Waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for their cue

It’s hard enough breaking into the sector without a pandemic to deal with. We asked aspiring arts and culture professionals and their more experienced peers how the lockdown months have affected new entrants to the sector.

Janhavi Acharekar

When the pandemic struck, aspiring actor and dancer Sooraj S. had barely begun work with the theatre group Adishakti on their campus near Puducherry. “It was a privilege being here during the lockdown,” he says. A history student trained in dance with the Freeman Repertory, he was grateful for the shelter, financial and moral support provided by the group at a time when his peers in the performing arts had it tough. As the situation progressed, gratitude turned into guilt. “I felt like I hadn’t contributed enough to deserve the security of the place.” He also worried about his foray into performance ending before it even began. “There is the apprehension of craftwork being hindered. I worry that my learning curve will be affected.”

In Bengaluru, Harini M.S. is graduating with a B.A. Honours in communication studies from Mount Carmel College. She was keen on pursuing a Master’s in filmmaking overseas, but the pandemic prompted her to take a gap year and begin an internship with a video editor. “I’m interested in film production which involves being on the field so I’d rather wait,” she says. She worries that if her resumé doesn’t show production work, it might limit her opportunities. “My biggest concern is that there is only so much you can learn while working from home.”

Sasmith Ananth, a second year student with a triple major in Western Classical Music, English and Psychology from Christ College, Bengaluru, is a pianist, clarinetist and keyboard player who wants to pursue music as a profession. He began teaching the piano online during the pandemic. “I hope to work with a music studio eventually but am open to even writing about music; anything that keeps me close to the field.” He hopes to network with the music community at some point.

On indefinite hold

The exact challenges differ for industries within the sector, but anxiety about how the pandemic will affect formative training, integral in shaping one’s career, runs across them.

Young students and professionals taking their first tentative steps into various creative professions are among the hardest hit during this year of lockdown. Often braving familial and societal pressures to follow their passion in a largely unorganised sector, the freeze only exacerbated the uncertainty, suspending them in a state of limbo.

“The New Education policy has given a larger and more interesting canvas for students,” says Dr. Hilda David, who teaches English and the Liberal Arts at Symbiosis College, Pune. “Introducing liberal arts with skill development programmes has increased job opportunities.”

Creative education in India covers a broad spectrum of courses ranging from traditional degree courses in the humanities to specialised options at institutions such as National Institute of Design and National School of Drama. Then there are the newer liberal arts courses in autonomous universities such as Symbiosis, Flame, and Ashoka, with subjects including the performing arts, communication, cultural studies and social sciences. Many of these institutions also facilitate internships and placements.

But finding employment isn’t easy. “The major anxiety is the ability of the creative sector to come up with remunerative positions,” says Dr. Meenakshi Bharat, Associate Professor, English and Film Studies at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. “The second is the lack of certainty of success in the field. The tough job market in an over-subscribed scenario is the greatest pressure of all.”

Different strokes

Various arts and arts organisations found their unique pandemic trajectories, of course. But if one were to find a common thread, it is how so many have adapted to the digital medium. As the sector adapts, arts managers and artistes alike will need to look at programming afresh, and develop new skill sets.

Older, more traditional spaces like Mumbai’s NCPA and Royal Opera House took to virtual programming, but it is perhaps the young theatre community that experimented most with craft and production as they took live performances online. “The younger performers in India pivoted quickly,” says Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, founder of theatre group QTP. Thespo, the youth festival that QTP runs, “exploded” he says. “The fraternity has learned from the innovation of the young.” Even so, he says, in-person live shows offer no avenues for newcomers yet. “The hybrid model is here to stay,” says Asad Lalljee, CEO of Avid Learning and curator of The Royal Opera House. Avid’s virtual show ‘Blurring Boundaries’ showcased the co-creation of art between artists using tech tools and methodology.

Most experienced hands in the sector agree that this is a challenging time for fresh graduates looking for openings in creative professions. Not only do they face reduced employment opportunities, they also find themselves competing with more experienced professionals. “It’s a tricky time to enter the ecosystem,” Lalljee says. “It was always tough but more so now than before.”

Museum of Goa’s open call for the position of a ‘storyteller’ for walkthroughs saw applications from both freshers and senior applicants. Founder Subodh Kerkar says, “It hasn’t been easy on young fine artists looking to sell their work.” The museum is preparing for the opening of a small exhibition of six young artists. Some industries seem to do better. “Work has boomed in the music world,” says Ashutosh Phatak, musician and co-founder of The True School of Music (TSM), which followed a hybrid teaching model even in pre-Covid times. TSM graduates have been working through the pandemic on multiple projects from creating radio jingles to background scores for commercials and private albums. “If you adapt to technology,” Pathak says, “you can make music sitting at home.” And yes, live performances will return, he is confident: it’s just a matter of time.

Arjun Bahl, co-founder and director of St+art Foundation, feels that the lull is temporary. “There’s been a pause but also a comeback in the last few months,” he says. “And design will play a bigger role.” Design graduates, often divided between design studios and large agencies, find that the pandemic has narrowed their options. Neha Mishra, head of talent and HR at The Glitch, a digitally-led creative agency that is part of the WPP Group, says, “While the focus was to acquire talent for senior level roles, we had a specific outreach programme to provide opportunities to freshers. However, unlike previous years, we were very selective in our hiring decisions.”

Use the time well

Experts are optimistic that things will change, even as no one seems to know how soon that will be. Practise, they say, upskill and prepare for the future.

Pathak predicts increased competition and audience expectations, and says, “Performers should use this time to hone their skills.” Thakore-Padamsee says, “While the job uncertainty is tremendous, we are at a crossroads. Content and form are likely to change as a long-term effect of the pandemic. There will be a paradigm shift helmed by the youth.”