Artists of various hues suffer as their shows are hit by the pandemic
Uncertainty is no stranger to the artistic fraternity.
In their creative pursuit, the community of performing artists, visual artists, sculptors, performance space owners, technicians, producers and the innumerable threads of the artistic fabric take an inherent risk to be who they are.
However, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic on 11 March 2020, these threads were under threat of being snapped from job opportunities and carefully curated shows.
“My schedule’s been backtracked by two months,” explains AB Charles, adding, “as a tech personnel I am connected to comedy clubs, educational institutions for their cultural fests and public performances that happen in Alliance Française de Madras and so on. All these paid gigs have been cancelled.”
“It’s a mad race we’ve been trying to run,” exclaims Sudharma Vaithiyanathan in response to how she has been doing.
A Bharatanatyam dancer for over 20 years now, she has had a Europe tour of 12 shows cancelled. “I’m struggling to find a counter measure to sustain my career,” she explains, worried about how this sudden stop may tend to slow down the progress of her career.
With several shows and workshops scheduled abroad cancelled, Bharatanatyam Dancer Parshwanath Upadhye says, “This tour was very special as it was the dance company's first independent dance tour. Almost all events were sold out and hundreds of students had registered for workshops. This is a lost opportunity to present Äbhä, our recent work, and also a financial loss on both the artists as well as the organisers.”
“I used to live in Singapore, and I lived there through SARS. At that stage we were quarantined in our homes and I’ve experienced this process. It's unsettling and troubling to see something you’ve worked on for such a long time stagnate,” says Parvathi Nayar, one of India’s celebrated contemporary artists.
She was due to travel to Singapore for the final touches of a massive public art installation titled BreatheWater at the Esplanade Arts Centre. “It’s also a hard gamble to try and postpone the event, say three months down the line, because there’s something scheduled with time relevance in those months,” she adds.
Every sector and every industry all over the world feels the halting impact of the pandemic. This has led to the cancellation of numerous shows, exhibitions and collaboration projects. In the middle of a global crisis, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cited a new International Labour Organization (ILO) report projecting that workers could lose USD 3.4 trillion in income by the year’s end.
A familiar face in Chennai’s stand-up comedy scene, Jagan Krishnan quips, “We need to first be responsible enough and follow all the necessary procedures to prevent creating chances of spreading the virus.”
However, the economic climate for artists looks particularly bleak. There is an inherent financial instability in most artistic careers - earnings often directly proportional to one’s experience, lack of job security or any insurance or perks in terms of pension; all now coupled with this mass cancellation. This hits particularly hard freelance artists and newcomers or upcoming youngsters in the field.
How does the average artist make a living?
“I personally live paycheck to paycheck, so there are still bills to pay,” reveals Neelabh Bafna, a photographer now settled in New York.
“I'm an entrepreneur as well, with two ventures running on a parallel note. I've always believed in diversifying. They particularly help in such situations,” says Vandana Srinivasan, a playback singer and live performer in the South Indian film industry.
“I’m not affected a lot in terms of exposure and networking, but definitely in terms of paid employment.”
“I'm going to be selfish here and say that I've learnt comedy's lack of sustainability with this,” reflects CK Sarvesh, an emerging standup comic. “For a smaller artist like me, I'm glad I have another paying job and I'm not totally dependent on comedy. Imagine a full time comic who hasn't broken through yet. Even famous comics who are selling out auditoriums will need to rethink things. People who are helping put their shows together, spot boys, light arrangements, chairs, door duty, these are people who might be in a very, very tight spot and their livelihoods must be one of the entries on their list of important things. Peripheral jobs are equally important to ensure a good comedy experience,” he explains.
Sreerag, a Kalaripayattu artist reflects the same, “I’m still a growing artist, so every show is important to me in terms of exposure and networking for future shows.”
Guru Nicketan, a stand-up comedian says, “As an artist and freelancer, my biggest lesson from this is the importance of financial planning; that decisions contingent on the payment from future shows should be taken with caution.”
For most performers, artists, tech and design personnel, it takes trudging through the industry with its highs and lows to figure out a sustainable financial model that suits their lifestyle.
“It’s an odd ecosystem, in that most artists don’t make enough to allocate saving generally. So any help that can be extended in times of crises is crucial,” exclaims Priya Venkataraman, an empanelled artist with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
There needs to be some sort of systematic change.
Unlike some European and Scandinavian countries, many governments do not have specific social provisions available for artists, much less an organisation that specifically caters to one art form, unless through the publicly or privately funded regional arts councils.
Arts Council England (ACE) recently announced an action plan to help the UK’s culture sector withstand the coronavirus crisis, including helping artists and freelancers who may lose money as a result of the pandemic.
ACE is a non-departmental public body of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which invests money from the government and the National Lottery fund in arts and culture initiatives and institutions across England, encompassing museums and libraries.
The long-term aim, ACE officials have said, is to have as “strong a sector as possible when we come out the other side of this crisis”. Crucially, it also warns that "if you are a public-facing venue you may have to close for a period of time".
“All the information I’ve received is that the shows and programmes conducted by the ICCR have been indefinitely postponed,” clarifies Mohamed Ibrahim Khaleel, ICCR’s Regional Officer - Chennai. He adds, “It’s a little hard to comment on this, because cancellations or postponements of shows haven’t happened to this scale in my tenure.”
In terms of scale and revamping, Dakshina Chitra Heritage Museum’s Director, Sharath Nambiar says, “We were affected for a week after the recent Cyclone Vardah. We got back on our feet in a week after everybody pitched in - the staff, neighbouring villagers and many others. The government and others can certainly step in and help us tide over this difficult situation, but we guess they have their hands full and we will wait till everything normalises.”
Almost unsurprisingly, most artists do not have any emergency measures to cope with other than their basic savings. Aside from what the government directly provides to artists in terms of their scholarship schemes and grants for applicants, (other than those possibly on salary grants) there is nothing that catches the freelancers spiralling through this sudden outbreak.
Sudharma also points out, “Last year's scholarships for artists who are national level scholarship holders haven't been distributed yet. I think this would be a good time for them to release such grants to artists. These are just what we deserve irrespective of the current outbreak.”
Adishakti Theatre Arts’ Artistic Director, Vinay Kumar expressed how applying for these scholarships are a long process even after they are sanctioned, procedural delays barely tidy up their financial difficulties. “The markets are also crashing. I don’t know how much artists can depend on charity or philanthropy. I estimate a push back for another two years, which is a little disappointing considering that the live theatre ecosystem has been on the rise in the last three years,” Kumar comments.
March is usually the high period for artists to make money before April and May hits - then students are running around for their exams, families plan their vacations and the sultry summer beats down its heat.
These shows are crucial for artists, performers and tech personnel to make a tangible amount of money to sustain the next couple of months. It largely affects networking and shows that are based on collaboration of artists across different cities.
“The period between March-May is being the most preferred time for performances, especially in the United States. I really hope that the US Government extends artists visas, which we’ve had to obtain with great difficulties,” Parshwanath adds.
“The visual arts is a very unorganised sector. Just for an example, if we were to put up an exhibition of artists (either freelancers or newcomers), how would we identify these people? There isn’t a formalised organisation of the arts or a curated database,” Parvathi Nayar points out.
“It’s a different scenario from movie actors or the film industry, which is much more organised. They have unions and people can appeal to the situation that they are out of a job. In the arts world, what more can you say other than that the exhibition is cancelled or projects are on hold or that galleries are shut down?”
Echoing similar sentiments, Kumar says, “Now would be a good time to develop a public or privately supported platform for the performing and visual arts that caters to financial aid for artists. We’re all like islands standing in different corners.”
“The government has a huge role to play in this. They can offer some form of financial assistance to those who have tangible proof of shows and performances that got cancelled and bear at least 50% of the costs. We definitely need a support system, especially since most of us don’t have any back up plans and there are bills to pay. Honestly, when this blows over, we need to work twice as hard to provide for ourselves,” Charles opines.
A painter of words and worlds of fiction, Shakespeare weathered through plagues that broke out in his lifetime carving out elaborate stories in isolation. It is worth noting that he was also a shareholder in two playhouses and a company, just as anxious as anyone else about theatre closures and cancelled shows.
Cut to the present day with a global pandemic on everyone’s mind, how does the founder of a performance space tackle it?
“Our schedules have been backtracked by a minimum of three weeks at the moment. However, we have planned to release video snippets on our official Instagram page,” remarks Thomas Davis, the founder of House of T.
Carnatic vocalist, TM Krishna, recently announced an online web-streaming concert to raise funds for artists who have faced tremendous loss of income due to this pandemic. This initiative serves as a call for solidarity to support artists.
The New York Times reported about a 38-year-old film programmer in Brooklyn who launched an online appeal to raise funds for laid-off theatre workers in New York.
Nellie Killian, who is collecting money for the theatre workers, said her campaign is typically raising small sums - many people are giving USD 20 to USD 30, she said - and she believes there is a place for the short-term help she is trying to provide until people can find other support.
Similar initiatives have sprung up in India. Samarpana, a not-for-profit trust recently announced a donation drive with dancer Shruti Gopal, saying "We are trying to raise funds for daily wage workers around us, especially in the arts circle and sabhas in Bangalore and Chennai."
Many organisations have begun collaborating with performing artists all over India on Instagram Live to promote live digital performances in the absence of shows. Lil Trails’ presents stories narrated by Janaki Sabesh, The Alipore Post’s curation of multiple artists last Sunday and Samarpana’s daily schedule of dance presentations are a few to name, alongside several artists who are going live on their individual social media handles.
With organisers trying their best to reschedule cancelled shows and work around this outbreak, Sudharma hopes audiences would be more understanding towards the situation of the organisers and artists who are at a huge loss and let them keep the collected funds to pay off expenses incurred.
Parvathi adds, “It would be incredible if those looking to buy visual arts didn’t pull back, because now, more than ever, is the best time to reach out to artists and support their work.”
A practitioner of Bharatanatyam for about 30 years now, Parshwanath explains his revamped routine, “I am enjoying my peaceful time, creating memes and creating awareness of staying safe at home. Although this has given me a golden opportunity to finish my pending work in the online video space that I have been pushing for three years now, I am busy shooting in my dance studio right now.”
Sharath Nambiar quips, “Right now, there is much to be done. Many of us in the cultural sector are trying to get together to form an informal collective to (a) share what each one of us is doing to deal with these challenges; (b) make suggestions on how to seek help for specific impact areas; (c) share resources on help and support.”
He also cautions, “If matters worsen, we will have to think short term, mid term and long term.”
Sharath Nambiar further imparts helpful advice on what steps need to be taken:
● Create documents and resources on what one should do with event cancellations and postponements - webinars, digital methods and public information
● A digital bulletin board detailing the latest updates on the pandemic and related public information (Government notifications that deal specifically with events and art performances or taxes)
● How do you keep your key stakeholders safe? - Audiences, clients and employees
● How does this impact or affect your business
● The impact on the mental health of stakeholders and employees
● Systems to deal with this - work from home, digital meetings, find tools to do our work online, online project management templates.
“Some are providing free virtual tours of museums, streaming opera performances or free online courses. I guess everyone is doing their bit to keep some sanity and make sure people who have a hard time staying alone with their thoughts are not crushed because of the same,” Neelabh adds.
However, most artists are taking this time to work on themselves and their relationship to their art. With cleaner air and quieter streets around, many have taken this time in their stride as a period of learning and reflection.
The Collected Poems of WB Yeats (1989) has a beautiful piece called To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing, in which he pens:
“Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.”
Today, the world sits alone and isolated in solidarity.
Although there is not a reproduction of WB Yeats’ poem, here is to a community of artists, performers and workers whose work is no longer secret and exult, but shining together in this difficult time to support one another.