Hitting Play after a Long Pause
The MHA’s new Unlock 4.0 guidelines have spelt confusion for some cultural operators, but state and local government interventions seem to be the key
Even as India races to the treacherous top spot of COVID-19 infections in the world, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued guidelines for a phased re-opening (Unlock 4.0) on 29 August. These guidelines permit all activities outside containment zones with the exception of educational institutions, cinema halls, swimming pools, entertainment parks, and theatres. Through the month of September, many workplaces will have resumed operations with at least 50% capacity, metros will have started functioning, hotels will be operating at full capacity, and in a few states, even bars will have opened up. Unlock 4.0 brings to an end one of the world’s harshest lockdowns, allowing countless sectors, businesses and individuals to resume economic activities. In a state of confusion
However, it appears that the arts and culture sector will have to wait a little longer for succour. The MHA guidelines have currently permitted film shootings to resume with a skeleton crew of 75, and for open-air theatres to function, but the losses the sector (including the events industry) has suffered and continues to suffer are massive and will need much more leeway to start recovering. Where the guidelines permit gatherings of up to 100 people for political, religious, and other corporate events starting 21 September, there’s no explicit notification spelling out where cultural venues such as theatres and museums stand under these provisions. Neither is there clarity on the conditions under which such assemblies may take place. In such a scenario, state governments are playing it by ear, granting permissions in capacities they deem fit. For instance, the Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Karnataka governments have continued with a ceiling of 50 people, Gujarat is going with 100, while Maharashtra is not allowing anything to be opened till 30 September. In Kolkata, a cap of 50 guests is being maintained for public spaces like bars, but exam centres are operating with more than 100 students at a time. The state has sought clarity on what the MHA guidelines mean by “social, academic, sports, cultural, entertainment, religious gatherings.”
Cultural organisers and spaces, too, are confused. For Jaideep Singh, actor, theatre & arts coach, the last few months have been rough. His decade-old dance academy remained shut during the pandemic, along with the café within the space that provided additional revenue. Even if it does happen, resurrecting these spaces may take a long time. “It’s the same with many of my peers. All cultural training institutes are still shut, and most of us are continuing to train our students virtually. Even though our CM (Mamata Banerjee) is making visible efforts to manage the situation, no one’s quite sure when we’ll be able to call our students back into physical spaces and moreover, when parents will be comfortable actually sending them back. For now, we’ll just have to wait and watch.”
Rupali Bhave, actor and partner at The Box, an experimental theatre space in Pune, puts a finger on why such confusions abound. In her opinion, the Government’s clubbing of all kinds of arts practices under the generic title of 'cultural events' is confusing as there are numerous, and diverse, arts practices within the scope of cultural events. She says, “For example, within music and dance, there are western and Indian forms. In theatre, we have amateur, experimental, folk, and commercial variants. For each of these art practices, the organisers, event managers, spaces, set-ups, budgets, and audience profiles are different. For each of these events, the art habits of the practising artists and the rasiks vary vastly. Ergo, generic guidelines without a sense of proportion will prove inadequate and ineffective. Allowing 50 people in an auditorium is meaningless without considering the number of performers, the economics of the performance, and the capacity of the auditorium. If it is a huge auditorium, how is allowing only 50 people going to ensure the economic viability of the performance? On the other hand, in an intimate theatre space, allowing 50 people could, in fact, help in spreading the disease. A better solution would, perhaps, be allowing a certain proportion of the total capacity of the auditorium to attend an event.”
To that end, the Events and Entertainment Management Association (EEMA) recently created an exhaustive 300-page document with detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that was launched at an event organised by the Maharashtra Tourism and Culture Principal Secretary, Valsa Singh Nair. Nair reportedly appreciated the efforts and promised to forward it to the Maharashtra CM, Uddhav Thackeray. EEMA has even instituted a Government Interaction Committee to ensure constant interaction with the state officials.
As an events’ organiser, Siddhartha Chaturvedi, CEO of Eventcrafter, an event management agency from Jaipur, finds much hope in EEMA’s initiative. He says, “These proposed guidelines are just not generic but very exhaustive, well thought of SOPs, comprising the entire life cycle of an event right from its planning, educating guests about the SOPs, to smooth conduct of the event and also post the event, ensuring a relatively safer experience for all stakeholders in an event.”
FICCI had shared similar SOPs for the aviation, sports, schools and tourism sectors in July during Unlock 3.0, although in a much slimmer volume. Most of these sectors have now opened up, at least partially. It remains to be seen, if EEMA’s consistent and extensive efforts will do the job of convincing the government to open up events and other cultural and entertainment venues.
While EEMA is looking at the events sector, the cultural sector, which also comprises venues, independent practitioners, collectives and producing organisations, is only partially represented. However, collectives are being formed and cultural spaces are self-organising to form representations to the government. For instance, in Bengaluru, some spaces for cultural activities and events have come together to form a collective called The Collective of Spaces for Arts & Culture. Like EEMA, it created SOPs and guidelines for venues across the city, which were aiming to open in September in anticipation of Unlock 4.0. In a webinar organised by the Bangalore Chapter of ACRI in June, the collective’s representatives said that it was created as a knowledge and resource sharing space and how similar initiatives would be key for the sustenance of cultural spaces in other Indian cities.
Additionally, it has resulted in some very tangible benefits for such spaces. V. Ravichandar, Director, Bangalore International Center said, “The group has got a waiver of fixed electricity charges of BESCOM (the electricity utility) for the months April through July 2020 - this is thanks to the government's recognition of the travails of the creative sector in current times. The government has also allowed limited use of these spaces for small groups for production shoots and meetings related to improving the lot of the creative artistes (counselling sessions, talks).”
However, some feel that the government too should make the effort of reaching out to all arts practitioners. Bhave says, “The government and regulatory bodies ought to have dialogues with all the different kinds of art practitioners, understand their specific practices, and issue separate guidelines for each.”
The Tamil Nadu government seems to be setting great examples of offering custom solutions that people like Bhave seek. The state has taken up the Centre’s 100-person attendance provision and “are contemplating doing drive-in cinema, thinking about how to make the Margazhi season more compliance friendly, and allowing small house congregations and even dine-out experiences to be curated at specific restaurants,” according to Ratheesh Krishnan, a Chennai-based purpose coach for arts, culture & interdisciplinary studies.
Living it up, locally
Although the Tamil Nadu government’s guidelines are both helpful and iterative, it is the local body corporations that Krishnan is impressed with. Since July, when the states started reopening, they have been quick to learn and adapt. He attests to how the Chennai Corporation has been highly supportive of doing weddings and funerals efficiently, has allowed people to go to the beaches and have managed exigencies case by case. There are also lessons to be learnt from the way temples are driving innovations to create contactless experiences. “Chennai is taking the lead in implementing regulatory mechanisms through collaboration rather than conservatism,” he says.
Saira Shah Halim, educator, social activist and theatre personality from Kolkata is also equally optimistic about her city. She said, “Kolkata is a culturally vibrant and a resilient city; will learn to not just survive but thrive even in these trying circumstances.”
While the pandemic has hit us all hard, the way each of us tackles it is different. Solutions must arise out of the exigencies of the place in question. What would work for Chennai may not work for Mumbai, and Kolkata’s limits may not apply to Jaipur. However, the best way forward, Krishnan believes, is that “regulations need to be driven through voluntary dialogues, coverage of best practices from the city as examples, and with local body participation into the creation of such concepts.”