A time of great distress for the arts and its friends in India

My schedule these days is packed. It is not hectic since there are no dates, deadlines or timelines to be kept. Nobody is going anywhere to work and those who are going are doing so half-heartedly, and coming back as soon as possible. And the problem is that nobody is coming in either, all the household help is absent. All the chores, right from laundry in the morning to the cleaning of the dinner dishes, is to be done… back-breaking work. The family does pitch in but not enough to give you the time for a nap during the day. It is only in the evenings that you get some time, when you cast online events to the bigger television screen through an app. And for that little time, I surrender myself totally to the arts, getting up rejuvenated and ready to start again. I thought I was really liking it. For some time, it was a distraction from all the talk of financial matters, pay cuts, delayed payments, crashing stock markets etc. etc. And one fine day, I was jolted out of my complacency when a dear friend told me in simple, plain words that you are enjoying something standing on the other side of the fence. So I decided to jump across and view the picture from this side. If the norms of social distancing and all other regulations have to be followed till a cure for COVID-19 is developed, there will be no performances, concerts, exhibitions etc. for an indefinite time. Which means a total blackout for the arts. Not only a performance blackout, but a blackout of creativity and finances.

A still from Aditi Mangaldas' Within

All those dancers, musicians, theatre artists who depend on performances for their livelihood, plus artists and technicians from all allied fields, have been left without work. The primary performers in dance still have had the avenue of online performances, but allied professionals – accompanists, light designers, sound technicians, make-up artists, stage hands etc. – have little hope of work for the next few months, possibly.

Sandeep Dutta

In a recent conversation, light designer Sandeep Dutta pointed out that little help had come from the government or arts and culture collectives and performance-dependent professionals had been left out in the cold. So I spoke to a few other such professionals about what they feel their prospects are in the near future. I also asked them whether they knew of any platforms where artists and allied professionals could post their grievances during this time. The questions I asked them were:
  • Are you a professional artist or professionally allied to the performance arts? What is your profession?  
  • What are the prospects in your line of work in the coming few months, assuming that the spread of COVID19 does not subside?
  • Are you aware of any group, site or other platform on which artists and artist-allied professionals can give their suggestions to the government or the community? If yes, what is it?

Gautam Bhattacharya
Veteran light designer and trainer

The future of the arts and its practitioners post-Covid-19 pandemic (Gautam da’s written response)

I have been a stage lighting designer for over 40 years now. I have worked extensively in theatre, dance, music and puppetry etc. in the field of the performing arts, besides designing lights in the field of non-performing arts - display and architectural lighting, sound and light shows etc.

As a freelance professional lighting designer, the journey has always been fraught with uncertainties and a feeling of trepidation but immensely fulfilling and enriching. On numerous occasions, the sheer volatility of this profession had given rise to both self-doubt and self-worth. But I soldiered on, driven purely by my passion for the performing arts. This careful tightrope walk was dealt a deadly blow, a double whammy, by this pandemic lockdown. Everyone struggling to stay afloat was thrown right into the deep blue sea.

File photo of Gautam Bhattacharya (source: http://gautambhattacharya.com)

In view of this pan-India lockdown, everything has been shut down - from industries to sports, to commercial activities, to performances. Social distancing has become the new normal, with public gatherings a taboo, and live performances have become a thing of the past. Everyone’s life has turned topsy-turvy. Artists are at a loss about what the future holds for them. Some have taken to online teaching, but this is possible only for dance and music; theatre can’t be taught online. Online teaching and performance completely negates the participation of the supporting artists like costume, stage and lighting designers and make-up artists. This also makes the performance very impersonal. For live stage performances, the performer/audience rapport and the immediate appreciative response is the crucial and unique aspect of this genre.

The future of the arts in India looks very bleak indeed. The government’s response has not been at all encouraging. Artists have been left to fend for themselves as best as they can. If this pandemic doesn’t get to them, starvation surely will. We cannot afford to let that happen. We will never be able to forgive ourselves if our artists just wither away like that. Let the arts not become mere museum pieces, consigned to a footnote in the pages of Indian history. If the arts and its practitioners don’t survive, India would have lost perhaps its most valuable asset.

We have to reach out across the country to help these performing artists, backstage technicians, designers, cultural entities and their employees endure the economic hardships caused by the forced closure of their operations due to the spread of COVID-19. Many temporary contractual artists and teachers have been laid off due to this crisis. Whether we can create a new substantial fund, utilize existing ones or divert funds from other non-essential activities is up to the government to decide. Planned national and international festivals cannot happen now, those funds can be utilized. Folk and tribal artists are perhaps the worst hit; many of them have a hand-to-mouth existence. We must urgently devise a plan to expedite the distribution of critical funds at the national, regional, state and local levels to help retain as many jobs as possible, as quickly as possible.

The governments in Western countries have accepted and acknowledged that artists have been rendered jobless and there is a huge risk to their physical and mental well-being because of their loss of livelihood. The culture ministries and arts councils in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Australia and a host of other countries have been very prompt and proactive in getting their acts together. They have already announced millions of dollars in financial assistance to the artists and the arts sector in general. They are running their performances online and giving royalty to all those involved in them. They are networking very methodically online, they are reaching out to the artists and enquiring about their problems. They have roped in advisors and professional counsellors to guide the artists and help them cope with this unique and unprecedented situation.

Unlike in the West, the arts sector in India is unorganized. Except for the film and TV industries, there are no legally organized unions for performing artists. This unforeseen pandemic and the resultant nationwide lockdown has made social distancing and stay-at-home mandatory for almost everyone. All possible places of public gathering have been forced to shut down, so all malls, market complexes, film theatres and performance auditoria are perforce under lock and key. With venues shuttered and gatherings banned, where do the artists perform to earn their livelihood? A group was formed to voice the concerns of all independent freelance professional artists who had no back-up to fall back on; their only source of income was performance fees, which they got on a contractual basis. They felt cornered and isolated, it has become a desperate situation for most of them, they have had to swallow their pride and extend their begging bowl for sheer survival.

Realizing the enormity of the problem, the artist community has banded together to devise ways and means to help alleviate the financial situation of their fellow artists.

Milind Shrivastava
Stage light designer

Things don’t seem well these days and I believe it is going to be like this for the next one year. All the performances scheduled earlier with me for the year have been cancelled. I am very concerned about the livelihood of all freelancer artists. We are not registered anywhere and we are not getting any kind of grant from any of the government or non-government organizations. Also, a more serious concern is over the technical people or people who work backstage (make-up artists, costume designers, stage designers, sound and light technicians). They are not recognized as part of the arts community and unfortunately, they don’t have any other work or job for survival. For us, the situation is getting worse day by day. I don’t know how we will meet our expenses like this for long (grocery, rent, school fees etc.). I hope the government will take us into consideration and help us till the situation improves.

I have created a group on WhatsApp called ‘Creative Artist’ where I have tried to unite all freelancing artists from all over India, plus some senior officers from government authorities (ICCR and SNA), and also senior gurus, junior practitioners, disciples from the field of classical dance, folk dance, contemporary dance, theatre, music, puppetry, light designers, technicians and backstage artists. We have collected the data of almost 5000 freelancing artists who are seeking help.

G. Raghavendra Prasath (Pic from the internet)

G. Raghavendra Prasath
Classical violinist, accompanist, student

The opportunities look bleak with the onset of COVID-19 raising serious doubts on the staging of live concerts. On my part, I am still trying to engage by performing through Facebook and creating YouTube videos.

At present, other than Facebook, I am not aware of any social media community extending suggestions to the government. Hoping for things to ease and subside within a month or two and getting back to work.

Vikram Mishra
Live sound engineer

In the field of live shows, prospects are zero. There’s no work. What people are trying to do – at least what I’m working on – is trying to set up digital smart studios where brands can come, shoot and stream. Shows are unlikely to happen in the current situation. There are two ways forward for a sound engineer – studio work, some old songs etc., because it involves no crowd, and the other kind is what I’m working on.

We’ve already done one live band stream for YouTube. We are in touch with ticketing agencies, many people are setting up live music channels, and they’ll need studios in different parts of the city. The work will have to be adapted to a new environment. Those who do that will survive, those who don’t will keep waiting for the old environment which will return god knows when.

As for the classical arts, if a few artists can come to one location, record their performance and put it online, it can even be monetized. With dance, we are already working on platforms that will allow cultural exchange programmes online. Basically, the stage will change, or the venue will change – you can perform in Kamani but with cameras instead of people, the performance will be streamed, and people will have bought the same tickets to watch it on their screens instead of watching it live. There is, of course, doubt about whether people will pay. In India, we are used to everything being free. People don’t want to pay for something like a Spotify membership, though it might be just 300 a month. In this case, corporates will have to step in, sponsor it and make it available for the maximum number of people.

No, there is no platform where people from the arts can give their feedback to the government. It’s such an unorganized industry in terms of what can be done, but it’s very organized in terms of taxation – we pay 18% GST. But nobody has given us any sops or benefits in this period. Countries like Germany have started sponsoring artists, the government is paying artists a certain stipend: that is nurturing art. I don’t know of any such thing happening. There are local collections by people, say classical artists, who might get together and raise some money for the needy in their art – people like minor accompanists, say, who live like daily wagers, from show to show. Things have to be looked into by the government also, especially for lower and lower-middle income families.

I also spoke to some dancers and gurus about online events, which is the only avenue of performance available to them. Below are the views of four respondents, who have also been featured in my article on online classes:

Geeta Chandran

Geeta Chandran

The fear is that through online performances, you further trivialize the arts. You don’t even have to make the effort of going to a performance where you are as it is often paying nothing. Now you can watch it at home. This is a ‘non-professionalizing’ of dance. This is a very dangerous trend because if this happens, we are not going to have a profession in the arts. You cannot make your living with that. I’m going to be very selective (with what I do online) because if the seniors start doing everything every day, then there is no bargaining capacity for the juniors. I think people sitting at home and watching have to learn to pay, it cannot be free. People are exploiting the dancers – and the dancers don’t understand the consequences. I don’t think that’s the way to go; I thought it would stop after the initial excitement of the medium. All those who have made the conscious choice of doing this full-time will have to consider whether they can sustain (their livelihoods). For one year at least there will be no programmes. As it is there were unpaid programmes done for just visibility, now there will not be that also. So where will you earn from? We need to think about it and see how we can take this medium forward.

Mohit Gangani

Mohit Gangani

Many senior artists, greats, like Zakir Hussain sahab, are saying that artists who have no source of income other than programmes, which includes even those who have elevated their arts to new heights – even they are saying, this year, all we can do is riyaaz. Since we were children, we have known only one protocol of this profession – we travel to various locations, we take flights, we are ferried in cars, there are large gatherings to see us and we perform before them. What we are used to is actually that. That is not possible right now. We will have to move forward in a new way.

There are a few digital concerts we have done and will be doing more soon for other artists – artists are approaching other artists in this situation, but we cannot expect payment from them. Young artists are performing online, they get visibility, and we are grateful that established contemporaries are reaching out to us to perform online, but how will they be able to pay us? If that artist is being supported financially by the government or a private organization, even if not through very large amounts, but even small amounts that cover their needs... Artists are doing digital concerts to stay occupied nevertheless; after all, how long can you stay at home doing little?

All artists are making sacrifices, like the entire community, but the smaller artists, those who sing ghazals in hotels and restaurants, for instance, those with bands that perform in pubs, folk artists, etc. – these artists are facing great difficulty. They have to perform daily to earn their livelihoods. This is a question mark on the whole arts fraternity. People will say have patience for a year, and perhaps people will be able to get through that. But after that, we will have to be careful about the disease. If there is no audience, what is the point? Audience to jaan hai – there is satisfaction only in large audiences. People are saying programmes will start next year. I pray this pandemic ends all around the world, but this is a cause of great worry no matter which way you look at it.

Dheerendra Tiwari

Dheerendra Tiwari

In times of uncertainty, people look for solutions and online performances are one such option, which are also paying some performers now. But there is also another consideration –  online performances provide a task, a goal - you have to perform for half an hour. On the stage, the audience can see the intricacies of feet etc., but online, you have to dance in a small space, and the task is to do 15 things, so you have to do riyaaz for those 15 things. So for those who require such a task to do riyaaz, it’s useful. I don’t enjoy it, though. I got many opportunities, but I didn’t take them. I am able to do riyaaz on my own. This is very good for those who cannot be motivated to practice on their own. And, of course, it is good for the audience.

Sometimes, there are kamaal ke cheezein coming out of this too, I must accept. You notice artists you might not have noticed before who’re doing very well. And I think there might be another advantage to the virtual medium – if you watch a Kathak performance, then it won’t be schoolkids, like those who show up in Kamani sometimes just for the AC. In auditoriums, if 600 people show up, 300 people understand a bit, 100 understand a lot, the rest of the 200, you never know. In the virtual medium, even if 50 people watch, then they are likely to be connoisseurs or genuinely interested. This might be an advantage.

One drawback I have observed is copying of bandishes done by others. When I put up something recently, I tried to make it as hard as possible so that people would have to think 500 times before copying it and only one out of them would be able to dance it. That one would be a genuine artist. And I would be glad to have that one copy it. The people making a hash of copied bandishes etc. really hurts me about the online medium. These are khandani bandishes, whoever’s dancing has to earn it. That takes years of practice and then imbibing it through lots of riyaaz. Someone else comes, picks up the superficial aspects, with no idea of the feet or the laya, memorizes the bols… and band baja di. You don’t know addition or subtraction, just the answer. This is a major drawback that stops me from going to this medium.

Ranjana Gauhar

Ranjana Gauhar

(On staging online events) Do I have any choice? Why cry about something that is beyond your control? I’m not that kind of person. Ultimately, what is important is you should be happy. And if you do not accept your present, then you have no future. My parents and life have both taught me to recognize what is now, understand and accept it. Whatever tomorrow brings, we will deal with it.

Pics: Anoop Arora