It was a suicide attempt by a middle-aged harmonium player Suhas Das (name changed) in Howrah late last month that sent shock waves in the performing artistes community across India. There was no food at his home and no resource to get any. In a conversation with Kolkata-based sarod player Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, the musician somehow managed to mention how he was depressed since the lockdown began. There was no work, no stipend and the savings were already gone. Then there was the matter of dignity. “How does an artiste, who has so much to give to the world by way of his art, put out his hands and beg for money to get food on the table? Even the poorest of them would want money in return for a concert or a music class. They are wealthy in terms of their art. The pandemic drove him towards attempting suicide, and it was difficult and painful to come to terms with,” says Majumdar, who was so shaken by the conversation that he called his friend, Kolkata-based flautist and additional superintendent of police in Baruipur, Indrajit Basu, and requested that this artiste be reached and provided financial assistance.
Basu arranged for some ration and money so that Das could tide over the next few months. He also created a WhatsApp group ‘Musicians for Musicians’ and approached several West Bengal-based artistes — including Bengali vocalist Haimanti Shukla, percussionists Bickram Ghosh, Subhankar Banerjee, Tanmoy Bose, sarod player Pt Alok Lahiri and Majumdar among others — to put together a fund for artistes in need. News of santoor player Tarun Bhattacharya’s guru, Dulal Roy, being in the hospital and his bad financial situation was also being spoken about in the music circuit at the same time. Soon, a list was made of the struggling musicians who needed immediate help. Help began to pour in as many artistes made contributions and continue to save the day for some artistes in Bengal.
Amid the devastation that has been caused by COVID-19 — social and economic — what’s relatively untold is that it also tipped the world of performing arts on its axis. Art and artistes almost immediately fell into the ‘non-essential category’ and several artistes saw their livelihoods wiped out in just a few hours. While some classical artistes are organising online concerts and attempting to adopt a more modern approach to teaching an extremely traditional art form, the trauma of the pandemic has put several others in a very difficult position.
Performing artistes are the bulwarks of the cultural history of any country and integral to the national, economic and social fabric of a nation. In recent months, countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have announced funds and aid packages for their cultural sector, which is being equated with national heritage. In India, so far, there has been no concentrated effort in the same direction. While the zonal offices of Sangeet Natak Akademies have reached out to some folk and tribal artistes who are registered with them, the situation is particularly grim for artistes who are not government employees or affiliated to Sangeet Natak Akademies of the various states — many of them include instrument makers, nadaswaram players in temples, sound and light technicians, instrument tuners, music teachers who teach from home, accompanying artistes, theatre artistes, dancers, costume designers, make-up artistes among others. “Since the sector is completely unorganised, various efforts in various directions are the need of the hour. There are hundreds of artistes who are not registered with any government body,” says Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal. “I know musicians who are playing the lehra for a few hours for Rs 150, while a tabla player practices. It’s a pity to even know that,” adds Basu.
Some private efforts have recently been initiated. Carnatic classical vocalist and Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna monetised one of his concerts in April and donated the money that was raised to artistes who needed it. He also created Covid-19 Artists Fund (managed by the Sumanasa Foundation, of which Krishna is a trustee) and till today (May 22) approximately Rs 44 lakh has been raised and given to 1346 artists — including makeup artists, parai and koothu artistes, instrument makers, nadaswaram and thavil artists, theatre artists, Bharatanatyam dancers, Karagattam artistes, those involved in tech and backstage and light and sound technicians. Apart from the Southern states, the money from here has also been used to help those in Kathputli Colony ( Delhi), artistes in Bihar, Meghalaya, and the Southern states. The fund is a continuous activity and details for contribution are on sumanasafoundation.org. Recently Berklee Indian Ensemble of the Berklee college of music in the US released a new version of the song Dil chahta hai that features 112 artists from 21 countries that have been led by Shankar Mahadevan. Now music company T Series will donate all proceeds from this song to Sumanasa Foundation and Zariya Foundation which are involved in working for the artistes.
This was followed by Udupa Music Festival, an online music festival that featured concerts by Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, among others, and was monetised at Rs 1200 per account so that artistes in dire need could be helped. This was also created by a musician — ghatam player Gridhar Udupa.
Recently, Mudgal, along with tabla player and husband Aneesh Pradhan, cultural practitioners Sameera Iyengar and Arundhati Ghosh, actor and arts consultant Rahul Vohra and producer and casting director Mona Irani, created Assistance for Disaster Affected Artistes (ADAA) — a crowdfunded campaign to provide prompt financial support to about 100 artistes for three to six months. The group raised Rs 42 lakh — six lakh more than their target of Rs 35 lakh, and has reached out to 132 artistes in the last fortnight. “We started discussing the campaign as early as March 20 because we had already been through several cancellations and disruptions ourselves. We were just about understanding that this is something unprecedented and is not going away soon,” says Mudgal, who, along with Pradhan, began calling artistes she knew — some living in remote places and following folk traditions — to ask if they were okay. “We started speaking to people to understand the issues that were coming or were going to come up. Everyone feels that unless you reduce a person to being unable to fend for themselves and find two meals a day, only then do they require help. We were realising that a lot of musicians who were earning through these months and had lean periods like all of us in the summer, now suddenly had the ground beneath their feet gone. Though many people we knew were not out on the street, but there was this deep anxiety that there would be many who would be,” says Mudgal, who didn’t want to rush into doing a monetised concert to raise funds. She wanted to figure if money could be raised for a long duration because paying people little money would only last for a short time. She got in touch with people and organisations who had been working with musicians at the grassroots level to find artistes who were struggling and were in immediate and desperate need.
She has now, along with other members of the group, written letters to the Chief Ministers of all the states “requesting that they work out relief measures for the arts and culture sectors too”. They have also listed, in these letters, detailed action plans they can refer to, both for immediate emergency relief to artistes and for long term planning. “We urge you to also extend support to the community of artistes, performers, teachers of the arts, instrument makers and other arts-related professionals, in your state, who have always been integral to the rich culture of your region and have been vital in drawing tourists to enhance your economy. They may not have fallen within the purview of sections of society that are being presently helped by your administration, but we would like to bring to your notice the severe financial challenges that they too face in these trying circumstances,” the letter says. Her detailed action plan also includes points like the removal of GST from the arts (since it’s neither a good nor a service), revenue generation models that include commissions for proper digital concerts and funding schemes.
San Francisco-based classical vocalist Mahesh Kale, 44, who has spent most of his life in Pune, believes that even if things begin to open, it will take long for the entertainment industry to flourish. Through his non-profit public charity, Indian Classical Music and Arts Foundation which is based in the Bay area, Kale has also put together Artist Appreciation Awards 2020 which will cater to about 24 artistes in India. Each artiste will be given Rs 25,000 for now. “With many musicians, whose primary source of earning is through their music, it has all stopped. In my personal capacity, I try and support my own accompanists but that is not enough. Being an artiste if I won’t take care of my fraternity, how do I expect others to,” says Kale, who is now planning to connect these artistes with a curated audience that will include patrons of the organisation. However, since it’s online, it can be viewed and heard world over. Two artistes will present a 30-minute performance every day and Kale plans to begin by sustaining it for about three months.
Mudgal and Kale are also uncomfortable about a large number of online concerts happening everyday, which aren’t properly curated. While Mudgal rues about the clashes as “there are 10 artistes performing online at the same time”, Kale is worried that the artistes are struggling to stay relevant. “They go online too frequently. There is no curated content. They just keep doing stuff. Because of this desperation, some third party somewhere starts seeing an opportunity and starts marginalising, which in this case means that they are not monetarily compensated,” says Kale.
While Ahmedabad-based sitar player Manju Mehta has reached out to a few artistes in Gujarat, through Saptak, her organisation that organises the famed Saptak festival of music, Carnatic classical singer Bombay Jayashree Ramnath is also working to fund artistes. Delhi-based Kathak exponent Manjari Chaturvedi through her Sufi Kathak Foundation recently started ‘Support an Artiste’ campaign to support artistes on the margins, “hailing from small towns, who sing in dargahs etc”. She is planning to extend her support to qawwals Rajasthani folk musicians, Kashmiri folk musicians, female artistes including singers and traditional dancers. Mehta, with the funds of the music school, has an application system where artistes need to fill out a form on the website and submit. the organisation gives about Rs 10,000 and in return, the artiste needs to upload a 10-minute piece on the institution’s Facebook page. “That’s a comfortable system for everyone,” says Mehta.
In a country like India, the stories of the migrants are extremely significant, and rightly so, but what’s not paid heed to, often enough, are those of the artistes, their conditions and struggles. “That attention is also needed for that artiste, one who sings, plays an instrument, dances, and brings unimaginable joy to those who watch or listen — be it, anyone, anywhere in the world. Remove them and we won’t be left with much,” says Kale. According to Majumdar, there is a requirement for a serious intervention. Because when all this is over, when the birds sing again, there will be a dire need of that healing alleviation of the performing arts, ones that are so intricately intermingled with our national and personal identity.