Artistes cling to hope, creativity amidst pandemic, but need sustenance

For the first time perhaps in human memory, the COVID-19  pandemic has shut all people without any discrimination, within the confines of their homes for a period much longer than ever imagined. Fallouts have been disastrous not only for the economy, but on the livelihood, shelter, and security of people. Among the worst hit, besides the casual workers and labourers, are the artist community from all genres of art: folk, backstage artists, young aspiring professionals, not so well placed artists, most of who are self-employed. Even for the so-called well-placed artists, their limited savings are fast getting depleted. Earnings of all the artists come from performances, big and small. 

This raises the issue of whether arts have any significance in society and whether it serves any purpose? If a man was not allowed to express his feelings and thoughts, would there have been ancient rock paintings and sculptures telling us of our past and conditions of society at that point in time? If these artistes had not expressed their thoughts and yearnings how would it have influenced the history of a nation and the development of culture? For culture reflects the behaviour, beliefs, philosophy, values, and symbols that are passed on from generation to generation through rituals, festivals, attitudes rendered through communication by skilled groups. Art is also liberating, art is creativity, art is self-expression, art is a corrective tool bringing to the fore the ills of society and art carries within it the flavour of cultural history and continuity.

Imagine a society without the civilising influence of the arts! Without a creative voice, a society may become inert in humanity and sensitivity. Examples all across the globe have revealed that societies without any outlet for creativity have become repressive and tyrannical – a force that wields more harm than good.

Delving into our very own Indian culture, ancient texts reveal the importance laid by ancient India for the development of performing arts and why? Throwing light on the inherent purpose of arts in society is the Natyashastra, the revered ancient treatise. Herein, arts was recognised as necessary and the most effective tool in transmitting moral values and channelising people’s energies and behaviour patterns of the common man. Reason lay in the fact that amongst all methods of communication, it was communication through the arts that impacted hearts directly for there is a latent yearning within man to satisfy the hunger of his inner being through the art form that is pleasing to the eyes, ears and is rendered in a skillful manner. Cacophony is enough even to make the tone-deaf close his ears. If the need to have skilled and trained artists was not recognised as an important part of society, then our own Indian iconography and minds would not have had Goddess Saraswati with her veena or Lord Krishna with his flute or Lord Shiva with his damru performing the tandava! 

In the face of any calamity or a happening that derails normal life as the COVID-19, unfortunately, it is the art and artists who are among the first affected. The question is how have artistes taken this period? Artistes have become net savvy and are doing online performances. There is no slowing down of creativity and artistes have been expressing themselves in a newfound medium. But what about the make-up artists? He needs human contact to be able to do the make-up. A stage designer needs a stage; a light designer needs the occasion for it. Without public performances and with imposed physical distancing, these are certainly not possible. 

Many artistes philosophise that even Shiva had to drink poison which earned him the epithet of Neelkantha. But do these bring in any money to run their homes? The answer is no for how long can an artist survive on inner happiness alone that his/her art and artistry provides faced with his inability to provide school fees for his children, house rent for his accommodation, and buy daily essential grocery for mere survival? Imagine the inner mental turmoil! It is to these artistes credit that in spite of such mental turmoil, an unknown inner positivity makes them face the situation with determination and courage. But the question is for how long. In the past, the duration of such bans was extremely short, unlike the present raging scenario. Even after the lockdown is lifted, it will take several months for things to return to normal.

UNESCO in its resolution on the status of artists passed in its twenty-first session of the General Conference held in Belgrade from 23 September to 28 October 1980 among several features recognised that:

i. Governments need to recognise that art in their fullest and the broadest definition are and should be an integral part of life and that it is necessary and appropriate for governments to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of artistic expression but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent;

ii. Every artist should benefit effectively from the social security and insurance provisions;

iii. Since artists play an important role in the life and evolution of society, he should be given the opportunity to contribute to society’s development and, as any other citizen, and to exercise his responsibilities therein, while preserving his creative inspiration and freedom of expression;

iv. There is a need for providing and improving social security, labour and tax conditions of the artist, whether employed or self-employed, because of the artist’s immense contribution to the cultural development of the country;

v. Such measures are required for the preservation and promotion of cultural identity and of the role in this field of artists who perpetuate the practice of traditional arts and also interpret a nation’s folklore. 

Recognising the need for skilled artists in society, Chanakya in his Arthashastra has emphasised the responsibility of the state and society towards the maintenance of these skilled group at every level at all times. Undeniable is the fact that the government has been making efforts at promotion and preservation of the cultural fabric of the nation through various schemes, but faced with such a calamity as being experienced today much more needs to be done for ensuring the well-being of the artist community, both individually and collectively. For example:

a. Setting up of a Culture Fund to support artists especially in such times for a period including the period of lockdown extending to about a year as recovery period even after the lockdown gets over. Just as rescue package for micro and small enterprises have been taken up by the government, similar rescue package could be taken up for the artists who are also small self-employed entrepreneurs who are suffering intensely because of the current crisis. 

b. Medical benefits to artists (including Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) facility) should be made available for a lifetime;

c. Raising of tax limits including GST;

d. Pension benefits including family pension should be extended to artists till the dependents become majors or till the surviving spouse dies.

e. Disability benefits (e.g. an artist could suffer some injury making him/her incapable of continuing with the profession), hence support is required.

Self-employed freelance artistes have none of these and they need these desperately. But the above provisions should be made applicable to all artistes, irrespective whether they are receiving or not receiving the cultural ministry grant for running professional groups or are engaged as individuals in the promotion of performing arts.

The artistes are important pillars in the cultural history of our country as they are the carriers and propagators of our philosophy, ethos, and cultural practices. Artistes contribute to the economy not only through tourism, curated  festivals and many other platforms but more importantly,  there has to be  recognition that they represent the creative element of society. Describing arts as a “creative industry”, Sir Peter Bazalgette, former chair of Arts Council England and of English National Opera has said “…they don’t only matter to the economy, they critically represent an investment in our quality of life. I call that a virtuous circle – something which is, by definition, holistic.”

(The writer is a former Indian bureaucrat,  celebrated Kathak guru, performer, author, and researcher who has been conferred numerous awards, including the Padma Shri and  Sangeet Natak Akademi. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at shov02@gmail.com)

By Shovana Narayan