In 1815, the earth’s biggest volcanic eruption in 10,000 years tore apart Mount Tambora in Indonesia. By the following year, its ash had spread across Europe and America, causing crop failure, famine and cold, stormy weather, known as “the year without summer.” In a rented villa on Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley, confined to the house with the poets Shelley and Lord Byron, responded to the mayhem with the creation of her famous story of Frankenstein. Nearly 500 kilometres away, Baron Karl von Drais invented the first bicycle — the Laufmaschine or ‘running-machine’ — since most of the horses had perished. Imitations rapidly appeared in Britain and America. One has to pay homage to indomitable creative spirit in the face of disaster.

Tinkering alone in home workshops created many novel ideas — Graham Bell’s first long-distance call in 1876, the Ford Quadricycle, the first Ford car in 1896, the first weekly radio broadcast by Frank Conrad in 1920 and Walt Disney’s first short film in 1923, to name a few garage inventors.

Home entertainment was an important part of life in the 19th century, especially for women and children of genteel society who were expected to stay indoors. Musical evenings or soirees, group activities such as needlework, playing cards and board games dispelled the boredom or ennui of living in remote country homes. The Brontë sisters became prolific writers. Home theatre productions became an important genre — plays written by women and performed by family members and domestic staff. Suppliers developed rolls of scenery for sets. Candid drawing-room discussions by men and women provided the content — social issues, politics, war, current events — not dissimilar to every home in Pakistan. Victorian manufacturers even produced tiny cardboard stages with cardboard actors and audience, complete with scripts. My aunt used to make us cut-out paper dolls, each with their own wardrobe. Home theatre was also common in the time of my grandmother. One imagines they morphed into the current television dramas in Pakistan, also often written by women and which, like home theatre, are viewed by the family, although the content is usually a suffocating self-reflective domesticity rather than the glorious battles of Rustam and Sohrab.

A consequence of post-World War II economic prosperity was the focus on home improvements, so humourously expressed in the films of Jacques Tati. Home entertainment has become big business, starting with the introduction of combination TVs, record players and radio consoles. Today’s ideal homes have swimming pools and basement home cinemas, 292-inch flat screen wall televisions, smart phones and virtual reality video games — a far cry from the first video game “Tennis for Two” in 1958. Even when people leave their homes, they take their entertainment devices with them.

Statistics for March 2020 show that, between March 16 and March 22, 4.3 million video games were sold worldwide — a 63 percent increase from the previous week. People in self-isolation are reading more books, watching more news, listening to music and using social media. Video hangout app ‘Houseparty’ has gone viral since the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The 1918 flu pandemic, with only three days from infection to death, gave little opportunity for art to assimilate the impact. Egon Schiele’s last painting, ‘The Family’, shows a harrowed Schiele with his wife, Edith, and their imagined child. Within weeks, his pregnant wife had died, followed by his own death three days later — on the day of her funeral.

Economic anxieties and a depressing rise in domestic violence notwithstanding, this pandemic has awoken everyone’s creative side — sharing recipes, memes and music compositions. I expect art and poetry are quietly taking shape. Akram Dost Baloch has already shared a series of beautiful drawings in response to Covid-19.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 26th, 2020

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