At 9 pm on March 26, about 48 hours into India’s 21-day lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, sound artist and musician Yashas Shetty kicked off an internet music show from his minimalist home studio in Bengaluru. Dealing with the theme of “isolation”, Shetty played tracks cutting across genres and time periods – from works of Beethoven to ’70s rock band Joy Division. Since then, The Radio Quarantine has gone live every night and will continue at least until the lockdown ends on April 14.
Across the country, a similar project had come to life in Kolkata the previous day. A group of friends came together to set up Radio Quarantine Kolkata on an online streaming platform. They wanted to provide “an intimate space for solidarity and to preserve friendships” even as “the word ‘social isolation’ kept being bandied around”, said one of the people behind the station, Darshana Mitra, who teaches at the National University of Juridical Science.
The station runs through the day, with original programming between 5 pm to 2 am. Radio Quarantine Kolkata includes a kids’ show, story-telling sessions, and a music show. One of its more popular segments, “Quarantine Diaries”, includes social commentary and interviews, and has attempted to continue the discussion about the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens amid the pandemic.
These are just two examples of how Indian artists and activists have refused to let the physical isolation of the lockdown stop attempts to engage in community activity.
Beating the blues
Shetty said the idea behind his project was to look at “how we collectively try to process our experience of being in lockdown” and understand “what’s happening in the world out there through music and sound”.
He runs the show with the help of other members of the Indian Sonic Research Organisation, a network of independent composers and instrument builders in Bengaluru.
Savita Vijaykumar, who has collaborated to bring in some of the guest speakers, said that Radio Quarantine is more “community driven” than a formal radio station. “The show brings together family, friends and builds audiences to discover new music and request for their favourites,” she said. “You often get to hear music you wouldn’t normally access, and [it] challenges you as a listener to find new sonic ears.”
Each episode is centred around a theme, which steers the mood and playlist for the night. The themes – covering everything from “isolation” and “taking a break” to “dancing on your own” – reflect the anxieties and fears around the lockdown. It runs for a couple of hours, stretching till midnight some days.
Right around the time Shetty’s programme ends at midnight, Radio Quarantine Kolkata’s late-night segment, “Songs of comfort for hypochondriacs and panicking lovers” – hosted by writer and music enthusiast Sudipto Sanyal – goes live and continues until 2 am. It is particularly popular, attracting listeners from Bangladesh, United States, Canada, Scotland, Romania and Hungary.
Both playlists are eclectic. Shetty’s show offer selections from Eastern and Western classical composers, experimental musicians Laurie Anderson and Alvin Lucier, contemporary Japanese artists, and ’80s Hindi and English pop.
For his part, Sanyal has played everything from Bollywood, hip hop and jazz to Venezuelan folk, Palestinian reggae, and Brazilian rock. The music is loosely woven around the theme for the night. For instance, an episode about things that people miss during lockdown had songs about going to the movies, touching someone, and alcohol. An episode on espionage and surveillance featured the Hindi song Tu Jahan Jahan Chalega Mera Saaya Saath Hoga.
“It’s just a way to get people to listen to what I like,” said Sanyal.
Talking the talk
Both stations feature discussion shows. The guests Shetty has hosted have included writer Arshia Sattar who talked about exile and isolation, activist Kavita Krishnan who spoke about the migrant-worker crisis, sound engineer Umashankar Mantravadi who discussed his theory of labour and the plague in Europe, and British cosmologist Martin Rees who discussed the dangers of science the fragility of these times.
Mitra from Radio Quarantine Kolkata, who has hosted three sessions about the National Register of Citizens and plans to do more, wondered how it would be possible to keep up civic resistance in the time of social distancing. “When the shutdown was announced, it was depressing for a lot of us who were involved in the [anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and anti-National Register of Citizen] movements,” she said. “It’s important to remember that [in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic] a lot of the entitlements that we are banking upon – like the right to health or the right to employment or the right to housing – work best only when you have assured citizenship.”
She said that in Assam, where the final National Register of Citizens was published last year, anxieties about coronavirus and basic survival are tied with fears of citizenship and disenfranchisement. She conceded that the pandemic is going to reshape how people relate to each other, but warned that it should not obscure other rights movements.
“We should continue talking about them,” said Mitra. “The physical spaces are absent, but the issues still exist.”
You can tune in to The Radio Quarantine every night at 9 pm here. You can also send in song requests and comments on +919620964238 and email@example.com.
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