On your own

Navigating the arts as an independent professional By Janhavi Acharekar

Sharing an interview about her global role, the editor of a magazine I’m associated with, recently tweeted, “For all of us who were told that majoring in English literature meant we'd never make it to Forbes.”

The dissonance between a degree in the arts and business sense is not new. In India, especially, the fine arts continue to be regarded by the mainstream as a passion rather than a career, supplemented with income from a ‘paying job.’ Western counterparts, meanwhile, are able to subsist on their earnings from their art, often supplemented with the patronage of local arts councils, government grants and fees for speaking engagements.

Add to it the absence of a degree programme in arts management, which is an established discipline in the West. As a result, ‘learning on the job’ is a common refrain among arts managers. Moreover, in a sector that remains largely unorganised, job seekers rely on word of mouth (or serendipity) for opportunities, and there are few industry standards for remuneration.

How then, does the independent arts professional or entrepreneur navigate this ocean of the unknown?

Uncharted Waters

“It's really self-organisation through associations or informal networks that keep the sector going,” says playwright Ram Ganesh Kamatham. “It's been a gig economy for artists well before the term became trendy in mainstream industry.” Kamatham devised his own methods for survival. For his first critical and commercial success, Dancing on Glass, he would rehearse after his 9 to 5 job and has continued to maintain a parallel career as an educational technology consultant. Where remuneration for theatre projects is concerned, he follows benchmarks set by the Screenwriters’ Association of India. “In the best instances there's a negotiated fee and a signed contract.”

Possibly every young arts professional has had to peddle their services for free, persuaded — or pressured — by the lure of a ‘platform’ or ‘exposure.’

Tired of this empty offering, dancer, curator and arts manager Masoom Parmar founded The Platform at arts venue Shoonya in Bengaluru, and the young dancers it showcased were remunerated through ticketed events. Hailing from the Langha community of musicians, Parmar is among the first in his family to have received a formal education. “I come from a humble background,” he says “and could never have afforded an arts management course abroad. Besides, Western courses can’t be adapted to the Indian context.” The gap inspired him to initiate a course in arts administration, based on his learnings in the sector.

Having held a salaried position in the past, Parmar believes that he may have been underpaid but says his employers were underfunded themselves. Grateful that it took the financial burden off him, leaving him free to think and programme, he adds, “No work should be done for free.” For his consultation and management projects, Parmar draws comparisons with the minimum American industry standard of USD 14 per hour in rupees. He urges his students to do the same.

Kathak dancer and ceramic artist Neha Kudchadkar co-founded interdisciplinary dance initiative Beej with contemporaries Sanjukta Wagh and Pranali Kakade with the intent to create “a strictly non-hierarchical organisation” and space to question and challenge norms. Beej’s earnings come from classes, workshops, productions and performances, with much of it used to pay artistes.

Like Kamatham and Parmar, Kudchadkar rues the ‘guru-shishya’ tradition in the performing arts that writes off remuneration for artistes. “The idea of the poor artist is so ingrained that I find it difficult to ask for money,” she confesses. And yet, going solo, she says, gives her the freedom to experiment, create and travel. For her, like Kamatham and many others, residencies and grants provided by the British Council, Pro Helvetia and Goethe Institut have been invaluable. “My stints abroad have shaped my practice and that freedom is non-negotiable.” She says that the Ministry of Culture and Lalit Kala Akademi too have provided support but she wishes the process were easier.

The long haul

In a sector that offers little in return but for the joy it gives those reckless enough to risk its uncertainty, perseverance pays off.

When prominent Marathi poet Hemant Divate set up publishing house Poetrywala with wife Smruti, it was the cause that mattered more than the revenue. “As Indians, we are multilingual and speak two to three languages simultaneously. Why not read in those languages, too?” he asks. Dedicated to the Marathi literary movement and to promoting poetry in translation, Divate’s own works have been translated into various languages including French, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Maltese, among others.

“We don’t see ourselves as entrepreneurs because we believe that poetry publishing is a movement,” Divate says, and adds, laughing, “Of course, we will be happy if thousands of our books are sold.” Divate is being modest. In its 21st year, with more than 120 titles to its credit, Poetrywala generates its own income and pays its poets a standard 10% royalty. The couple’s background in sales and marketing, too, has helped. “It’s self-revenue now,” he says. “We no longer need to seek funding. We’ve used our marketing and advertising knowledge to give glamour to poetry.” During the pandemic, they also launched the Poetrywala Foundation that will mentor, guide and support poets.

Ruchira Das, founder of ThinkArts, an organisation dedicated to creating arts engagements for children and young adults, and Artistic Director at the upcoming Arthshila art centres, quit her corporate job for a career in the arts. She worked with SPIC MACAY, Rabindra Utsav and Prithvi Theatre, but the inspiration for ThinkArts came from an overseas trip with her homeschooled daughters that opened her eyes to museum engagement for children. When the time came to hire a team, unclear about industry standards for remuneration, she simply matched their previous salaries (not claiming a salary for herself, relying on her income as a consultant).

Eight years later, not only is ThinkArts among the highest-paying organisations in the sector, it receives its income from ticketed events and a steady stream of funding, even offering grants to theatre-makers and artists. “I’m proud that during the pandemic, everyone got their entire salaries,” says Das.

All agree that the sector leaves much to be desired. Professionalisation could only benefit practitioners and the economy at large. Pressing issues need to be addressed, among them, standardising payment, contracts, rights, safety norms, better spaces and more platforms. And yet, despite the odds, says Kudchadkar, “the ability to create opportunities is one of the biggest positives of an unorganised sector.”