Working in the arts usually means accepting lower salaries than your peers
By Reema Gowalla
In India, with very few exceptions, culture workers, which includes those behind the scenes in the organisations creating performances, productions, exhibitions, festivals and other ways that the arts interface with the public, get paid less than their colleagues in other knowledge industries. (The global Covid-19 pandemic served to highlight this, with the arts sector — despite offering the few escapes that lockdowns permitted — mostly finding itself unable to get money either from audiences, with no traffic at the turnstiles, or from funding bodies, because of the perception of the arts as non-essential, low priority or a luxury, and losing jobs and livelihoods as organisations struggled to stay afloat.)
As a general rule, it would be fair to say that people who choose to work in this field are either fueled with enough passion to let them ignore what their friends in other industries are earning or come from some degree of privilege, or a combination of these factors.
“There’s no lack of work in theatre,” Nuhar Bansal, producer at the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bengaluru, says, “but because pay scales are abysmally low, there is always a dearth of people willing to take up responsibilities.” She began her career making ₹10,000 a month.— “It’s a meagre sum for someone living in a metropolitan city, but I stay with my parents, so I could manage” — and six years later, she earns ₹30,000, which only looks good if you think of it as three times her starting salary. “Roles and positions in the arts are fluid, with no hierarchy or fixed salary structures.”
Bansal could probably make more money if she, like many other ambitious people, moved to Mumbai or Delhi to work for a larger more commercial organisation, where salaries are relatively higher (but she would also need to contend with a higher cost of living). Saatvika Kantamneni, a producer with Akvarious Productions and mentor at Drama School Mumbai, says that while a production team member in Mumbai draws a salary, many in Bengaluru are probably just paid an honorarium. “There’s a lack of uniformity when it comes to the modes of payment,” she says. “For one project, you may get a monthly salary; sometimes, it’s per show; it can be a lump sum; or a rehearsal fee.”
Overall, Kantamneni says, “I can say that people are not paid as much as they should be. It’s difficult at most times for people to make ends meet.”
Riya Matthew, a project assistant at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in Bengaluru, says, “No one working in the arts feels any kind of real security when it comes to employment and pay scales. A lot of young people intern for free or get paid what would probably cover just one week of their commute to office.”
In such a scenario, benefits other professionals can rely on are practically unheard of. Shiva Pathak, co-founder of Sandbox Collective and director at Bhasha Centre for Performing Arts, says, “We know that the arts sector does not provide most of the employee benefits — health insurance, provident fund — that are synonymous with the corporate world.”
Nevertheless, people still want to work in the arts, perhaps because of a perception of glamour or a belief in the importance of the work they are doing, or because they understand the difficulty the sector has in earning money and accept that. Even then, as Bansal says, “The passion wears off when you are unable to pay your bills.”
Often, Kantamneni says, young professionals take up other assignments alongside. Mathew says with growth prospects flat, freelance assignments are a source of needed income for many.
Working for larger organisations helps. “Institutional salaries are better than what you get while working independently,” Bansal says, “but a lot depends on one’s ability to adapt to new setups, learn new skills and then monetise them via good networking.” Mathew agrees; her employer gives her the assurance of resources, but that’s not common: “Contemporary arts in India are still struggling to find widespread audiences and support mechanisms. Funding is still very little and there’s so much work to be covered with that meagre sum.”
It is arguably harder for those who have seen the arts world in more affluent economies. Kantamneni, who did her Master’s degree in London, says that in the UK, the arts is an industry, with unions, job portals, well-described profiles and fair wages. “Fringe groups exist, but one also has the liberty to choose from various opportunities on offer.” Corrective action
To be fair, people in the sector acknowledge the problem, and some are working towards making it more professional.
Shiva Pathak, co-founder of Sandbox Collective and director at Bhasha Centre for Performing Arts, says “A lot of organisations, especially those who tour with their productions, have begun to take insurance coverage more seriously. But the people who run these shows are still not paid as much attention due to low budgets. It’s time we also introduce policies that take people’s mental well-being into consideration and even allow facilities like menstrual leave. We need to reimagine processes to make that happen.”
Kantamneni says that large productions like Disney India’s stage musicals Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are helping by providing defined stage and production manager roles. “From just being called production people, who bring chai, iron costumes and set up the stage, we are now considered collaborators.” Changing mindsets
Dewan says that programming is essential to forge a connection with people. “The only way to raise the bar is by working toward building an industry, where neither artists nor management people work for free, nor is there any hesitancy to get enrolled in and shell out for capacity-building programmes.”
The sector cannot be self-sustaining without one or both of these happening: one, the general public buying tickets or directly supporting the arts financially; and two, funders — whether companies, wealthy individuals or governments — seeing arts and culture as important enough to continue funding it even in tough times. If not, lower wages for the foreseeable future.
There is a tiny silver lining, as Pathak notes. She sees fewer people in the arts, particularly in contemporary English theatre, working for free and accepting platforms or exposure as compensation. “The younger generation are asking a lot of questions when they join an organisation or a collective, which wasn’t the case when we started out. They are more aware of their career prospects and growth trajectory. It’s important that we create this journey for people who work with us and also be part of it. Things do not end with just getting them on board, we should help them grow with the organisation.”