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Down But Not Out

By Baisakhi Roy Email By Baisakhi Roy
June 2020
Down But Not Out

Now that the shock caused by the Covid-19 crisis has given way to an uneasy acceptance of our changed reality, or new normal, how are people doing in their day-to-day lives? Many are not only surviving and managing, but they are finding ways to thrive in the new environment. We share profiles of individuals and groups that rebound creatively or immerse themselves in community service and other fulfilling pursuits, including the arts.


Creating a virtual music festival

Jayanta Pathak and his team were getting ready to put on quite the show on March 21 this year at the Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta. After all, Sangam, the world music festival had opened to rave reviews from the community when it was launched in 2018. Founded by Jayanta Pathak and Eamon Dutta, the festival was created to give a platform to performing artists from diverse cultural backgrounds living in various parts of the United States. The festival featured traditional folk music from India, original compositions with modern renditions, and contemporary jazz by ten of the finest musicians from the U.S. and India. “Sangam has a grand vision—to create music that is contemporary, that reflects the modern technological times we live in,” says Pathak. “We want to showcase artists whose work is accessible to everyone.”

(Right) Jayanta Pathak


The festival now stands postponed to a tentative date in January 2021, with the hope that circumstances by then will return to normal or some semblance of it. Sangam’s spectacular shows are possible because of copious planning, great talent, and groundbreaking technology. The high production value of the event has attracted some bright music stars from around the world. This year, acclaimed Indian semi-classical vocalist Preeti Uttam and America's Songbird, jazz vocalist Myrna Clayton, were scheduled to headline the show. Other eminent artists included Jez Graham on piano, Eamon Dutta on guitar, Emrah Kotan on percussion, Souryadeep Bhattacharyya on sarod, Wilgens Pierre on bass, Marla Feeney on saxophone, violin, and English horn, Priyal Shah on keyboard, Anjaneya Sastri on tabla, and Court Tatum on drums, with Pathak composing and writing original scores for the concert. Dignitaries including the consul generals of India, Canada, Brazil, and Bangladesh were also expected to attend. For now, the organizers have asked the public to hold on to their tickets for an event that will happen, most likely in a virtual space later this year, in a version that’s scaled down due to logistic concerns. A few online promotional performances with a few songs are also being planned.




Despite the financial losses incurred because of the cancellation, amounting to thousands of dollars (from printing and publicity expenses to theater bookings, not to mention the partial payments made to all professionals hired for the event, including musicians), Pathak puts on a brave face. “Being a music producer, I do audio recordings of vocals, musical instruments from different parts of the globe for various projects. Today it’s become possible to record artists and musicians online individually with multiple digital platforms. But it’s not possible to have a live visual performance together at the same time with multiple artists or musicians performing in different places, because of latency. In the future, maybe technology might help with zero latency and people will be able to enjoy a live performance from their homes. For now, all I can say is, maintain social distance, possibly stay at home and stay safe till this bizarre time gets over, so that you can enjoy more art and music better than before,” he says.




Honoring frontline workers with art

Bindu Malbari, a resident of Gwinnett County in Gorgia, is running a full house. Forced to stay indoors during Covid-19 like the rest of us, Malbari is cohabiting with seven family members, which include her husband, 17-year-old twins, her in-laws, and two aunts. “They are all such strong personalities, there’s never a dull moment,” she says, laughing.

Bindu Malbari (L) with her family​


The family is handling the lockdown by keeping themselves busy making art projects for the frontline workers in their community. “Every week, our family participates in craft sessions, where we all make small tokens and gifts for various Covid-19 warriors. As a token of gratitude to nurses and doctors, we created custom-decorated LED candles, canvas paintings for heroic first responders, and paper flower art for teachers working hard during digital learning. We also worked on Zentangle and string art projects for animal rescues and grocery store employees,” says Malbari. The family’s senior members are enthusiastic participants in these activities despite their health issues. While Malbari’s mother- in-law, a breast cancer survivor, has to have regular dialysis sessions for her kidneys, her father-in-law and aunts have other disabilities to deal with. Malbari and her husband also look at this time as an opportunity to spend quality time with their teens, who will be flying the nest soon. The couple also work full time, so having a household run smoothly, along with contributing to the community, has been possible only because they work as a team. “We both have meetings at all hours of the day and night because our clients are all around the world. My husband and I and all the family members actually pitch in with everything— from cooking to chores, it’s a group effort,” she says.

The family has also engaged extended family, friends, neighbors, and their social media contacts to help out with various organizations, from animal shelters to food banks. “Since the pandemic resulted in the temporary closure of animal shelters, the shelters needed assistance with fostering animals. We fostered four adorable puppies and nurtured them till they were adopted. With the help of friends and family, we raised enough funds to buy food for 100 plus needy families by supporting the local food pantry, Meals by Grace,” she says. For one of the food drives the family organized, more than 600 families came to pick up free food, just from one county. “I have been getting texts, messages on WhatsApp, phone calls, and emails from people around the world being inspired by these ideas. Some of us are so fortunate that we don't have to worry where our next meal is coming from. We need to pay it forward,” she says. The family is hoping to raise funds and make an impact beyond the county they live in and, in the process, mobilize more people to volunteer their time and effort during the lockdown.



Creating an online market in time for Ramadan

Sudduf Wyne is a household name in North America’s Muslim entrepreneur community. In 2018, she created a stir with her Ramadan Market—the first of its kind in the Greater Toronto area—that showcased exclusive, high-end items for Muslims looking to shop during the holy month and for Eid. More than 3000 people attended her inaugural event—a two-day affair where attendees would have the opportunity to browse various products, attend workshops, and sample delicious food at various booths set up by local small businesses. “Folks looking for authentic, customized gifts, décor, and other Ramadan items had nowhere to go. There were melas and bazaars, sure, but nothing upscale and trendy really. That was my vision for the market. I had an Islamic lifestyle store, Salam Shop, so I knew that there was a need in the market for these specific items,” she says. It was also an opportunity for second-generation Muslims in the U.S. and Canada to celebrate their culture and traditions with their children, whose upbringing is mostly driven by traditions like Christmas.

 (Left) Sudduf Wyne​


Wyne, a business coach and mentor, was gearing up for the third edition of the Ramadan Market when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. She knew she had to act fast. “With current social distancing rules, this event in its original format simply couldn't happen. I was playing with a few ideas about what the new event would look like—would it be a Zoom event where people could shop virtually or should it be a website? Finally, what made sense was a format that people could access from the comfort of their homes,” she says. Wyne and her team produced short, IGTV shows featuring premium products that would otherwise have been part of the live event. Vendors talked about their product, offered discounts, and some even took to creating hilarious TikTok stories to talk about their wares. “I thought about how lives have changed drastically for these shoppers. For my ideal client, her kids are now at home. She has no time whatsoever. She really wants to shop, but doesn't have time to browse . . . she just wants to see the best stuff and how to buy it easily, and the quickest way to get it. These shows were the best way to do it,” she says. Wyne even got Penny Appeal Canada, a relief and development organization, to sponsor the videos.

Though she misses the buzz and bonhomie of the live event, and despite suffering losses because of the cancellation, she’s learnt crucial lessons for the future. “I would look to doing a smaller event perhaps in the future but I do want to have an event of some sort. As far as the financial losses go, I’m not worrying too much. As a Muslim, I believe in rizk, according to which the money you are meant to make will come to you, no matter what happens. For now, I'm just glad that I could pull off some version of the Market and manage to create a bit of joy,” she says.



Busting the corona blues with TikTok

“Ask me to do a Kajra re and I’ll do it; any Bollywood dance, as a matter of fact. When it comes to dance, I need no direction; but man, these TikTok moves are something else,” says Mariam Pandher, with a laugh.

The Toronto mom of three, who started off by berating her oldest two for constantly being on the video-sharing social networking service, now has a solid fan base of 900 followers herself, all in the span of three months. Her lip sync videos and short comedic bits cover everything, from Trump’s antics to the Kardashian sisters’ shenanigans. And sometimes, she’s just having a good old time with her three kids as they act out different scenarios to hilarious effect.

(Right) Mariam Pandher​ 

When school boards in Ontario, Canada, announced that kids were probably not going back after their March break, Pandher, a driving instructor by profession, had to stop her classes. She was housebound for the foreseeable future and knew it wouldn’t be easy to keep her brood (ages 11, 10, and 3) occupied. “My husband and I had schedules where he spent more time with the kids at home and so they were used to being with him more. Now they were at home all day with me and they just didn't bother listening to me. Getting on TikTok helped establish a connection,” she says.

A mere three days into lockdown and Pandher was getting frustrated with her routine—cooking, laundering, and bickering with the kids. Until she decided to revive the account her eldest daughter had made for her in October 2019. Back then, she had about 11 followers which consisted mostly of her close family and friends. Now, she started coming up with ideas and storylines while the kids helped her with tech, effects, editing, and uploading her content. Even her youngest son, who is usually shy, gets excited when they are about to shoot a new video. “He wants to press the start button and also participates in some of the videos. I’m so thrilled to see him having fun with his sisters,” she says. Her content became viral very quickly owing to the high relatability factor it had. She spoke of girlfriends who turn on each other, about eating through the lockdown and putting on those pounds, about mythical beauty treatments that could “fend off” the virus.


Her video about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Covid-19 incentive announcement garn-ered 42,000 views in the span of a few hours. Pandher’s videos are now a regular fixture on the “For You” page on TikTok, a space reserved for the most popular videos on the platform. Her kids are gleeful when told by classmates, “You mom is famous!” She’s also become an expert at handling trolls who sometimes leave unsavory comments, criticizing her for her interracial marriage (she is of Afghan heritage, married to a Sikh) or her “un-Islamic” ness. She uses grace and patience. “I don’t get affected by what people say and I teach my kids the same thing. Be yourselves, have fun! And now, I’m finding that if I don't do a video, it really affects my mood, it makes me sad. So, I really have no time for trolls,” she signs off. She’s too busy having fun.


Supporting Covid-19 relief efforts in India

Having supported more than 250 projects that resulted in providing opportunities to more than 2.3 million underprivileged children in India and the U.S., Vibha, the Atlanta-based nonprofit, took on the crisis created by the Covid-19 virus by doing what they do best—providing relief to those whose lives have been most impacted. “Though we had to cancel a number of events, our relief efforts through fundraising and the disbursement of essentials like ration kits to the urban poor families in cities in India, supporting migrant families with hygiene supplies, and other such initiatives are on in full force,” says Durgesh Das, CEO, Vibha. Since April, the nonprofit has accelerated its efforts to lend support to the migrant worker crisis unfolding in parts of India by raising funds to support around 600 families.


Through their Ray of Light campaign, Vibha has made a commitment to more than 25 NGOs in India operating at the grassroots level, to continue to fund their salaries and field staff through the duration of the pandemic. At the local level, too, their Covid-19 relief efforts continue. As all learning at the school level has moved online, the digital divide amongst various sections of society has be- come more apparent. In an effort to bridge this divide, Vibha recently delivered 50 laptops and funded 130 Chromebooks for children from low income refugee families in Atlanta.

The organization just wrapped up their Dream Voice competition, where singers from all over the world can send in their recorded entries online, which will then be judged by local and international judges. The grand prize is a chance to perform live at a Bollywood performance. The proceeds from the contest will be used to support children from families affected by Covid-19.

Another flagship event that has been in existence for the past 20 years is the Dream Mile event, an annual walk/run/half-marathon event to raise funds. The September event will likely be cancelled, but plans are already underway to have a virtual event that will have a target distance to be covered that participants will pledge to complete in a month. The pandemic has definitely not put a damper on this non-profit’s efforts, as it soldiers on with its relief and fundraising efforts.

(Left Bottom) Dr. Nazeera Dawood​



Bringing people together with chai and a chat, virtually

 Metro Atlanta residents have always eagerly looked forward to the next instalment of Nazeera Dawood’s Chai & Just Chat sessions. She is the president of the South Asian Public Health Association, and an adjunct professor at Morehouse. The town hall style conversations have brought up issues that affected the community for discussion and debate. Topics have ranged from exploring one’s cultural identity to communicating with teenagers. Spirited interfaith dialogues among various communities have also been on the agenda. All this, with accompanying refreshments and a comforting cup of chai. So, when the lockdown ensured that large gatherings would be impossible to organize for the foreseeable future, the dynamic community leader and activist sprang into action.

She took her Chai & Just Chat event online and managed to host a musical event that spanned continents and cultures. “I felt that in these times, you need music to heal the soul. What better way to do that than to have musicians from all over the world congregate on an online platform and have them perform!” she says. The virtual event was held via an online platform with the help of ByteGraph Productions. Local artists Darryl Peek, Todd Mack, Gayanna Guerin, Shilpa Rivera, and international musicians including Pune tabla player Avinash Patel, Dubai-based singer Carwan Khurshid (the voice of Mohd. Rafi), Bengaluru sitarist Hafiz Bale Khan, Australia-based music producer Farhan Shah, and Canada-based Hitesh Malhotra all joined in for a two-hour session of live music and jugalbandis. In keeping with the format of a chai and chat event, the artists also shared their philosophies and spoke passionately about challenges in creating music in current times. “And everybody got their chai to the event!” adds Dawood.

Dawood has been busy planning future events and she admits that her beloved Chai & Just Chat event might look quite different in a post-pandemic world. “We are discussing a lot of exciting ideas right now. We have actually pulled an advisory board and there are lots of suggestions about online programming. We want to get the youth in our community involved much more in the future and we want to throw a spotlight on important issues like sustainable communities and mental health. The world as we know it has changed and we need to come up with creative solutions to deal with our new normal,” she says.


Raising funds and spirits via social media

For Raksha, the Georgia-based nonprofit that deals with social issues within the South Asian community, the Covid-19 lockdown came as a blow. “We were in the midst of planning so many crucial events which included our Women's Empowerment Art show, a poetry event, a few community educational events on human trafficking, a session on talking to young people about STDs, parenting workshops, and our Ek Shaam Raksha Ke Naam event that was scheduled for the fall,” says Executive Director Aparna Bhattacharyya. Bhattacharyya is most concerned about not being able to connect in person with potential survivors of domestic abuse. “We know that now violence is increasing in homes and there are no opportunities for survivors of abuse (adults and children) to reach out for help safely. That has been the hardest part of these events being cancelled,” she says.


The organization has been steadily adapting their mode of outreach to the new circumstances surrounding lockdown. The team at Raksha has been using virtual platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom a bit more and gradually getting comfortable with this technology. “Our staff has been working hard to gather online resources, to provide counseling, and to support the needs of the community. They are doing all this while also taking care of their own families. I am truly proud at how the staff have adapted to this situation,” says Bhattacharyya.

The flip side to moving online has been that social media has opened up opportunities to engage more community members without having to worry about what part of town they live in. “While Raksha continues to provide services over the phone, we are still working on providing services to our clients who are most vulnerable—those who don't have access to technology, or the ability or space to take advantage of the telemental health we offer. Some clients might not feel comfortable traveling to get food items or other financial assistance that we have for them. We are working to make rental payments online or mailing out money orders to help with rent assistance,” says Bhattacharyya.

The organization has come up with a novel way to spread some comfort and cheer via social media. Their Chai-5 campaign invites people to tag five people to donate and attempts to recreate the concept of "sharing cheer or warmth" by virtually saying "Cheers with Chai" or a virtual hi-five by way of social tags and donations. “Chai, for most South Asians, represents nostalgia, warmth on a cold, rainy day. In many cultures and subcultures, offering tea/ chai/ cha is also a gesture of hospitality and warmth. This campaign is our way of spreading comfort to those we serve in these difficult times as, for many of us, comfort comes in a cup of chai,” she says.

Raksha is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

Baisakhi Roy is a Toronto-based writer and editor who loves to write about ordinary people and their extraordinary stories. A lifelong fan of Hindi movies, she cohosts KhabardaarPodcast, a weekly podcast on all things Bollywood.

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