Reporting from the Grassroots

Eleven arts organisations and artists working across rural India speak about the impact of the pandemic on their livelihoods, organisations, innovations, and concerns about the future.

Mahima Grover and T M Yadhukrishnan

We started Culture Wire at the onset of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown in India, in March 2020. For the past 14 months, we have brought to you stories from the sector, the challenges we have faced, and our response to the pandemic. However, with the second wave, we have been listening; more frequently, more deeply and with intent. Over the last month, we have been reaching out to our friends and peers, beyond the metros, to understand the impact of both COVID-19 waves on them.

Folk artisanal communities mainly live and perform in the non-metros places that have developed unique systems for their ability to continue to work and earn their livelihoods through their art. Systems of patron families, tourism centers, ritualistic performative contexts, and state-supported fairs and bazaars have held steady as the socio-cultural marketplaces for consumption and distribution of the artisans' artistic practices. With the lockdown and related restrictions, all of these platforms broke down simultaneously forcing these communities to test the limits of their vulnerability. Whoever could manage to move online has done so, but issues of infrastructure, digital access, training, and the lack of a safety net have severely hindered their ability to use the digital as a reliable alternate, revenue-generating platform. Moreover, with little-to-negligible state support and without recourse to formal sources of funding, survival has become an ongoing, continuous, and uncertain battle.

However, there have been some remarkable, mainly civil-society and cultural-sector led private initiatives that have emerged in the past year that have helped these communities. Examples include the Creative Dignity initiative, a volunteer movement spread across India to work on Craft Relief, Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation; Assistance of Disaster Affected Artists fundraising initiative, the Art Matters emergency fund by Teamworks Arts.

Culture Wire speaks to 11 cultural organisations working with craft and performance folk artisanal communities across India. We asked them about the impact the pandemic has had on their artisan communities, their own organisational operations and teams, and innovations that have emerged in these times.

Ita Mehrotra — Director, Artreach India BIHAR, DELHI, JHARKHAND, MAHARASHTRA, MEGHALAYA, RAJASTHAN, UTTARAKHAND, UTTAR PRADESH Artreach India is a charitable trust set-up in 2015, working with young people living in marginalised communities across India to transform their lives through visual art and education.

“Over the lockdown, the accessibility to far flung village schools and community centers, especially those in Bihar, has reduced considerably. The digital divide has come through very sharply for us, as we are able to reach out to several care homes around Delhi and other cities, but not to spaces more remote.

We've had to quickly adapt to the digital learning space, stretching the boundaries of how to engage creatively, with new artists, for children and young people across care homes and municipal schools. This has actually led to many innovative modules, making simple games, bringing in videos, music, puppetry. At the same time, I also feel it's key to recognise small scale artist driven community projects, happening quietly in their local spaces, far from metro cities, and to be able to support these in some way is important for us. I think this, like any other, is a time for change, collective growth and imaginative learning, and we're constantly open to that at Artreach.”

Akhu Chingangbam Founder, Imphal Talkies and The Howlers

MANIPUR

Imphal Talkies is a music band based in Manipur that has been finding ways to support the independent music community in the North East since the pandemic.

“Last year we were part of a fundraiser called ADAA (Assistance of Disaster Affected Artists), started by Shubha Mudgal and a few other artists and friends, and were able to support 13 Manipur-based artists through the funds. A few months later, we supported a couple of other artists with help from TM Krishna. From time to time, we try to support the independent artists in Imphal by letting them play shows and pay them a certain honorarium.

As a band, we have had challenges performing since the lockdown and we had to cancel our annual Pete Seeger-tribute music festival, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, which was started in 2014. This year again, it seems impossible to have a mass gathering for that kind of a festival. This has deeply impacted the artists’ community and our audiences here.

Last year, I performed for a lot of online concerts. But I could do that because I’m the frontman in the band with the acoustic guitar. The rest of my team could not participate even though they are the most important part of the band. Watching my fellow artists from Manipur sell off their instruments for survival really upsets me. The government has many initiatives for classical music and dance, but next to nothing for independent music.“

Ananya Bhattacharya — Director, banglanatak dot com

WEST BENGAL, RAJASTHAN & BIHAR

A social enterprise working across India to foster inclusive and sustainable development using culture-based approaches.

As banglanatak works with artists' villages and has provided relief efforts across Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal, they have seen the devastating impact of the lockdown on performing communities due to cancellation of fairs and festivals, ban on travel and uncertainty about future income.

“While performing artists lost income opportunities owing to closed cultural spaces, loss of opportunities in local festivals, craft making communities faced the challenge of unsold stock and disruption in supply chain. Many of the artist villages which have emerged as tourism destinations (e.g. Naya, Bikna, Charida) had nil footfall and lost income avenues. Initially in 2020, the artists could fall back on their savings. The bigger entrepreneurs who employ others in their workshops continued to pay the smaller artists. These hubs acted like self-dependent ecosystems collectively responding to their challenges.

Many artists used the time to innovate. Patachitra artist, Swarna Chitrakar, painted a scroll and coined a viral song on Covid. The Bauls of West Bengal shifted to the digital platform through online performances on Facebook and reflected on changing oral arts traditions in a shifting world.

The artists who have skills to use the internet and social media have earned from online performances, heritage education programs, and online sales. We have supported 650+ artists from Bengal and Rajasthan to perform online on Facebook from March 2020 (160 programs so far, 600K+ outreach) and this later opened up more opportunities. We facilitated linkages with e-commerce channels like iTokri, GoCoop, Jaypore and others which came forward to procure the unsold stocks directly from the artists as part of the Creative Dignity initiative.

With fieldwork stopped, our projects naturally suffered delay. We had to cancel our World Peace Music Festival Sur Jahan and annual village festivals. We ran a global campaign to mobilise philanthropic funds for the affected communities, distributed to more than 12000 artists in West Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan, equipped them with sanitizers, masks and thermal guns, and connected them to available government support programs. We engaged around 3300 artists from Rajasthan and West Bengal in capacity building and skill training programs and this helped in reducing the sense of despair.

After the first wave there was a spurt in rural tourism and we partnered with India Tourism's Dekho Apna Desh/Incredible India Weekend Getaway campaign with the British Council to increase footfall in artist villages. Before the second wave, we also organised festivals like Folk Safar supported by tourism and zonal cultural centres.

We also organised several international webinars including ResiliArt debates with UNESCO to highlight the impact of pandemic and the need for building a resilient creative economy. We have partnered with diaspora and schools in the USA and UK to facilitate online income opportunities for artists.”

Dr. Hanne M. de Bruin-Rajagopal - Programme Director, Kattaikkuttu Sangam

TAMIL NADU

Kattaikkuttu Sangam is an association promoting Kattaikkuttu — a traditional Tamil theatre form with overnight rural performances — and the cultural and economic rights of its professional practitioners, most of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Kattaikkuttu is usually performed on the occasion of religious village festivals. As these stand cancelled and live performances are no longer allowed, Kattaikkuttu performers have lost their work and their source of income. In the second wave of the pandemic, they have virtually used up all their resources. This has led to poverty for the practitioners and their families. Additionally, there’s a widening digital gap in the performing arts.

During the last wave, Kattaikkuttu Sangam was able to fundraise and pay out an amount of Rs. 10,000 to all our 100+ members and their families. With the devastation and suddenness of the second wave, fundraising for the needs of artists has become more difficult.

We had to close our residential theatre school — the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, and minimise our staff. We have no income whatsoever to support our cultural activities from training, visitors, and performances.

Apart from writing a funding application for a group of five young women through Zoom conversations, there are no innovations that have taken place and that I know of. We have had some online screenings of Kattaikkuttu performances, but people are not willing to pay for these. So apart from the challenge posed by the digital gap, we feel that online performances and teaching (an art form that cannot be broken up easily) would not really solve our problems.” Kattaikkuttu Sangam has just initiated a fundraising campaign to support professional rural Kattaikkuttu performers and their families.

Dr. V Jayarajan - Chairman, Folkland

KERALA

Folkland International Center for Folklore and Culture promotes cultural heritage of Kerala by training the younger generation to uphold the cultural traditions. Its projects include sustainable development and women empowerment through art, art and craft training to transgenders, and physically challenged groups, among others.

“The pandemic has affected ritual performances, stage shows, community performances etc. Usually, the performers get about eight months to perform in a year due to the long monsoon in Kerala. Lockdown and social distancing during the festival season made them penniless for the entire year. Dancers, musicians, costume makers, make-up men, light and sound persons, photographers, stage craftsmen, designers etc. have been directly affected.

Online platforms are not conducive to ritual, social, and community performers. Very few craft persons, painters, and classical dancers have used online platforms for performing, teaching or marketing.

As an organisation, we haven’t been able to conduct physical training classes and performances. The instruments and costumes of our artists have become obsolete. The computers, sound systems, lights and other equipment were damaged due to lack of maintenance. As the entire community is struggling for life, art practices and performances have no place in this fight for survival.

However, we have used this time to document the individual performances of senior artists in order to preserve for posterity. We have also trained the artists to use technology for online teaching and performance.”

Rakshat Hooja— Director, Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF)

RAJASTHAN JVF aims to promote, preserve and reposition Rajasthan’s incredible art and culture to build a sustainable cultural economy.

“There is a severe impact on income and work of the folk artists and crafts people we work with. However, the pandemic has forced artists and craftspeople to find alternatives to the jajman (patron) system. They now work and collaborate with multiple organisations working in the field.

The pandemic also hit us at JVF quite badly. We had to cut down all expenses and were on the verge of closing down. Many artists and craftspeople had started depending on us like a donor agency and we could no longer support them. We had to find solutions where the grassroot communities would look at us as an enabler and not as a donor.

In terms of innovation, we adapted our existing assets for varied uses. For instance, JVF runs a folk music museum in Jaipur, which was forced to shut down. So we adapted and started using the space for local communities to use for any programme linked to art and culture. Our volunteer community helped us to tide over the crises and we were able to innovate and modify the functioning. We hosted a month-long festival focused on heritage of Jaipur in November 2020 while strictly following Covid protocols, and conducted week-long online workshops.

I think the main thing that allowed JVF to do good work during the pandemic was encouraging, listening to and helping in implementing ideas from a wider base of people rather than just internal brainstorming. Since last August we have been able to do over 100 activities, published many articles, created a sort of a hang out hub space at our museum. All without any sponsor or major donor. We have also been able to provide support to artist and craftspeople families in Jaipur and western Rajasthan. Again this was possible due to collaboration.”

Ghatit Laheru — Director, Khamir

GUJARAT

Khamir is a platform for the crafts, heritage and cultural ecology of the Kutch region of Gujarat. Instituted after the earthquake of 2001, it is a space for engagement and development of Kutch’s rich creative industries.

Aside from the loss of income and work opportunities, the second wave has also led to loss of lives of a few members of the community. Their challenges are related to taking care of their daily expenses while battling the pandemic. The work was not a priority this time and the entire focus was on protection and safety as viruses reached interior villages during the second wave.

The communities came together as a response. The weavers started their own Covid care centre at Bhujodi. The Khatris supported weaker families through their own funds. The craft organisations including Khamir, Shrujan, Kala Raksha, and Qasab came together and sent medical kits to the distant villages through artisan volunteers.

As an organisation, we too were severely impacted. We had to gradually stop all the activities and close offices, our campus and outlets for one month. Three of our staff members caught Covid and three more had their family members affected. There was a bigger psychological impact followed by economic loss.

Coming together and building synergy with each other was required at the initial level. We devised support mechanisms in terms of ration kits, medical support, and a district level tele-medicine helpline.

Gazi Khan Barna and Sawai Khan Barna - Pehchaan Lok Sangeet Sansthan

RAJASTHAN Pehchaan Lok Sangeet Sansthan is a community arts center in the village of Barna in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The Culture Wire team spoke with world renowned musician Gazi Khan Barna and his son Sawai Khan Barna who run the space.

“Folk artists are faced with not only a loss of their livelihood, but also basic means of survival such as food. Our communities mostly gain work through the jajmani system and performances in temples, but because of social distancing and the general fear of Covid transmission that has not happened in the last 1.5 years. All artists are severely affected. National Awardees, Padma Shri Awardees, everyone has been out of work and at home during this period.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have reached out to our clients and patrons for support. With their help, we have been able to distribute over 1650 kits containing food and rations. We tried to help not only our Manganiyar community, but the larger folk artists’ community in Rajasthan. As for challenges, sometimes we did not get permissions to distribute our kits in some districts. In that case, we connected with shops in those areas and made online transfers so other folk artists could get the supplies. We were made members of an initiative by Shubha Mudgal and through that we were able to identify and support 10 widows and families of artists who lost their lives due to Covid. There are many legends in our folk art community who have a very nuanced knowledge of the art. We try to locate gurus in different villages who can continue to teach the children around them to keep our traditions alive. Once we emerge from the Covid crisis, we hope to collect some funds and start a 15-20 days long camp where they can teach children. We hope to record this in audio and video, and be able to publish this into a book for posterity.”

Ela Gupta — Head - Outreach, Sahapedia

ALL-INDIA

Sahapedia is an open online resource on the arts, cultures, and heritage of India. Their India Heritage Walk programme has been operating across India with more than 200 walk leaders especially with a focus on Tier 2 and 3 cities with the objective to make local citizens aware of their city, and its history and culture.

“When the pandemic hit us last year, we stopped all our physical experiences and made the transition to online experiences. But soon we understood that too many online experiences were causing digital fatigue and participants were not keen to experience a heritage walk online. We continued to support walk leaders by getting them as facilitators in our other programmes. We announced a Heritage Trail Contest where we published heritage trails designed by walk leaders.

The major challenges the walk leader community faced were — not comfortable with hosting an online experience, lack of technological expertise, not having relevant pictures or videos, internet connectivity etc.

Beyond conducting walks, Sahapedia also does a Heritage Walk Training Programme for Women (mainly from Shelter Homes in Delhi and from economically weaker sections). Last year, we managed to continue those programmes with the support of IHCL (in Delhi) and Rajasthan Royals (in Jaipur).

Our walk leaders acted as facilitators in these programmes and helped us train these women in both cities. Over 30 women were trained in these programmes. Further, these trainees were given honorariums to lead walks for a closed group of people. The idea is to give them more walks once it is safe."

Sumanasa Foundation

ALL-INDIA

Founded by carnatic musician T M Krishna in 2005, Sumanasa Foundation works towards creating platforms for artists and art forms from marginalised backgrounds.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted artists, especially the marginalised, who already live in dire economic conditions. Some of the artists we have been working with have faced starvation. Almost everyone we have worked with has been in a situation where they would not know where their next meal would come from let alone artistic challenges. Without performing artists, the other challenge is that instrument makers find themselves without jobs. There are many artists who have had accidents, illnesses, surgeries, unable to pay their medical bills in addition to their daily necessities.

Even though things were looking up at the beginning of this year, public performances weren’t still happening at the scale they used to happen before the pandemic. The second wave hit us even harder, which plunged the lives of many artists into more hardship.

While some artists have the facility of performing online, most marginalised artists neither have the connectivity nor the place nor the facility to explore the online medium. But when Sumanasa Foundation conducted its online festivals, the artists were more than enthusiastic and forthcoming in providing us with videos of their performances for the festival against all odds.

The biggest impact this pandemic has had on the Sumanasa Foundation is that it has been a very revealing experience for us. Through the COVID-19 Artist Support Fund we have had the opportunity to reach out to artists and artisans across the country across more than 250 artforms, distributing 1.05 crore rupees to over 3000 artists spanning over 22 states and 2 union territories.

This has been a humbling experience and has shown us the expanse of art in this country. We have to thank our resource persons for contacting artists and providing us with the lists of artists needing support. Our only challenge has been a technical one. Sometimes many accounts would have expired or the details shared would have some manual errors which we track and rectify and resend the money. So the only challenge (if one would call it that) is to track the money and make sure it has reached the artists’ accounts.

This pandemic has taught us that art and artists are relegated as not essential and easily forgotten during such trying times."


The Sumanasa Foundation has initiated a fundraising campaign to support marginalised artists.


Anurupa Roy — Managing Trustee, Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust

ALL-INDIA

Katkatha is a traveling puppet theatre company which frequents international and Indian Puppet, Performing Arts and Theatre Festivals. Katkatha also focuses on collaborative processes and projects with other artists, communities, school teachers and children.

“The key challenges for the community we work with is livelihood. They are all immigrants from other states and depend on daily work and get wages daily, weekly or monthly. The lockdowns have meant no work, no pay and evictions from their rented accommodations. Some of the children we work with don't go to school, but 90% do. The lockdown, the reverse migration, and online classes have meant a very large school drop-out rate.

Children of migrant workers are a real casualty. While one hears of many who have invested in smart phones for their children to study on, it has been hard for children to carry on. Networks, phone data, connectivity issues cause problems.

For a small organisation like ours, the biggest challenge is financial security. In the pandemic, we have diversified our work and created possibilities of taking our work online and reinventing both our form and medium. We have worked on several online projects ranging from workshops with school teachers in Hong Kong, an outreach for teenage boys in interior UP and Bihar, an art based research project online for University of West England, UK.

We started with the live streaming of our shows to raise money for food for fellow artists and for food packages for those walking home. We raised Rs 2,50,000 in three weeks. We were able to help artist families and daily wage workers in Delhi, Rajasthan and Bangalore. We created three new online performances and several workshops online. We also taught online courses to university students both in India and abroad.” Recommendations on the way forward These organisations shared several recommendations to revive and revitalise the cultural sector in rural India.

  1. Culture must be recognised as a necessity good and service (across all levels of the value chain) in times of crisis.

  2. A safety network needs to be set up for rural performers who depend for their income on live performances. An appeal to the government to institute schemes for artists’ sustenance.

  3. A fund for rural artisans and for operational costs of organisations that support them, so that when the field opens up again these organisations can engage artists in income generating activities.

  4. Funds and budgets of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Tourism boards can be redirected and used towards providing aid and relief for artisans.

  5. Interest free loans for artisan-driven organisations in times of crises.

  6. Local self-governments must identify the artists and support them by extending the sponsorship for regular programmes.

  7. Need for the corporate sector and philanthropists to come forward to protect the cultural sector through CSR support.

  8. Amendment is required in the FCRA rules for approaching international funders for the art and culture sector.

  9. Performers' clusters in the form of crafts clusters are required for joint actions.

  10. Need to focus on preparedness and also tighten the social security measures like health insurance, emergency funding etc., for vulnerable artisans.

  11. Direct purchase of craft products from artisans and the craft organisations supporting them during Covid-19. The cultural stakeholders can think of including their own geographic communities in their practices and initiate community based arts spaces to support local artists and performers.

  12. Greater collaboration among organisations and communities instead of competition.

  13. Rights of artists and cultural professionals to express, produce and sell cultural goods and be remunerated and right of the consumers/public at large to consume cultural goods at all times including times of crisis must be recognised.

  14. Artists and cultural workers must be recognised as professionals and entrepreneurs and all stakeholders in the culture sector must come together for national and global advocacy for support to the artists and organisations for sustainability and resilience.