Sand art washed away by Covid-19 wave

Interview: Sudarsan Pattnaik, Indian sand artist, Odisha


July 31, 2020

/ By / Puri

sand art

Sudarsan Pattnaik at work at work at the Puri beach (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

One of the most well-known sand art creators in India and around the world, Puri-based Sudarsan Pattnaik has been key in promoting sand art as an art form in the country. A regular feature of global sand art competitions, he says the coronavirus pandemic has seriously impacted him and other sand artists as well as students of this relatively new art form.

How has Covid-19 impacted you?

As we build our sand sculptures in public places and beaches, our art depends on tourists and visitors who see our creations on the beaches. However, due to Covid-19, tourists are not allowed and even locals are no longer visiting the beach here in Puri. An equally big impact has been that I normally participate in a number of international sand art competitions organised all over the world. But this year, due to travel ban, I have not been able to go anywhere since March.

Last year, I had won an award at a competition in Houston in United States. This year, in July, I had been invited to participate in another global competition there. Similarly, a lot of public events have been cancelled all over the world and that has impacted me a lot. Also, we used to run a small school here to teach sand art to over 100 students from different villages of Odisha, but even this school, which was on the beach itself and as it is a public place, it has remained shut down since March. So, it has impacted us a lot.

Were the students paying for the classes?

No, as they belong to very poor families, they cannot afford to pay. Instead, the money that I used to make by going to various events overseas was partially used in paying scholarships to some of the students to encourage them to take up sand art seriously. I used to observe them for some time after admission to the school and used to help those were serious and committed. However, as all the activities have been shut for over four months now, there is nothing that we can do to help them.

Have you been conducting online classes for your students? Is that an option?

No, it is just not possible to use online classes or digital media to teach students about sand art? To learn, the students need to be with us at the school and build sculptures with real sand in front of us. Nonetheless, we are preparing a small book for our students that will enable them to carry on various practical exercises with sand so that they can keep practicing even during the lockdown and don’t lose whatever we have taught them so far.

sand art pictures

The pandemic has severely limited sand art in India(Credit:Sudarsan Pattnaik)

How are you using the art for creating awareness about Covid-19?

During this pandemic, be it an artist or a writer or any other profession, everyone is trying to see how they can contribute towards creating awareness about the coronavirus. It is crucial that we keep driving the message to people at large about the measures that one can take to remain safe and battle the pandemic as well as how the people can provide moral support to the corona warriors who are at the frontline of the battle. I have made several sculptures on Covid-19. Also, we have been actively using the digital media and social media platforms where many of them have earned a lot of recognition. I also received praise from director general of World Health Organisation for my creations on the pandemic and the constant drilling down the message of staying safe and staying at home.

You used to travel to a number of events overseas. When do you think these will restart and when will you go there?

The sand art festival in the US that was supposed to start earlier in July has now been postponed to next year. The organisers say that the participants would be the same as earlier but am yet to hear any more about it. Normally from March onwards is a very busy season for sand art overseas as the weather becomes pleasant and it is bright and sunny bringing lots of tourists and thousands of locals out of their homes. However, this year it has been a washout and the situation will continue for a while yet. Public events have been cancelled in large numbers all over the world and there is little certainty over when they can restart. These developments have a terrible impact on live performance artists such as those in street plays, music and dance, those who sketch and draw on the roads or make ice sculptures, all of these have been banned. So, it has hit a large number of artists and their creations.

But if Covid-19 continues for another year and tourism remains banned, would it not spell trouble for Odisha?

Not just Odisha, it will be a very big problem for the entire world as tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and tens of millions of people depend on it for their livelihood. I think we may need to adapt our tourism policies so that tourism can restart. We cannot afford to stay closed for another year. Else, it will destroy everything and the time that it would take to bring tourism back to normal levels, it would be too late for millions of people. So, tourism should restart, but in tandem with a clear healthcare process and facilities.

sand art love

Pattnaik has frequently used his art to create awareness about Covid-19 (MIG photos)

During this tough period, where the beaches are totally deserted, from where do you get your inspiration for creations nowadays?

I doubt if anyone alive today has seen this kind of situation ever in their lives. Also, few would have enjoyed the sight of a totally empty beach. The inspiration for artists comes from the viewers and how they respond to our creativity. These days my viewers are only on social media, so when I post some creations and I get positive feedback, I feel good that I have done something meaningful. For an artist, his art is the inspiration. It can be any form of art, practiced anywhere, including on a beach. When an artwork is completed, there is a lot of satisfaction. But the real feel good of course comes from the people when they are in front of you admiring your creativity, but these days it is limited to social media only.

Have many sand art events that you were planning to participate in have been cancelled so far?

Well, the events came under a cloud right from February itself, the beginning of the peak season in Europe and United States. That lasts till July-August, but it has all been washed out and there is little chance of anything starting before November. Now our hope lies with the events in December. We are expecting that the Puri Sand Art festival which takes place each year in December will be organised this year as there is a big need to revive the tourism industry. After October the tourism industry might take some steps to revive it. Since people would want to travel by then, the government will have to plan on how to start tourism keeping the social distancing in mind. The livelihoods of many depend on tourism so they would want some step to be taken. They can manage for one or two months but they cannot continue living like this forever. Whatever money these people had they survived with that for those months but now they need to make money out of their profession. The hotels, the staffs in it all are mainly dependent on tourists.

There are many Indian states that totally depend on tourism. Whatever employees I had under me a few employees so I am taking care of their salaries. But that will also stop soon. If I will not have money how can I pay them? The difficulties are now beginning. Earlier it was not so difficult but now the real struggle is going to begin for many. I spoke to many people and they said they could manage for the past four months with whatever savings they had. They even thought that from July things will be back to normal but now even they can see that it’s not going to happen so soon seeing the rise in the number of cases. They are managing with the rations that the government is providing them.

How many sand artists does India have?

It’s difficult to count but most of the states now have sand artists. Even in places where there is no beach. The young students are showing a lot of interest.

Is it viable as a career option in India?

In India for sand art to be a profession will take some time. But in some places artists are organising festivals and fairs as freelancers to get this art form in the limelight. If you see internationally there are festivals and fairs organised to boost this art form.

Where have you got the most appreciation from?

From Europe. I have won the People’s Choice Prize in Germany 11 times. My art is actually public related. The last time the prize I won was in Boston last year where I got the People’s Choice Prize at USA for my sand art on plastic pollution with message, “Save our Ocean” in Boston International SandArt Championship/ Festival. The local government had organised it. So few of them told me what’s the point in doing something on plastic pollution in the US as plastic is banned there. But our job is to make people aware of the issues all around the world. We also won the prize there.

How frequently are you creating sand art during Covid-19?

I try to create one or two art forms in a week but due to Covid-19 it is best not to come to the beach. Earlier the number of art forms we used to create it is nothing in comparison to that. I had thought that from July we will start again but since it not happening now we are hoping that we can start after August. I also create at Bhubaneswar airport and there, I change it once or twice in a month and the theme is according to the current situation.

According to me after the lockdown the paintings and sculptures and artists will flourish as they are now working on their art and once the pandemic ends there will be a lot of exhibitions. They are now getting so much of time and working on their creativity.

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