Bootstrapping our survival
The Indian culture sector is reeling under cancellations, closures and resulting financial losses. With no sight of state subsidy or support, the culture sector is employing ‘atma-nirbharta’ to simply survive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the culture sector in India and the world with cultural centers, venues, artists and audiences under lockdown, and events and festivals uncertain about restarting. Governments and cultural associations world over have responded swiftly providing a variety of pathways and life lines for the cultural sector to deal with the pandemic. Governments of Germany and New Zealand have stepped in with relief packages for the culture sector running into billions of Euros. In early January of this year, China’s National Administration of Cultural Heritage issued a statement requesting the country’s state-owned and private museums to share their exhibitions online to 'encourage the determination and morale of local people to fight the epidemic.' In the UK, the Arts Council England announced a £160 million emergency relief package for arts organisations, including £50 million for organisations it does not usually fund and £20 million for individual and freelance artists. Many governments abroad have rendered memos giving strategic direction to cultural institutions and incorporating them to pandemic-related solutions, but not so in India.
While on the one hand there is no formal statement of support released by the Indian Government in support of the arts, the culture sector is also missing from the beneficiaries of the INR 20 lakh crore economic-stimulus package laid down by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in May. Moreover, as quoted in a recent article in Indian Express, the government seems to think that ‘artists should be donating to the government instead’.
Sanjoy Roy, co-founder and managing director of Teamwork Arts of JLF and the Co-Chair, FICCI Art and Culture Committee, to whom the above suggestion was directed at a recent virtual FICCI meet, had to explain that not all artistes are film stars, and that thousands are facing pretty much the same predicament as migrant labour. Beyond the world of social media performances and web concerts lies a universe of artists and craftspersons, whose lives depend on meagre earnings from daily performances or the sale of ‘non-essential’ wares. Self-employed and unorganised, they have been left to completely fend for themselves.
Holding fort: Initiatives from within
In response, the cultural community has come together and started a slew of initiatives aimed at helping artists survive. These initiatives that are aimed at achieving different objectives, can be classified as:
Generating awareness and information through research and data;
Creating new formats and platforms for performance-driven arts.
The latest among fundraising initiatives is being driven by Sanjoy Roy’s Teamwork Arts. Called #artmatters, this initiative has over 100 sector leaders and artistes on board. It has been helping folk musicians, craftspeople, puppeteers, dancers and theatre artistes – sometimes entire colonies – supplying ration kits, depositing money into accounts, or helping with medical treatments. Similar initiatives have been led by collectives like SAAEF (stayIN aLIVE Artist Emergency Fund), ADAA (Assistance for Disaster Affected Artistes) and ISRA (Indian Singers’ Rights Association). SAAEF created an artist emergency fund to cover loss of employment, lack of financial resources, bereavement, accidents and poor health. ADAA has proposed short, mid and long term action plans to state governments to help assist artists’ problems related to revenue generation, taxation, funding schemes, mapping and even healthcare. Artistes like T M Krishna have also been helping raise funds and offer visibility to marginalised artistes. Through the Sumanasa Foundation, he has not only rendered performances, but also helped organise web events for performers who do not have easy access to digital platforms.
Secondary fundraising initiatives such as ISRA’s virtual concert called Sangeet Setu, and the Bollywood-led I for India concert, have directed their funds towards bigger fund pools, such as the PM Cares Fund. The intent of these concert-based fundraisers has been to aid the arts and culture sector during the pandemic, but it is not known yet how or where the collected amounts have been allocated. As of today, the PM Cares Fund is being audited but is not categorised as a ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act, and no other details are available to the public yet. While we await the audit, artist collectives that can donate to the government are doing their bit.
On the awareness and information front, many organisations and individual artistes are using their social media to rally support for the community. Initiatives like 200 Million Artisans and ACRI have been collating sector-facing news that will aid in research and relief efforts. On more tangible terms, organisations like the British Council (India), FICCI and Art X Company have joined hands to collect and make available statistical information that would better help understand the crisis and thereby craft solutions. Their Taking the Temperature survey intends to roll out findings every few weeks, so this information may be used on a rolling basis.
Innovative format initiatives in the form of virtual performances have already become popular, but another fine example of new performance formats that can be monetised is the #GiftAConcert series, initiated by renowned classical musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan.
Despite such earnest efforts, this is yet like fighting a phantom where you know neither the extent of damage caused nor the amount of ground recovered. There is a recognition of the disastrous effects the pandemic has had on the sector, but in the absence of any central bodies or standard metrics, it is impossible to tell just how much the arts and culture sector has suffered, and how much it will take to recover. With no numbers to present as a problem, there are no numbers to seek in solutions. For a crisis of this magnitude, state help is imperative, but not much seems to be forthcoming.
The government’s response: Too little, too late
Barring a few small measures at the state level by the governments of Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Karnataka, such as giving rural artists some small relief packages in cash, the Central government has all but blindsided the arts and culture sector’s hardships during the pandemic. Government response during COVID-19 are project blimps such as the launch of the national list of intangible cultural heritage of India in April by the culture ministry, or a corona-themed art competition organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). There have been no real attempts towards granting financial or infrastructural assistance by these national bodies or by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA).
Artistes, art writers, culture practitioners and professionals have made repeated pleas to the state for intervention. Shubha Mudgal, who has been at the forefront of relief efforts and was part of the ADAA campaign, says how she and her peers had emailed the chief ministers of several states asking them to consider relief measures for the art and culture sectors, and even provided them with relief plans. They received auto-responders from about only three states, of which two forwarded their message to the concerned departments and officials. Thereafter, they haven’t heard from them, while the remaining emails have remained unacknowledged. She acknowledges the minor efforts made by some state governments, but points out that “these are just one time payouts with meagre amounts. How long will an artiste be able to survive with a one-time amount of INR 2000 and 2500 in the current situation?”
Noted Carnatic singer, writer and activist, T M Krishna is not pleased either. He says, “The less said about the central government the better. There has been no concrete support from the cultural ministry, the finance ministry has offered no assistance to artists/artisans and national institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi seem more busy hosting webinars and sharing their archives online, when their work should actually be at ground level.”
How the state can support the sector
Since the pandemic is paradigm-bending, and it will affect the way the art sector functions in the long-term, both kinds of solutions are necessary.
Short-term solutions that the government needs to urgently provide for, include the creation of emergency grants, disaster relief packages, sustainability funds. As Dadi Pudumjee, leading puppeteer in India and founder of The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, has suggested, it must then use data from some artist databases like the ones SNA has to map the distribution of such packages. Kathak dancer, Aditi Mangaldas, is of the view that academies like SNA and bodies like ICCR should repurpose their funds meant for festivals and international artist travels and tailor them for relief work. Mudgal reiterates this point saying, “Large-scale performing arts events cannot possibly take place till such time as a vaccine is available for COVID-19, and at current estimates that could take anywhere between a year to two years. So festival funds should be diverted towards helping and supporting artistes.”
Trusts should be allowed to help existing museums pay the salaries of positions critical to their missions and cover other essential expenses. Art scholar, Nachiket Chanchani suggests that the culture ministry should immediately publicise its pension and medical aid scheme for artistes facing hardships, simplify the application process and expedite fund disbursal. Krishna adds, “It is essential that governments (central and state) work with NGOs and private organisations who are trying to do their best and immediately provide for cash transfers. There needs to be monthly cash transfer support for at least the next five months because, even if we are in 'unlock' mode, it is going to take a while before people will be allowed to gather for performances.”
Full-scale performances will surely take time to resume, but Roy has interesting suggestions that may work in the interim. He says, “Government-run theatres and venues should be opened, and groups/ artists should be invited to perform without an audience. These should be filmed and broadcast on social media, and the performers should be paid for their services.”
The government could also take inspiration from other nations, whose culture ministries and arts bodies stepped in early and adequately to salvage the struggling community of artists. For example, it could create a creative job seekers' fund, the way New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has recently done. Or it could mirror the suggestion being floated in Australia of tax offsets for venues hosting live programmes as the lockdowns lift. It would help revive the events sector, which is among the hardest hit. It could even follow Britain’s lead and appoint a commissioner with the express purpose of getting the culture sector back on its feet.
In the longer term, the government could consider adopting recommendations for policy-level sector changes such as minimum fee mandates for artists, limiting private philanthropy in favour of grant-giving schemes, and addressing social mobility and diversity issues in the art world, which in turn would fix many structural problems that the art sector faces. Chanchani also thinks the government needs to boost overall art scholarship to drive an attitudinal change in society about the need and worth of art in life. Roy adds that freelance artists and technicians could be registered through zonal cultural centres, rural artisans and artists could be included in schemes such as Ayushmaan Bharat, arts could be included into the CSR manifesto, and tax benefits could be provided for those contributing to the arts, among other things.
Recognising the life-art continuum
The Indian arts and culture sector keeps its fingers crossed, hopes to be heard, and needs to tide over this immediate crisis. However, the pandemic inspires a bigger question: how much do the arts matter and how far will societies go to save it? As T M Krishna sharply retorts, “We are a country of hypocrites who speak about our cultural diversity but are most culturally insensitive and unresponsive.”
After we’ve tided over the pandemic’s most crucial stages, and things have resumed their somewhat normal course, will the arts continue to be seen as non-essential to society and life? Something that does not need rescuing or nurturing? Will the indispensability of art in surviving the pandemic count for something?
It is for the recognition of this life-art continuum, the necessity of art and culture that the striving is for; crises will come and go.