To the list of unassailable losses in the pandemic, we must add the loss of serendipitous meetings, those chance encounters that sparked ideas; new contacts that turned into new opportunity; even the chance to use the skill, so carefully honed, of working a room.
“I did a city a day,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of the production house Teamwork Arts. “I was connecting with new people all the time.” Roy would typically wake up early, pack a light bag, take a morning flight to another city, spend the day in meetings and events, and in the evening, host or attend a dinner party for informal conversations, connections and fixes.
For almost three decades, Roy travelled in this way, connecting with artists, planning shows and setting up events ranging from the Jaipur Literature Festival to the Indian showcase at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. “Our journey as a company was a result of the networks we created and the goodwill generated by the people brought together,” he says.
Since March, Roy and tens of thousands like him have become trapped in a maze of webinars, Zoom calls and virtual events. The format of faces in little boxes, mikes muted, doesn’t just have limitations, it replaces the thrill of the mingle with a sense of separation and ennui.
“When you shift stuff online, the question of who has access or can do this thing becomes important,” says author and corporate guru Parmesh Shahani, whose Godrej Culture Lab brings together people from academia, cultural and corporate spaces for events that range in theme from caste and queerness to migration and Partition.
Online forums cannot attract the kind of diverse audiences a physical space holds, Shahani says. Web-savvy youngsters from urban and privileged backgrounds make up a much larger proportion of the audience now. A medley of rural music is virtually impossible. And even with those who can tune in, there is simply no knowing when a participant’s call will drop during a live event.
Of course, there are hacks. Experts suggest reaching out to organisers beforehand to establish a profile, follow up with participants afterwards, pay special attention to speaking and presentations, and, most importantly, ensuring that your video is adequately lit. Persistence and personal touches pay in the virtual world, as they do in the real one.
Shahani notes that some events translate quite seamlessly online – such as the student mentorship programme of the culture lab. For the rest, new networks are emerging to replace the old.
For his book Queeristan, released earlier this year, the splashy events and multi-city tours were not an option, but different forms of promotion emerged. “We’ve been doing webinars with hosts that range from school students to corporate leaders. “Because of the challenge, I realised, there are so many other networks to leverage. It is intriguing,” Shahani says.
Roy advises people to bank on the timeless skills — the ability to make a person feel special, be warm, entertain, be hospitable, no matter what your platform or audience.
Even if you can’t cook up an Indian feast every evening as Roy did at the Edinburgh festival in 2001, you can create new kinds of hubs of creativity, conversation and connection. Shahani would disagree.
“A lot of the magic happens in the physical space. That surprise encounter, a person, a photo. I don’t know if the online environment is designed for serendipity. Zoom is not a virtual world to explore, it is only a window,” he says.
Not all networks are professional. There’s the old group of college friends who met once a month, the adda near the local park to head to at the end of a lonely day, the kitty party you looked forward to all month. They could be the difference between acknowledging who you are, and suppressing your identity, as Arul found.
A transperson, Arul, who shared their first name only because they are not out to family, would meet community friends once a week at a space in Chennai. “They are my only network, and they help me live,” they say. “Now, I talk to them sometimes on Zoom, but I am always aware that I am in a house where I cannot say, or wear, things I am comfortable in.”
Arul has since joined a group on WhatsApp of other young transpeople, where they discuss everything from dysphoria to re-runs of Rupaul’s Drag Race.