COVID-19: With No Financial Support from Govt, Performing Artistes Left High and Dry

“We never, ever thought that artistes[' situation] would come to such a pass. We never expected to be so let down by the government.”

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It has become a cliché to laud India’s classical musicians and dancers as unofficial ambassadors of their country, but the description is not overly exaggerated, since they do represent cultivated image governments over the decades have been happy to endorse. It is ironic that having been officially placed on the pedestals of honour and adulation, they were seemingly forgotten when it came to welfare schemes for the lockdown-affected after the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all performances and other in-person activities.

While a large number of dancers — in a process of ‘natural selection’ brought about by the material requirements of today’s classical dance scenario, with expenses of costumes, jewellery, studio space, self-promotion — are seen to be from wealthy or highly educated families, the same is not the case with the majority of classical musicians. And even casual conversations reveal how immensely let down they feel by their governments both in the states and at the Centre. It is as if when not in the arc lights, they don’t exist.

Eminent qawwali artiste Ustad Abdul Hameed Sabri, who belongs to the famed Dilli Gharana of the Hindustani music and was a gandaband disciple of the legendary Ustad Chand Khan, paints a representative picture: “When the sarangi player is on stage, the hall resounds with applause. A little while later, he is at the bus stand, sarangi tucked under his arm, waiting for a bus to take him home. The organisers roam around in cars, however, the musicians, of whose art they make money, are on the road.”

Music director Rupendra Shridhar.

Delhi-based music director Rupendra Shridhar says, “There are no benefits from the government for musicians like us working in the freelance space. This is why we have been struggling for nearly two years now.”

Without work from the 2020 lockdown onwards, Shridhar says he survived thanks to the support of his son and daughter who have jobs in other fields. But for many, the curtain has come down in the form of hopelessness and humiliation.

Shridhar states, “I know musicians who have set up vegetable thelas (vending carts). Many have left the music scene altogether and gone back to their hometowns or villages.”

Says Siddhartha Roy Chowdhury, an eminent Kolkata-based exponent of sarod, sitar and tabla, “I know many in Kolkata who are selling masks and sanitiser on the streets. Because they don’t have any programmes, nor do they have tuitions.”

The stigma surrounding an artiste coming to such a pass prevents these seniors from revealing the names of any such musicians, even when promised the information won’t be published. Roy Chowdhury mentions, “This much I can tell you. Some of them are singers who used to have five-six programmes a month.” They are popular artistes, singing Bengali Khayal or Rabindra Sangeet, “but not Bollywood songs”, he clarifies.

Of himself, Roy Chowdhury says, “I have lots of students, they are learning from me online, so financially so far I’ve got no problem.” Similarly, he says, other well-established musicians have survived, but the young musicians are in great trouble.

“Lots of my students (who depend on performance and recording fees) are suffering. I and a few of my co-musicians are helping them. But this is the thing. Classical musicians, in a way, are dying. I talk to many young musicians. They say, ‘Kaku (uncle), it’s better we get COVID-19 and die.’ The situation is like this since last March (2020). It’s terrible for the classical musicians, especially.”

Sabri says, “We never, ever thought that artistes would come to such a pass. We never expected to be so let down by the government.”

His expectations from the country’s leaders stemmed in part from his having performed over the decades largely in government-sponsored festivals, “right from the Qutub Festival of Delhi, and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari,” and at the express invitation of dignitaries.

Also read: India’s Indie Musicians Struggle as COVID Restrictions Reduce Their Incomes by Half

The musicians make it a point of underlining the classical qualifications of the suffering artistes. Much of the reason for this lies in the lifelong commitment such training requires. Such artistes are often exceptional in the skills required by their art, but ill-equipped in other areas. Their academic education may be meagre — and also, it must be conceded, the mental makeup of performing artistes frequently leaves them unsuited to other mundane jobs.

And then there is the matter of prestige, both at the level of the individual and that of the gharana, guru or tradition. Considerations of going ‘up’ or ‘down’ in life — as measured by the fees one is offered or by the work one must do to supplement a dwindling income — are harshly real for these musicians, whose chances depend so much on reputation. It is part of a larger malaise in our class- and caste-ridden society and cannot be pushed aside as a simple matter of an artiste’s ego. So is it any wonder that musicians, highly erudite in their specialised field but not perhaps equipped with PhDs or other degrees conducive to ‘prestigious’ employment, baulk at the idea of picking up odd jobs to make ends meet?

Harrowing stories

Light designer Gautam Bhattacharya.

Musicians are of course not the only group confounded by the halt in performances. Light designer Gautam Bhattacharya, who along with Sanjoy Roy and several other influencers in the arts field strenuously tried to bring the attention of the ministry of culture and other official bodies towards this cause, citing an example of a Delhi-based dancer who had to temporarily work as an Amazon delivery boy. Others have switched from dance to teaching Yoga, a more lucrative trade these days.

Sabri’s situation is dire. “My rent is Rs 6,000 a month. For nearly two years, I have been unable to pay it. I am known as a great qawwal, but I am like Mirza Ghalib.” He refers to the great poet’s life spent in penury and the haveli he lived in becoming a heritage landmark over a century after his death.

“Now his spectacles are there and some clothes, but what’s the use? He spent his life in debt. That’s my condition today. I owe my milkman some 12,000 rupees. Poor thing, he has approached me several times sweetly saying, ‘Sabri saheb, when do you think it would be possible to pay up?’  I’ve told him as soon as I get some money I’ll first come running to you.  The landlord also came demanding his money, and I can’t even repeat the kind of words that were used. So we have managed our life till now somehow, by borrowing.”

The Sabris’ daughter and son-in-law, themselves not too well off, have been loyally helping out, he adds. And yet, he says, “Sometimes we just don’t cook for two days in a row. We are in real trouble. This is the fact. There’s nothing to hide and nothing to lie about.”

He is grateful to the private organisations that have supported him and others in need, mentioning Goonj and Shefali Khanna’s Dear Sunshine Foundation. “They distributed rations and also sent some four-five thousand rupees sometimes into people’s accounts. Although that didn’t help reduce the debt,  I’m telling you what they did for us,” he says.

The late Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, khalifa of the Delhi Gharana, was Ustad Abdul Hameed Sabri’s nephew. Khan’s immediate family and groups under him too were helping their fellow artistes, especially in Old Delhi. His sudden death during the pandemic year was a blow to the music fraternity in every respect.

Ustad Abdul Hameed Sabri with Birju Maharaj.

But as Sabri recounts his tale of sliding into destitution, as also memories of performing with top artistes — Birju Maharaj, Amjad Ali Khan, Yesudas, Anup Jalota… those with whom he has shared a stage include all the contemporary greats, and influential names have showered him with praise and money in the past — his sonorous bass voice is steady and forthright, but numbingly sad.

“Anyway, all this is now but a dream for me, nothing more than a dream. My life is just about ground into the dust. I don’t have much hope now. When I have to go into the market, I go after it is dark, just to avoid meeting anybody who might ask for their money back.”

Indu Prakash Trivedi, another well-known Delhi-based vocalist with a musical lineage through his father Pandit Babu Ram Trivedi as well as illustrious gurus such as Ustad Naseer Khan, Iqbal Ahmed Khan, Amjad Ali Khan and Siddique Ahmed Khan, currently teaches in Mayur Vihar. Earlier he was associated with institutions like the Kathak Kendra and Bharatiya Kala Kendra. For some time, the internationally travelled artiste too had to depend on staples supplied by good samaritans.

“When the first lockdown started (March 2020), all my students went away,” he narrates. “My income came almost to zero. A few children did send payment despite not coming for lessons, but I was in a lot of difficulties.”

Vocalist Indu Prakash Trivedi

Not only did he struggle to cover expenses, he also felt as if he were “jailed” with the police blocking all entry and exit points around his residence, he laughs, sharing his imagination. Now he can afford to laugh, but not back then. He relates with great humility and honesty, “One doesn’t talk about these things, but in those days I actually queued up once to accept free rations.”

“Now conditions are much improved,” he says because he has been able to set up online classes, and also he goes out for an occasional tuition assignment.

“I feel the government may well have helped artistes, but I didn’t get to know. Government schemes are often good, but implementation is not,” he says mildly.

Private support

But Bhattacharya would disagree any government schemes were in place. Soon after the effects of the pandemic started being felt by financially unstable artistes, he along with Roy and others formed a WhatsApp group, ‘Creative Artists’.

“We collected data about some 3,000-4,000 artistes all over India and we kept telling the ministry (of Culture) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi,” he says. The data was submitted to these agencies and the group leaders tried multiple times to get support for artists in need, but, “nothing happened. They were absolutely not proactive. And the feedback we got was, ‘paisa nahin hai (there is no money)’.”

Also read: West Bengal: No End to Patua Artists’ Financial Woes As COVID-19 Rages

Again, individuals and private entities came forward. “Individual efforts were made, contributions were made, and we requested the artistes in dire need to approach and were sending money individually.” It was an artiste-to-artiste approach, he clarifies, “something like crowdfunding.”

Innumerable artistes have quietly supported their peers throughout the pandemic, and Bhattacharya notes, “Frankly it was so disappointing that there was absolutely no effort made by anyone from the government. Very sad.”

There were government officials connected with culture in the WhatsApp group too, but, says  Bhattacharya, they also did not respond or take the intentions of the group forward in their official capacity.

Bhattacharya says in his interactions he has been consistently quoting the kind of support other countries — he names Germany, the US and Australia — have given their freelance artistes during the unprecedented crisis brought about by the pandemic.

Sabri points out that nearly two years since the pandemic hit India, still, there are no programmes and in these circumstances, “The culture ministry has a budget of lakhs of rupees they can spend on artistes.”

Bhattacharya says cryptically, “The government is busy building the central vista. They have money for that.” He adds that SNA’s budget was heavily slashed last year. “But they should have been proactive in approaching the ministry and negotiating with them for the artistes. Which unfortunately they didn’t.”

He also points out the lack of strong leadership in the SNA which has not had a chairperson for nearly two years, and no permanently appointed secretary since Rita Swamy Choudhary’s term expired in June.

“Frankly the Akademi is in the doldrums. There is internal strife, it is pathetic.”

Says Roy Chowdhury, “The government could have done many things. Just as they are providing projects like Ayushman Bharat and others, they could have done something for the musicians.”

He highlights those immersed in the field for three-four decades, having given most of their life to serving society through music. “The government should have a budget, they should open a fund for them and make sure that the grant goes to the right persons.”

Bhattacharya was in touch with a spectrum of artistes — musicians, dancers, puppeteers, light designers — and it is hard to single out one group alone that has suffered. Paid online classes may be the solution for performers, but what about the technical folks such as light designers who depend on live shows, he asks.

A music class in progress. Photo: vistarmusic.org.

“These are major issues. That’s why we sort of held each other’s hands and tried to survive. Whoever requested help in paying rent or hospitalisation or whatever, we did raise money, and it is still going on, but it has eased off.” And naturally so. As individuals go on giving from their personal savings, and conditions hold out little hope of improving, they often find themselves rethinking their generosity.

Take Sabri’s case. He remarks, “You might ask, being such an established artiste, why doesn’t he have savings? The thing is I also tried to help those who were less fortunate than me. The ones living in [Delhi colonies like] Welcome and Seelampur, who do bhajans and qawwalis at a local level, whose condition I knew was worse than mine, I helped them out financially when the lockdown first began, but eventually I ended up in need myself.”

Adding to the misery are sporadic wild goose chases. “At the beginning of the first lockdown,” says Roy Chowdhury, “the Central government said that all musicians registered with the Sangeet Natak Akademi would get Rs 2,000 a month. I am registered with them, but I haven’t got a single paisa yet. And they announced that for those who are not registered with the Government of India or SNA, here is the website number [link], and they can apply from there. Lots of my co-musicians in Kolkata tried, but still that website is not opening.”

Bhattacharya feels such an announcement could have been spurious. The SNA had not yet responded to emailed queries at the time of writing this article.

This July, Shridhar lost his wife to cancer. “This too was due to lack of money,” he says. “If I had had access to more funds I might have been able to save her or prolong her life.”

Shridhar’s regretful statement underlines the complete absence of a safety net for freelance musicians. “There are neither any insurance policies [accessible to freelance artistes without regular, fixed incomes], nor any schemes from the government side,” he notes.

Even as they wonder if artistes can ever really unite, Shridhar, Trivedi and Sabri suggest forming an association of serious, senior artistes whom the government can consult on the genuine requirements of the community. The mood though is depressed.

Roy Chowdhury says he started his school Vistar in memory of his father Anil Roy Chowdhury, the eminent guru known for his contribution in moulding worthy performers, because as his son and disciple he felt he should also contribute to the wellbeing of future generations.

“But now I am thinking, why should I teach? Lots of [students] are playing really well, but if this is the situation, how can I ask them to take music as a profession?”

Sabri sums it up, “When the unfortunate labourers were suffering, walking to their homes, it was taken note of.  Some efforts were made, some thought put into how to help them. The sad thing is no one gave a thought to the artists.”

Anjana Ranjan is a Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher, and theatre practitioner.