OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been food for analysis across all sectors of the economy, one glaring omission is the artist! What has the lockdown and the slowdown done to all of us and our work? This is a silence that is deafening in our public discourse.
As a performing artist, I of course — like all others in my fraternity — lost out on all my scheduled performances and stage shows, both group and solo, and all the travels associated with that. This had two impacts — first, of course, was the loss of income; but also then, my creative graph was ruptured since my interaction with musicians was forced into a hiatus. However, this seemed inconsequential when one realised what was happening to the wider artists’ community at various levels. We are a large sector, very unorganised, scattered and diverse. From folk performers to dancers who are part of group shows, to classical artists — just the “dance” category within the performing arts group is incredibly large. The folk performers who largely depended on weddings and tourist groups were suddenly completely out of their jobs and many had to seek to alternate ways to survive. Nobody in the media or in the government is even talking about this sector, and that is appalling.
There were silver linings, of course. In the performing arts’ community, we saw that there was lot of sharing that hadn’t happened before. Artists were talking about their lives, the way they learnt their art forms, the way they practised, and the problems that they had had and continue to face at various points in their career. One also saw a lot of discussion and engagement on various subjects relating to the arts, that was a welcome development. Of course, these were the first few months when one could engage with a lot of things happening online. But with the passing of time these too have given way to the predictable; and too much of the good thing is now leading to “art-reflux”.
As far as performances online go, it has rather been a mixed bag. Everybody seems to be performing, and that may be a good thing in terms of short-term self-gratification. But by sharing everything for free, and placing valuable professional skills acquired over a period of time in the public domain without any thought of monetising them, has become an extremely worrying trend. Economic models of sharing work have not been deliberated upon, and hence there is a danger of the arts being further marginalised.
Let’s face it: Even before the pandemic, artists were not really in a great place in terms of economic viability. Buying a ticket to watch a show was getting more and more difficult. Now with so much happening for free at the click of a button, one worries even more about how artists will manage to survive in the future. Would people ever again buy tickets at all to watch performances?
I agree that artists are anxious and worried about their uncertain future and hence want to be a part of the social media, lest they be left out of some imaginary race. We are all in an introspective mode. But this mood cannot last for too long. We realise that as well.
Artists need to perform, and they need to be watched. Their self-esteem and self-confidence takes a huge beating if performances do not happen. The government hasn’t spoken a word about artists and their concerns. Even existing skeletal schemes for artists are not being honoured. The sector as a whole has taken a huge beating. even though everybody acknowledges the fact that during the lockdown all the arts — dance, music, theatre and the visual arts — have kept the morale of everybody high and helped them to stay sane.
In India, the problem is even more daunting as the arts and performers in general are not an organised sector. The diversity in art forms and the geography of this country has not helped in creating a roster of artists — be it folk or classical. Hence organising the artists’ community and helping them has become a huge challenge. A nadaswaram player who earned his bread and butter by playing in temples during festivals or played at weddings is today at his tether’s end, with both tourism and temple gatherings in moratorium. How does, for example, can one reach support and help to artists located in a remote village in Tamil Nadu?
Could this time be used by all of us to put our heads together and think of ways to reimagine culture for the “new normal” times to come? And what about our future? What happens when things open up once again? What place will the arts then have in our lives? Will the economy be resilient enough to support the arts? And will audiences return to auditoriums to watch live performances? We need to start thinking of the role of artists in our society, what they mean to us and what we must do for them. But (alas!) will it happen?