store. Books that I could never afford, on Picasso, Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Monet, van Gogh, among other masters. I was always interested in art and wanted to study Fine Arts at the college level but due to family pressure and the reality of arts not being a commercially rewarding career option in India, I dropped the idea.

As an artist, my story is one of persistence against all odds. In 2011 I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, but rather than a hindrance I believe it works to shape my unique understanding of life, and seeing the beauty in the banal and divinity in the dull. My mind is extremely focused, but also warped and highly impressionable. It is deeply influenced by spirituality, the humanities, and Indian mythology with social activism sometimes. I like the viewer to experience a deeper meaning of life.

The themes I like to paint around are Indian Mythology, Spirituality and Iconography, albeit in a contemporary style. Using bright and bold colours in abstract and certain naïvety in figurative works comes naturally to me. It was only at the end of 2019 that I gave up on working in a job and became a full-time artist.

I was in Mumbai when the pandemic first hit. We took one of the last trains to Bengaluru before the lockdown came into place. There were a couple of exhibitions that I was going to be a part of, that were initially postponed and eventually cancelled as the seriousness of the pandemic set in. My reaction to any bad or negative stimulus is to paint! And that’s exactly what I did. Almost every day, I would paint on the terrace with the pigeons for company.

At first, I faced the challenge of sourcing good art materials. I ran out of canvas and considered painting on newspapers. The second and more daunting challenge was the realization that suddenly art was the last thing buyers would want to invest in, given the pandemic.  The silver lining to this period were the efforts of endearing spirits who organized online exhibitions as physical galleries dried up. I took part in two such exhibitions with Platform For Artists and Mojarto

My hope for 2021 is herd immunity against Covid-19. But what I expect is more virus breakouts as the Earth is giving us a chance to change or suffer.

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Art in the Time of Corona — How Indian Artists Coped with 2020
Art in the Time of Corona — How Indian Artists Coped with 2020
Credit : IndieFolio Network

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