Art has often played a powerful role in shaping society’s consciousness, especially in times of crisis. Some of the most touching moments during the early days of the pandemic were people singing or playing music for their neighbours, drawing their communities out on balconies and rooftops to share the moment. Ismaili artists from various countries share their stories of how Covid-19 impacted them and how they adapted to the new normal.

In this time of hardship and distance, there are many examples of art enkindling hope and togetherness. The Covid-19 pandemic was unique because while it highlighted the influence of art, it also upended the way artists work around the world.

Aziza Jaffer Sharma from Bujumbura, Burundi found that the changes she was forced to make because of Covid-19 helped her grow as an artist. Aziza began dancing at the age of four and by the age of 15 she was choreographing and teaching dance classes. Nowadays, Aziza continues to pursue her passion for dancing by running a dance school in a gym she co-owns with her husband.

When in-person dance classes and performances came to a standstill, Aziza used technology to channel her creativity. She began posting dance tutorials on her YouTube channel (some of which were also streamed on The Ismaili TV) and conducting virtual dance lessons on Zoom.

Teaching and performing dance without a physically present audience was a difficult adjustment for Aziza. However, she reflected that it gave her an opportunity to rejuvenate as an artist and gain visibility through social media.

“This period of Covid-19 has been difficult at times but it has also been a blessing in disguise. It has challenged me to grow as an artist in this modern era where social media is a big part of everyone’s life. It has allowed me to be discovered as an artist and teacher on a national and international level,” said Aziza.

Like Aziza, Shereen Kassam from Florida, USA realised that the pandemic presented an opportunity for her to explore her creativity further and grow as an artist. Shereen was an MBA graduate in her mid-20s when she discovered her passion for comedy.

“As women of colour, we are not pushed to speak our minds a lot,” she commented. Comedy was Shereen’s way of claiming her voice. As a stand-up comedian who performs internationally, she uses her platform not just to bring laughter to people’s lives, but also to educate and break stereotypes.

Unable to perform comedy shows or tour different countries after the onset of Covid-19, Shereen decided to focus more time on podcasting and exploring other creative avenues. In 2016, Shereen had launched her podcast “Creative Breakthrough: Jumpstart Your Creative Journey,” which was subsequently ranked in Apple’s list of Top 100 Podcasts. During the pandemic, she also launched a second podcast with a friend, took a class in writing comedy, and facilitated workshops in stand-up comedy and podcasting at the CONNECT virtual camp for Ismaili youth.

Staying creative without being able to perform in the way that gave her joy was initially difficult for Shereen. However, she found that the pandemic gave her the opportunity to grow as an artist through self-reflection and learning.

“It was a really good time to tap into myself,” Shereen said. “I didn’t have time to sit with my thoughts earlier.”

Huse Madhavji, an actor from Canada, was planning to relocate to New York when the pandemic hit. Huse had a penchant for performing ever since he was a young child acting in skits at Bait-ul Ilm. He went on to perform in multiple TV series and plays including the Canadian series “Saving Hope”, the play “Art” at Toronto’s prestigious Soulpepper Theatre, and Disney Junior’s animated series “Mira, Royal Detective.”

After lockdowns were imposed and several of his projects were put on hold, Huse decided to delay his plans and live in Toronto until the pandemic subsided.

Describing his outlook during the uncertain early days of the pandemic, he said, “I didn’t put pressure on myself to come out with something. I just stayed open and if I was inspired, I made sure I walked towards the inspiration.” His optimistic and adaptable approach proved to be a rewarding one. During the pandemic, Huse wrote a comedy script, shot for a TV series, and worked on a feature film produced by acclaimed filmmaker Deepa Mehta. Despite his busy schedule, Huse also found time to participate in The Ismaili TV's original virtual theatre production entitled Hope & Light, which aired as part of The Ismaili TV's Salgirah programme.

Huse shared that the pandemic and ensuing crisis gave him a renewed sense of gratitude for his career as an actor, saying: “I am doing something I love, I absolutely love. I don’t ever want to lose sight of that and I want to make sure that I don’t take these experiences as an artist for granted.”

Sarah Thawer, a Toronto-based drummer, changed her creative process to adapt to the restrictions of the pandemic. Sarah began playing the drums on stage at the age of five. She has performed with accomplished musicians from India and North America including AR Rahman, Salim-Sulaiman, Jon Batiste, and Sekou Bunch in addition to touring various parts of North America and Europe.

As the pandemic caused tours and on-stage performances to come to a halt, Sarah set up a music studio in her home, which required her to execute every aspect of her work, from operating equipment to editing, single handedly.

“Covid-19 has taught me how to work more efficiently as a musician,” she said.

The transition from collaborating with other artists in studios to working alone from home made it difficult for Sarah to stay creative. By focusing on herself and the things that inspired her, she was able to overcome that hurdle.

“I’ve learned the importance of being kind to yourself,” said Sarah.

Jishan Thobani, a musician from Chhindwara, India, found that Covid-19 had changed the work culture of his field for the better. As social distancing and remote working became the new normal, Jishan was pleased to see that people adopted what he calls the “meet less, work more” mindset.

Jishan was inspired to pursue music as a career after performing for Mawlana Hazar Imam with Salim-Sulaiman in 2013. Today, he is a composer, singer, and lyricist. Jishan has composed numerous devotional songs (including The Ismaili’s 2020 Navroz Mubarak song) alongside working on commercial music for several prominent brands including Spotify and Dabur.

The pandemic allowed Jishan to take a break from the fast-paced life he had been living. He was able to dedicate more of his time to creative pursuits, spiritual reflection, and personal rejuvenation, which he found enriching as an artist.

Sharing one of the most important lessons of his career, Jishan said, “Patience, gratitude and prayer can help you with all problems.”