'Tis the Culture Season

Why is India’s culture calendar so uneven? By Prachi Sibal

As the south-west monsoon plays out its closing notes, the arts world stirs into activity. Not that it slumbers the rest of the year; it’s just that the calendar of public events starts filling up in October, rises to a peak during the coolest months, and then tails off as the northern hemisphere’s summer equinox marks longer daylight hours.

In a tropical country where summers can be uncomfortably hot, that fewer events happen then seems logical. And several rainy months after that make outdoor events — and in some places, commuting — uncertain enterprises.

A natural rhythm

“No festival wants to take a risk during the monsoons,” says Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, Mumbai-based theatre-maker, “and this finds historical roots in the ‘current booking’ phenomenon of the past. Advance booking was not so popular and you could never tell how many people will show up.” His company, QTP, has been hosting Thespo, a youth theatre festival, in December each year. He says it’s not just the weather; it’s also the academic cycle, with school and college year-end exams, for the most part, in the summer months. “Besides, all our religious festivals, starting with Ganesh Chaturthi all the way to Easter, fall in this period. It has something to do with the festivity in the air.” Another factor, he says, is calendars abroad. “In the West, summer is the month for cultural festivals, since their winter months are of extreme weather. This also enables Indian artistes to travel to other countries and vice versa for performance.”

Plus there is merit, Thakore-Padamsee says, in finding a niche in the public mind. “Everyone, including performers and audiences know that the Prithvi Festival falls in November and plans accordingly.”

Vivek Madan, Bengaluru-based actor and director, agrees that the academic year is a factor. “After all, a lot of performers began with college festivals.” The weather, he says, doesn’t play on people’s minds when they are opening a production, especially in cities like Bangalore, where weather isn’t a deterrent all year round. He says that plays open in summer to be ready for the festival season. He isn’t really happy about this, though. “All these festivals happening around the same time can sometimes be inconvenient for actors who are part of multiple productions. It’s also not great for theatre artistes who want to watch these plays.”

A similar seasonal pattern plays out in the music world, with performances, particularly the large outdoors concerts, spiking in the October–March period. Subir Malik notes that a decade ago, the IITs would have their cultural festivals in September, but as the lunar calendar changes with relation to the Julian calendar, with Diwali now falling in November, the music season starts a month later. Malik, a member of the band Parikrama, and an event manager based in New Delhi, says that the summer months, especially in the northern part of the country, have always been leaner periods for musicians. “It’s the time we all go back to the studios to write songs, record and release music.”

A performing art that does not seem to have a calendar cycle is stand-up comedy. For most of its practitioners — barring a few who can fill large venues, and yes the number of these shows, as well as the few large festivals, does rise during the cooler months — it’s largely smaller audiences at dedicated clubs and the like. “We rely on frequency more than scale,” says Punit Pania, popular comedian and producer. “It’s in the nature of the art form; it’s something you do every week if not every day.”

Breaking the pattern

If there is an established cycle, why mess with the way things are? An important reason is to ensure that artistes can earn incomes during the off-season months.

Khushroo Suntook, chair of Mumbai’s NCPA and co-founder of the Symphony Orchestra of India, says that while it’s true that there are more audiences during the season, it is a trend that is slowly beginning to change. NCPA, he says, is trying to break the pattern with performances throughout the year. “For example, during the spring and autumn seasons of the SOI, several conversations and discussions are organised to familiarise audiences with the genre and also help them appreciate the nuances of western classical performances, which our resident musicians present round the year.” NCPA is also trying to use the end of school year as an opportunity, he says. “We noticed a slight lull during summer because most children have vacations, and so we introduced Summer Fiesta, an array of stimulating workshops for young minds, conducted by the best in the field.”

Dev Bhatia, the Delhi-based COO of events firm BigBadWolf, is also trying to make music concerts a year-round affair. Smaller acts work around the year anyway, he says, playing the clubs and similar venues. “It’s the music festivals that are restricted by season, and that is because we don’t have large indoor venues available to us.” He hopes that new venues in smaller cities like Indore, Jaipur, Shillong and Vizag will help even out the music calendar a bit. He notes that the financial year is also a factor because of the sector’s reliance on sponsorship. “Usually, proposals are submitted at the beginning of the financial year and sponsorships take a few months to come in. This is something that will likely change if there is more dependency on ticket sales.”

The pandemic effects

With the waves of infections and the resulting restrictions on public gatherings and travel, the performing arts took a hit. Even now, large-scale events and festivals seem like a distant prospect.

If there is a silver lining to be found, it is in how the sector both used the time to take stock and plan and used the Internet to reach its audiences in new ways, as Culture Wire has noted in several stories over the last year and more.

Has the Internet-enabled model, in its various forms, caused people in the performing arts and festival world to plan beyond the restrictions the calendar imposed in a pre-pandemic world?

Most that we spoke to didn’t think this would be a permanent change. While reckoning that college shows and large concerts wouldn’t be back in live venues for the next few years, Malik says Covid-19 “has caused disruption, not change. Once things open up, we will go back to the season we have followed all these years.” Thakore-Padamsee too believes that festivals will keep to the months that they have already carved for themselves on the calendar. “Even when we did Thespo online last year, we did it at the same time.”