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What the pandemic did to those on the fringes of the art world

Models, framers, fresh graduates and folk artists find that the pandemic has upended their careers and put their lives on hold.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: June 27, 2021 7:51:15 am
What the pandemic did to those on the fringes of the art worldWith no visible end to the crisis, appeals for financial aid are rising. In September last year, the Culture Ministry announced that Rs 5,462 lakh had been released under Central government schemes to help artists during the pandemic. (Illustration: Bivash Barua)

When the nationwide lockdown was announced in March last year, artist Umesh Singh was in Varanasi, preparing for exhibitions in the coming months. The 2019 postgraduate from Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, Hyderabad, was looking forward to leveraging the attention his work had received at the 2018-19 Students’ Biennale and the Serendipity Arts Festival and was hopeful that an early communication with gallerists and art collectors would help his career get off to a flying start. “People had appreciated my work at both forums and there were several inquiries. I was expecting some of the work to find buyers,” says Singh, 28.

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The pandemic was to turn the tide. Till then, Singh had only heard of the dreadful respiratory infection that had brought misery in China and was rapidly spreading across the world. Little did he know that the virus would upend his own world and bring an abrupt halt to his career. It would force him to return temporarily from Varanasi to his village in Kurmuri (Bihar), where his father had left farming over a decade ago and now works as an accountant in Paliganj. “Last year, I got a few grants but it was getting difficult to make ends meet. I came home and started giving art lessons to children. When the cases dropped, I returned to Varanasi, where I had moved because of better opportunities and availability of material, but things again took a turn for the worse with the second wave,” says Singh.

If 2020 had a colour, it would be grey. The year commenced with the promise of a vibrant art calendar packed with blockbuster exhibitions, art fairs and biennales but, as COVID-19 spread, the cultural landscape came to a grinding halt. With extended lockdowns, shutters came down at numerous art establishments; prestigious art fairs and biennales were rescheduled and the global art market declined. According to economist Clare McAndrew’s “The Art Market 2021” report, published by Art Basel and UBS in March 2021, the art market shrank by 22 per cent in 2020, down from $64.4 billion in sales in 2019 to $50.1 billion in 2020. Another report and survey, “Taking the Temperature”, released by the British Council in India in partnership with FICCI and The Art X Company, also notes, “The creative economy is contracting… Individual professionals and artisans are facing short-term hand-to-mouth existence”.

While established artists had the luxury of working out of their studios and reflecting on the disruption in their work, upcoming artists and those financially unstable found it more difficult to cope. As opportunities dwindled, sustenance became challenging, coupled with anxieties about the virus. “I won’t even be able to afford treatment. During the first wave, I heard of people getting infected. Now, I personally know so many. In recent months, I have been told how exorbitant amounts of money are being charged for oxygen, medicines, etc.,” says Singh.

A model in art colleges across Mumbai for almost 40 years now, Poonam* recalls how she was only 25 when she first visited the Sir JJ School of Art with her sister. A migrant from Tamil Nadu, she had two children to feed and it was on the recommendation of her sister that she began modelling at art schools. “At first, I was reluctant and felt uncomfortable removing my clothes in front of students during the nude sessions, but, over the years, I became used to it. I knew the correct posture, I enjoyed respect from the students and gained confidence,” says Poonam, who introduced the profession to others in her family. Though the number of assignments dwindled as she aged, Poonam has continued to model in art colleges across Mumbai, including the Sir JJ School of Art and Rachana Sansad. Over the years, her daily wage has increased from Rs 12 to Rs 1,000 per assignment for nude modelling. With the pandemic, however, there is no work and she now clears garbage from the streets to make money.

Her niece Vidya*, 43, who is also an art model, rues, “At first, we thought it would be a matter of a few weeks or months but this has continued for over a year. Most members of our family model in art colleges and now we have no means of livelihood. A few teachers and students gave money and ration last year but that lasted for a little while. The government should do something for us.”

As the more privileged adapted to digital tools to fight isolation and visually engage with the audience, those who work on the fringes of the art industry — models, framers and folk artists — found it difficult to cope. “Business came down drastically, at least by 50 per cent. We are a team of five. It’s not like we have a huge business or savings. Some of our staff returned to their hometowns in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Now, they are coming back.” says Chenaram Kumar, owner of Superior Frames in Colaba, Mumbai. In the business for over 20 years, his clients include numerous Mumbai galleries, renowned artists and architects.

At a time when close human interactions are being avoided to prevent the spread of COVID-19, several artists who freelance with established ones as assistants, also find themselves without jobs. “There have hardly been any projects. We need to work in close proximity with artists to fulfill their vision but, with COVID, everyone is being wary,” says Delhi-based Kamal*, a wood specialist who has assisted several artists over the last decade. Last September, he returned to his village in Uttar Pradesh after recovering from COVID-19. Doing whatever menial odd jobs that come his way now, he adds, “I am just grateful I could recover at home without much difficulty. I will only return to Delhi when things are completely normal.”

With no visible end to the unprecedented crisis, appeals for financial aid is rising. If the UK government has rolled out a £1.57 billion rescue package for arts, culture and heritage industries to help weather the impact of coronavirus, in the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided $75 million to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to provide grants to non-profit art organisations. In India, in September last year, the Culture Ministry announced that Rs 5,462 lakh had been released under Central government schemes to help artists during the pandemic. The zonal cultural centres also provided financial assistance. But the aid is limited and only a few have benefitted. While folk artists are demanding more assistance, Kolkata-based contemporary artist Pradosh Paul has approached the West Bengal government for a pension scheme for art models.

In a country where economic disparity in art is wide, numerous artists and artisans across the country are in debt. The resources for daily survival are meagre in the absence of exhibitions, cultural events, tourists or art collectors. Ihitashri Shandilya, founder of MITHILAsmita, a Delhi-based organisation that works with over 300 Madhubani artists, says, “In the history of the artisan sector, it’s a very low point. Till last year, artists could sell through us, attend fairs and showcase at venues such as Dilli Haat in Delhi, but now, most of these platforms are shut. Paintings are hardly selling. People have become very wary of spending money. Even CSR funds have been routed to other quarters. For us, many discussions with government bodies and corporates have been put on hold but we have tried to use this time to innovate and train these artists. Hopefully, once the government procurement opens and the corporate-gifting season begins, we should start getting orders.”

Paschim Medinipur-based Patachitra artist and National-Award winner Gurupada Chitrakar, 55, shares how several artists in Pingla village have been forced to borrow money. “Our village has more than 200 artists and the West Bengal government gives each artist Rs 1,000 a month and some ration. Didi (West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee) has been doing good work for us. The government used to organise programmes where we would receive payments, but now all of that has stopped. In the absence of programmes or sales, it is very difficult for us,” says Chitrakar. He has a family of 11; eight of them are artists. After his son and daughter-in-law, he, too, is now suffering from COVID-19, but like them, he hopes to recover at home. More than his health, he is worried about the future. “We are trying to find buyers for our artwork but to no avail,” says the artist, whose works are part of the collection of The British Museum.

In the last year, many artists have made efforts to reinvent traditional art forms to tell tales of the pandemic. If Phad artist Kalyan Joshi’s 41-scene Phad (scroll) depicted the spread of the coronavirus across India and its aftermath, including the nationwide lockdown, Paschim Medinipur-based Patachitra artist Swarna Chitrakar’s seven-frame scroll had the virus as a red monster in a narrative featuring protagonists donning masks and PPE suits. Madhubani artist Remant Kumar Mishra, meanwhile, collaborated with over 15 artists in Jitwarpur, Bihar, to paint masks in traditional patterns. Early in the pandemic, he used his craft to raise awareness about COVID-19 protocols, painting masks purchased from medical stores or made at home with khadi cloth, with slogans such as “Save humanity, get rid of corona” and “Go corona go”. “We wanted to inform people about the life-threatening infection. Things have been difficult but we have adapted. After seeing our masks on the internet, people reached out to us for products such as bags and dupattas,” says Mishra, 38.

The in-person experience of viewing and interacting with art might have been emphasised for centuries but a pandemic necessitates innovation. So, as canvases were pixelated, art education, too, moved online. Lessons were altered for distance-learning and assessments were done from home. “One of our primary concerns when the lockdown was first announced was the safety of students. So, they were all asked to go home. Gradually, we realised that the situation will take a long time to improve and classes as well as the admission process would need to move online,” says Indrapramit Roy, associate professor, faculty of fine arts, MS University, Baroda. He adds, “Art education involves a lot of guided study and self learning. There is a need for one-on-one interactions. In the new normal, I often ask students to speak about their work to others online. We have discussions and interactions but it can’t be compared to being on campus, where we have so many sources of learning, including theatre and film clubs, the archive, the library. A lot of learning actually happens outside the class.”

For students, meanwhile, it means a compromised induction into the art industry. In the absence of the bustling environment that bolsters art education, their primary exposure remains theoretical. The highlight for most art students is the annual exhibition, often considered to be a stepping stone into the professional world. It helps them build contacts, make their first sale, negotiate and put their work before the public. Since last year, it has either been on hold or moved online. “We were looking forward to an opportunity to physically display our work. It helps us begin a professional career and we can take things forward from there. We were deprived of that,” says Shubham Mishra, 28, who completed his post-graduation in sculpture from MS University last year. He recalls how students had to vacate college premises when the lockdown was announced and many like him had to leave their incomplete work behind due to logistical issues. Back in his hometown Jaipur, he is currently assisting in his family business of marble carving. “Things continue to be unstable. Art is considered a luxury. It is certainly not a priority right now,” he says.

There is despondence and apprehension about the future. Though Singh intends to continue as an artist and exhibit, he also plans to apply for teaching positions. “Only the works of really well-known artists really sell. If things were normal, I could have taken projects and assignments for commercial portraits and so on. In recent months, I have been trying to use low-cost and natural material so that the expense is minimal. The pandemic has reasserted that job security is important,” he says.

There are other regrets as well. “If I had taken up a permanent government job, I would have had a fixed income and would be entitled to pension. I always thought I was doing a service to art, but I don’t think anyone else appreciates what we do. I have spent most of my youth in art colleges but now I feel hurt and disheartened,” says Vidya.

* Names changed on request

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