The covid-19 pandemic had a sudden and substantial impact on the arts and cultural sector. The global health crisis and the uncertainty resulting from it have profoundly affected the operations of organisations as well as individuals – across the sector. Artists and the creative sector workers have been attempting to provide access to culture and arts for their communities. At the same time, they are reacting to the unexpected change in their business model.

Too often, individuals in the creative sector in Bangladesh have lost contracts or employment, with not much financial assistance available. Meanwhile, the government’s financial stimulus and donor funding have provided differing levels of support. However how much of it has reached small to medium creative enterprises, is hard to tell. At the same time, it is unknown whether – or when – the demand for crowded cultural events will return. Artists in both urban and rural Bangladesh are doing everything in their capacity to cope with the coronavirus – and to connect with their audience to bring forth a deeper sense of community.

Eeshita Azad is a creative industry expert and an arts producer with insights into the cultural sector of Bangladesh, the UK and the US. The WhiteBoard team spoke with her to get her take on the impact of covid-19 on artists and the response of Bangladeshi policy-makers. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.

How is the creative community reacting to the pandemic?
When the pandemic started, our first reaction – globally, nationally and at individual level – was of shock. There was a resistance to believe that this is really happening. All industries, business to educational institutes alike, went into shock. I might be biased but it felt like the creative community came out of this shock the fastest. They took care of themselves by singing, writing, producing art and creating stories around the pandemic. They helped others around them, viewers and audiences, to get to a better mental health space. They accepted that the pandemic was happening, there was no way we could stop it. When you are in a war, you need somebody to lead the soldiers forward and I felt like the creative community was doing that all around the world.

I can cite examples in music. The first place was Wuhan in China. The lockdown happened. People were suddenly indoor for months because the virus was out of control. The whole world was watching them. So, in Wuhan, they started singing. In the evening, they all would stand on their balconies or by their windows and sing together. That not only gave them hope, it made the world, watching them through social media, hopeful as well. We then saw the same happening in Italy, Spain, and New York. It was amazing. We saw individual cases of opera singers or band musicians just getting on the balcony and singing or playing. That was the first thing, music gave us hope.

What has been the community’s reaction in Bangladesh?
On a national level in Bangladesh, what I have observed in the theatre and acting community is that they have started using phone-cameras, and then editing the results very cleverly to look like drama episodes. Then we have seen musicians getting together online to jam so that their fans can listen and partake.

I lead a creative non-profit called British Bangladeshi Poetry Collective. Our aim is to use poetry to showcase Bangladeshi heritage to mainstream UK audience. During the lockdown we also sprang into action. We started hosting online poetry writing workshops which led to people sharing their hopes and fears using the safe vehicle of poetry.

How can the industry be helped? What suggestions do you have for policy-makers or even the business community?
In the UK, the first thing was that the government recognised the issue. The Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund– national bodies that give grants – worked overtime to make sure that cultural organisations could continue to survive. They started with big organisations and then moved to individuals. At first, it was theatres, galleries, libraries and cinemas. Then it was more about the freelancers and small to medium organisations that work in silos.

I was very hopeful when I heard that the Bangladeshi government had allocated USD 130 million for the creative industry. The government realised what was at stake and took the first important step. But what I cannot stress enough is that, while the allocation of this funding is very important, the real achievement will lie in how it is managed and disbursed.

So many different sectors fall into the realm of the creative industry, from fashion to readymade garments to leather to performing arts to craft-makers. This is a huge industry. In my experience, bigger entities are better at acquiring funds such as those being provided under the stimulus. We need to pay attention to the small and medium creative entities. How are they getting the stimulus funding, and what are the modalities they are using?

I have worked for the BBC Media Action, British Council and the Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. I have experience in the charity sector. They have a large database of individual artists, craftspeople and musicians. We also have, for example, the Fashion Design Council, the Crafts Council and other similar non-profit organisations; these entities can share their databases with policy-makers. They can help distribute funds through their network that can provide access to creative communities all over Bangladesh.

I think you nailed it when you said that we also have to think about the non-Dhaka semi-urban and rural artists. Creative communities that are more on the folk side. Can you elaborate?
Yes. Although our resources are Dhaka-centric, Bangladesh does not stop – in fact neither does it start – in Dhaka. Our country is a big one, especially when you think about heritage art. Heritage art does not just mean crafts, like jute work, and jamdani. It also means bauls (folk musicians), folk artists, jatra (travelling theatre); these are part of our culture and proud past. Our national heritage depends on how these art forms stay alive, especially during crisis.

The way the UK has approached the problem seems to have borne fruit. Bangladesh’s declaration of funds for the arts community is clearly a good start. Would you recommend a similar modality to that of the UK? Or must the approach be contextualised to Bangladesh?
One thing I must make clear is that there is no reason to follow the West. This pandemic has shown us that nobody has the answer. People are making mistakes. There is no learning from the West for the East. What I am trying to say is that Bangladesh has already taken a huge step forward. Now, it is a matter of distributing funding and making sure it reaches the right people.

What can the creative community learn from this crisis, at both individual and institutional level?
I have actually been thinking about this. I am going to say, as human, we have shown historically that we do not learn from history. We make the same mistakes every time. It is almost a cliché. What happens if, in a decade, there is another huge pandemic? Here, the creative community can help in a big way. With government, philanthropic or corporate support, they can document the lessons learnt from this pandemic. I do not mean only dry, data-based reports but story telling documentaries and films.

For some people it has been music; for some it has been films; for some it has been the TV. Chat shows have now been successfully transferred to Zoom. Bangladeshi big cable channels like NTV, Channel I and Ekattor TV, all of them now have shows that are using streaming. All of this comes under the creative community. This has played a huge role in preserving mental health. Imagine the pandemic without any music or films. One piece of learning from this crisis is that art is important. It is necessary for living a meaningful life just as the other basic needs. It should not be of secondary importance for the policy-makers and the think-tanks.

Freelance artists are among the most vulnerable, for the reasons you have outlined. What can an individual plan now? Government support will come, policy actions will come, some corporate support will come – but the pandemic has also taught us that we have to be resilient.

Individual artists, even as they hold us together as a community, are also vulnerable. They are artistic beings, emotional beings. I have published a number of tips for individual creative artists and pointed to some tips for their post-pandemic careers.

The first thing to remember is, it is not bad being small. Small means agile. Big organisations can seem very sturdy and resilient but they can fall hard, whereas individuals have the flexibility to reinvent. If something is about to fall on their head, they can move out of the way very quickly. Freelancers need to change their mind-set. Do not think of yourself as vulnerable but as someone in a position of strength. Remember everyone is in the same boat, nobody has the answer.

Second, everyone has self-doubt. I think artists have the most self-doubt – that is part of the creative process. I would say try not to be insecure because, no matter what you do, you are unique. No one person is the same as another person.

Tip three is that sometimes being unique is not enough – you do need to stand out. The lockdown has forced us to rethink what we are. We can reinvent our style, get a new skill. The pandemic is a perfect opportunity for experimentation and reinvention. Artists should research, watch other artists, not just nationally but globally.

Tip four, have you tried putting up your work on Instagram? If you are a poet, have you tried Twitter? Have you tried hash-tagging your poems? Before, maybe you were a writer for a print publication. Now you have the whole world online for you. Try thinking a little about different positioning.

Last but not least is to find a cause, find out what inspires you. This does not have to be superficial. Think about others. Maybe you feel very strongly about violence against women or child labour. Let your cause guide you to become a creative professional. Maybe you can donate your work, or just use your brand to raise awareness. Align your work, your art, to the cause. This way you will stand out. You will also inspire people to follow your work.

You are based in London. But you come to Bangladesh for work. What brought you to Bangladesh the last time you were here?
I was in Bangladesh for work in March 2020. I left just when the pandemic started. I am a creative producer and an arts consultant. When planning for Mujib Year [the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] started, the Bangladeshi government reached up to this international dance group called Akram Khan Company. The group was commissioned to put together a dance piece for the finale to the Mujib Year celebration on 17 March 2020. I was hired as the Bangladesh advisor because of my previous connections with the company and a strong connection with Bangladesh.

To be asked to be a part of the celebration of the birth centenary of the father of the nation was an honour. The whole thing was an example of how resilient the Bangladeshi creative community is. The process was rigorous. 25 local dancers with background in Kathak, Bharatnatyam or Monipuri, were selected. They were trained for a month by Akram Khan Company dancers. These young Bangladeshi dancers, along with three Akram Khan Company dancers, made a flawless eight-minute masterpiece for the Mujib Year finale.

The dance depicted the story of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s, the leader’s, call to arms for freedom in 1971. The amazing storytelling made everyone experience that national pride – not just the dancers themselves but all those who were working on the project. Everyone felt that sense of pride of being Bangladeshi.

The “Mujib” performance was supposed to be held in front of an audience of 95,000. Many foreign dignitaries were supposed to attend – not just this performance but the whole centenary celebration. Within two days everything had to be changed because of the covid-19 situation. And the relevant government agencies were incredibly determined in repurposing this humongous show within two days for streaming on all national television and digital platforms. This was a concerted effort by the company, by the government, by the performers, by the international artists, who all worked together seamlessly to put this on within two days. All in all, the experience will always remain with me as a moment of national pride.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Eeshita Azad
Eeshita Azad is a fellow at Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, UK. She is a creative industry expert and an arts producer. She was Director of Creative Planning at Bengal Group, Bangladesh, and Managing Director of Bengal Creative Hub. She is the lead at British Bangladeshi Poetry Collective (BBPC), and a consultant at Akram Khan Dance Company. She has worked in the cultural and non-profit sector in New York, London and Dhaka. She pursued her studies in art practice and community engagement at Middlesex University.