Singing in Dark Times: Pandemic Tales from Kerala’s Performing Artists

Robbed of livelihood means during the Covid-19 crisis, Kerala’s performing artists are staring at an existential crisis. Here’s a snapshot.  

“Art is the only solace I have in this devastating period, “ says Ajay, a young keyboardist who hails from Kizhisherry, Malappuram.  

But Ajay, like thousands of other musicians and performing artists in Kerala (read, all over the world), finds that even art has forsaken them as a pandemic-hit world enters the fifteenth month of survival. 

Ajay

“Art has been a major source of my income. And, the satisfaction you get from performing on a stage is like no other,” continues Ajay. “There are human beings I know up close, artists who only speak the language of art, the ones whose livelihood became their art without them realising it. They committed to their art at a very young age, they do not know anything else. They are the daily wagers whose sole income comes through their hard-earned craft.” 

Today, most of these artists live at the mercy of the town folks, government welfare kits and local art collectives. As Ajay points out ruefully, “they have long forgotten the warmth pulsating from the crowd when the pace of their Chendamelam picks up; the majestic roar of applause at the end of that one play that took countless rehearsal nights; the occasional nod of heads when one of them renders a really good bit of music. “

Vanishing acts

There was a gradual opening of possibilities at the beginning of 2021, following the complete shutdown of the previous year.  Stages started to open up, religious festivals and family functions had slowly started to resume, even on a smaller scale. But, then the second wave hit. It was right in the middle of the festival season, and with increased intensity.  With that, the little remaining hope of returning to normalcy was stamped out, leaving the artists across Kerala who were hoping to rebuild their devastated livelihoods once again on the brink of existence. 

Shailaja P Ambu

 “If not for the food kits provided by the government, many artists I know would have found it extremely difficult to survive,” says Shailaja P. Ambu, an award-winning actor, singer and theatre artist from Trivandrum.   “The full-time theatre and folk artistes whose livelihoods depend completely upon live stages form a substantial part of the artist community in Kerala.  For them the pandemic poses a grave crisis,” she points out.   

A large part of the artist community is dependent upon religious festivals, wedding ceremonies, youth festivals, tourism-related events and other public functions. A whole ecosystem of local music troupes, drama troupes, percussionists, music and dance teachers, folk artists, sound and light technicians, make-up artists, those who are running costume rentals, event organizers and many other supporting self-employed entrepreneurs have evolved around these events. Generally, they make the bulk of their income during the December – May festival season.  And they have to survive during the off-season (the monsoon months) on this income. 

Since last March, their life has changed. Stages closed down. There was no festival season.  There were no school or college youth festivals. No public events, no tourism.  

The leftout souls

While the celebrated mainstream artists have found ways to tackle the problem of lack of stages through e-concerts and live streaming enabled by OTT platforms, backed up by corporate groups, a large group of performing artists, belonging to local, theatre and folk genres struggle as they lack the means to capitalize their art.  

For most of the artists belonging to the folk and indigenous art forms, a substantial part of their opportunities were limited to cultural festivals. Among them, only a few artists have made it to the mainstream while most of the others are underprivileged. 

Often, the popular sense of the term artist is limited to the mainstream artists, especially those working in film and television industries and those who have a mass appeal. Most of these mainstream artists have adapted to the digital era.  They are able to capitalize their art through OTT platforms, backed up by corporate media groups and event management companies. 

However, the less privileged, daily wagers who form the invisible workforce that make up more than half of this community are left outside, as always.  Especially suffering are the light and sound technicians, the makeup artists, art trainers and other related self-employed entrepreneurs belonging to the workforce. Perhaps, they have been the worst affected in this Pandemic.

Away from the spotlight 

Shibu, a young sound entrepreneur based in North Kerala used to lead a vibrant life, travelling from place to place, meeting all sorts of artists, providing his sound equipment for various events and festivals held all over the State. However, the second wave of Covid 19 that swept over his family was not kind to him.  It left his body severely weak, in need of specialised treatment. The expenditure for his treatment would not have been an issue if not for the continued absence of work. 

Even in ill health, he is anxious not for himself but for the thirty people who work under him. They have had no source of income for over a year now. There is also the frightening possibility of damage to his expensive digital equipment due to lack of use. Many who have bought their equipment by taking loans and borrowing money in hope of paying back in instalments from their profit are drowning in debts.  Many are on the brink of suicide. 

“The impact of the lockdown on light and sound entrepreneurs is huge,” says Salim, an event manager from Calicut. “Generators, sound mixers and many other digital equipment get easily damaged if they remain unused for a long time. As a last resort, many small-scale entrepreneurs have started selling their equipment at half the market price while they still can, hoping to start new ventures and sail through the unknown waves.” 

Welfare, not enough

Sudhakaran

Kerala government has twice provided welfare funds to thirty thousand artists across the state.  The amount was just two thousand rupees in two instalments.  “The one thousand rupees they received as part of the welfare fund was invaluable not because of its material value but the recognition it offered. They felt visible, their struggles felt acknowledged,”  says Sudhakaran, a theatre artist who hails from Vellangallur in Thrissur district.  

The first wave of Covid 19 and the following countrywide lockdown witnessed many fundraising attempts for artists, organised by collectives but most of them were limited to small groups.  Naturally many of these attempts failed in reaching out to a larger struggling community.  None of them could actually offer a consistent source of income.  Earlier in 2020, the renowned Carnatic vocalist and activist, T. M Krishna, had organised a fundraising e-concert performed by himself and managed to raise around 9 lakhs for the Covid-19 Artist fund. However, nothing of the sort has so far been organised by mainstream artists in Kerala.

However, there are some streaks of light while everything looks grim all around.   Some artists are at last attempting to adapt to the situation, after going through months of uncertainty, doubts and dejection.  The Sopanam School of Panchavadyam, a collective of percussion artists near Edappal, have started manufacturing various percussion instruments as a means of survival.  Some of them who knew how to make instruments like Chenda, taught the rest and have managed to bring forth an alternate livelihood that is still connected to their art form. 

As the virtual world offers possibilities, artists are reinventing themselves. Music, dance and art classes have gone online as institutions still remain closed. The experience is not optimal, there are often connection and accessibility problems, yet, it lets those with the means to pursue their studies and provide a livelihood to the trainers.  Of course, something is better than nothing. 

Ray of hope

Sameer Umbayee

The world may open up for the artists community when the pandemic finally rides out. But the future still looks grey and grim. The daunting economic crisis will add to their already slow recovery.  An entire network of art-related livelihood is at stake here. “It is painful to see artists struggling to make a living,” says  Sameer Umbayee, guitarist and son of the renowned Ghazal singer Umbayee.  “The music community is severely affected by the lockdown.”

But as Sameer points out,  since the first lockdown, there has been a considerable surge in online content creation and consumption. “It is proof that people are not giving up hope. Yes, it’s not ideal as there is a lack of accessibility. The question of paid consumption is definitely far from reality for the less popular. But people within the community are aware of the situation.” 

Caravan is one of the Cochin-based artist collectives, initiated by Sameer and friends.  They have initiated a series of programs to support musicians.  Many collectives across Kerala are organising small scale programs to raise fund and help each other.  

“In the end, art always keeps finding a way,”  says Sameer, with hope tingeing his words.  

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