During the worst of the second wave of COVID-19 earlier this year, critically ill patients were left gasping for oxygen as city supplies ran dry amid a surge in infections. The stench of death permeated our everyday lives as the daily casualty count rose steadily. Citizen-led fundraising drives (like Mission Oxygen) were set up overnight to support medical infrastructure. Social media influencers began collating and sharing verified leads for oxygen concentrators and ICU beds across India’s metropolitans. “It hit us all one day, on Instagram,” a young, Mumbai-based screenwriter Nisha Kalra says, who started dedicating her time to COVID-19 relief by helping people in need make sense of the different resources and options available to them. She tapped into her own network of friends with followers to amplify requests and PSAs at a time of great uncertainty. “I was on Instagram continuously and then my brain broke.”

The idea to run a series of arts workshops called ‘Art For Oxygen’ came to Nisha while she was still struggling to think of ways to aid COVID-19 relief efforts in meaningful yet mental health-friendly ways. “I thought to myself, ‘Remember that initiative last year that combined community interaction, education and donations? Let’s do that,’” she says, referring to a series of workshops conducted by national award-winning filmmaker (and Nisha’s mentor) Satyanshu Singh in May last year. These included sessions on character-building, screenplay writing and the art of post production, to help raise funds for things like PPE kits and food supplies. Nisha, who attended several of these sessions, said, “I could understand how it ends up, of course, helping the cause, but it also kind of helps the general people because you get a break from it (the despair), you learn something, and you are forced to engage in some sort of community.”

Conducted over a period of two months, Nisha’s ‘Art For Oxygen’ workshops have included a bootcamp on comedy writing led by Abish Mathew, jazz funk dance classes conducted by Bhakti Makhija, a film direction workshop by ‘Chintu Ka Birthday’ director Singh, a feedback session where participants could have their film scripts critiqued by director Vikramaditya Motwane, and a special edition of Kumar Varun’s popular ‘Kvizzing with Comedians’ format show. The last batch of workshops comprised primers on improvising by Neville Bharucha and social documentary photography by Vicky Roy. And Nisha is keen to carry on with ‘Art For Oxygen’ for as long as she can, in part because of the response to these workshops and also the very real threat of a third wave. Nisha has raised and donated a total of ₹8.41 lakhs to organisations like Feeding From Far, The Hemkunt Foundation and Help Now 24×7. The second wave felt like a total collapse of systems and “when that happens, kindness, empathy and the arts save the world,” the young, Mumbai-based creative affirms. ‘Art For Oxygen’ is a manifestation of this belief. It is also a time-stamp for that moment in history – during a global pandemic – when we had to scramble for oxygen, Nisha concludes.

The next ‘Art For Oxygen’ workshop will be conducted on Sunday (July 4, 2021) in collaboration with Kommune India. Led by Kommune India Founder Roshan Abbas, Kommune India Director, Tess Joseph, and Kommune India Community Manager, Shantanu Anand, the session is designed to help participants discover their creative voice.

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