The GO has entailed that kutcheri functions be held in closed spaces with a cap of 50 per cent, vis-a-vis- seating capacity and an upper limit of 200 persons, a rule which applies to events being held in open spaces as well. The move has come as a sigh of relief, not just for the organisers of the extravaganza that is to be held in December, but also for the patrons or rasikas, who have been deprived of anything resembling culture or artistry since March this year. The timing seems ominous as Wednesday is also when Cyclone Nivar is expected to make a landfall in Tamil Nadu, and it could be a phenomenon that rules out the holding of any auspicious event.
The fate of one of the most iconic cultural events of Chennai, the annual music and dance festival of Margazhi, had been threatened by the pandemic. With severe restrictions on public gatherings of all kinds, members and stakeholders in the cultural space were kept on tenterhooks as an extended ban would have meant a near-complete wipe-out of livelihoods for thousands. Of course, the opening up of such sabhas is by no means an admission that the COVID-19 crisis has dissipated in thin air. If anything, the onus for maintaining safety has become only stronger. It’s a concern that is being echoed globally - how to make live performance and art spaces safe again, in the aftermath of the outbreak.
A human experiment conducted in Leipzig, Germany in August this year, which included as many as 1,200 attendees, offered some encouraging insights that came as a ray of hope for concert-goers in the country. The findings of this study codenamed Restart-19 suggested that indoor concerts have a low impact on infection rate, provided proper ventilation and hygiene protocols are followed. The experiment had drawn eyeballs across the international entertainment industry, which was severely impacted by the medical emergency. Simulating various social distancing scenarios for over 10 hours, the attendees also tested out use-cases involving restroom breaks as well as purchasing food and drink from concession stands. Post the study, researchers suggested safety guidelines to be followed at such live events which included installation of new ventilation technology, which effectively and frequently exchanges air; arranging for food and drink breaks while audiences are seated; pre-entry temperature checks, making masks compulsory, as well as ushering in attendees via multiple entrances or access points to the venue.
Having said that, there is a caveat to such experiments, and that is basic human nature. Any such study that is carried out under simulation does not account for how attendees would normally behave - in an unsupervised, uncontrolled setting. For instance, in the pre-pandemic days, it would have been completely acceptable for individuals to laugh out loud at a stand-up comedy routine or a satirical stage play. One might even be forgiven for exchanging high-fives with a buddy after a witty punchline. Not to forget, in Chennai, one of the staples of the Margazhi fest is the accompanying sabha canteens, which until now followed the rule of first-come, first-serve, which sees hundreds of people thronging the food stands for their shot of piping hot filter coffee and crispy masala vadas. And it’s exactly the kind of social behavioural nuances that simulations cannot factor in.
The unlocking in some ways is indicative of a gradual phased return to normalcy. And the government certainly has taken a bold decision in allowing such gatherings to take place. But we are a far cry from business as usual, and a cautious and measured approach, both from organisers and patrons is a must to ensure the show goes on.