The pandemic struck just ahead of the festival season in March. How has this impacted the artiste community?
The image that the word artiste elicits, especially in the minds of the privileged sections of society, is that of individuals from the middle class or the rich. Artistes and artisans from marginalised sections are clubbed together as the ‘poor’ and rarely is respect or dignity given to them. Their workmanship and artistic talents are part of the ‘ethnic’ make of our country and only useful for us to brandish our so-called diversity. This mindset makes us blind to the fact that most art and artistes live on the margins of society. Their economic status is not very different from agriculture labourers or daily-wage earners. It is in this context that we need to understand the present situation. The months of March, April and May, especially in south India, provide most performing artistes the bulk of their earnings for the year. The pandemic and the resultant lockdown wiped this out entirely. While migrant workers were stuck in their place of work, performing artistes were stuck at their homes unable to move from village to village or town to town to perform. Most art is specific to geographies, cultures and is very local in performance. When that is shut, the entire ecosystem collapses. In this world, the physical cannot be replaced by the digital.
The future also looks grim because even in the unlocking process, allowing the assembly of people will probably be the last thing the government does. In such a situation, with no system for them to fall back on, artistes may become full-time daily-wage workers. The irony is that we will, at that point of time, lament about the loss of art. There are already cases of artistes committing suicide due to a lack of income.
Social media has provided a platform for live performances, but the absence of a stage and an audience could impact performers badly, right?
Social media as a performance platform is only applicable to art forms that occupy the upper echelons of social hierarchy or are mass in appeal. Most performing-art forms do not fall into this bracket. People may argue that the mobile phone penetration in India is so large that this must be a viable option. But the truth is that though some artistes practising marginalised arts are attempting to find a way into this space, these art forms still remain within the ‘physical’ domain as far as audience experience is concerned.
The other and more complex question is about viability. If we were to observe the social media performances by Hindustani, Carnatic or Bollywood musicians, everyone is very happy to consume all this for free. The question is, will they pay? Now, even if they do, it would be only for the ‘big names’. If this is the situation even within art forms with social leverage, one can only imagine what would be the condition of artistes and art forms that continue to remain beyond this digital imagination.
What suggestions do you have for temples, sabhas and other public spaces on hosting performances, even on a limited scale in the coming days?
If the government, at some point, allows the gathering of people with restrictions or limits in numbers, it is essential that all organisations, local temples and public social spaces find a way to bring back performances. This is important not just in terms of providing livelihood, but on the larger question of the need for art. Art should never be considered an ‘add-on’. Art gives society access to imagining, hope and questioning through the emotional experience it induces. Without art, society collapses, empathy, even reason, dies.
You have been involved in efforts to help artistes, especially the not-so-well-known ones. Can you speak about it?
Our effort to support artistes, especially those who are marginalised, began in late March. I sang an online concert and raised the seed fund for this project. Five of us from Sumanasa Foundation began making calls to artistes in rural Tamil Nadu, impresarios, NGOs and other organisations to find out how we could support them. We began with Tamil Nadu, but over the last few months worked in 17 states across India. We have been sharing with artistes on an average Rs 3,500 via bank transfers. This is a small sum, but we do hope it helps them at least cover food expenses for a month. As of May 22, we have transferred Rs 51,11,900 to 1,545 artiste families. In order to address the anomaly of the digital space, we also conducted an online festival of art forms that usually remain beyond the digital economy. We made sure that people had to contribute to the fund in order to watch the festival. This is a baby step in getting individuals to pay for all art.
You have flagged the need to have state-funded institutional mechanisms to address the plight of the community — on the lines of an employment guarantee scheme for artistes. Can you elaborate on that?
As individuals or collectives, there is only so much we can do and we are merely touching the surface. If the situation for artistes is to change, the state has to recognise this need and fill this gap. Until now, the state has done hardly anything for marginalised artistes and the schemes that they may point to are badly executed. We need a NREGA-type legislated programme for artistes and artisans. There has to be a yearly guarantee of work and income for artistes/artisans living below the poverty line. This would mean that at the district level the government must provide performance, teaching, lecture-demonstration opportunities for artistes at schools, colleges, public spaces etc. The government could also purchase the works of local artisans and provide special access to markets, both locally and beyond the region. All these will help rejuvenate the art forms within their communities and bestow respect on the artistes. We have had some preliminary conversations with friends in the art and social sector to begin work on a proposal using NREGA as a base model.
How has the pandemic impacted you as an artiste, teacher, writer, thinker?
It has not been that easy to work on things unrelated to the present crisis. I am uncomfortable with the online medium, yet have managed to take a few online classes for my students. Learning and writing has revolved around issues emanating from the pandemic, but over the past week I have been reading, thinking and making notes for my next book on the symbols of India.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines