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Does Corona compel us to think about a revival package for the arts?

April 16, 2020

This is a topical and timely column. It comes in the series of Dance in the times of Corona. I share these thoughts, this 'Soch', with you, but address it to the policy makers who are working on a promised relief package for India, in the COVID 19 scenario. I hope they will not get bogged down by a one dimensional or myopic vision for the recovery of India, but will keep their ear to the ground, to hear the subterranean murmurs from various groups.

From dancers around the world I am hearing a murmur. A murmur of anxiety. This murmur of anxiety is emanating from my friends, mostly from the world of the arts, artistes of all domains and hues, especially dancers, who are so special since they are the makers of the most intangible and chimerical art. Like the rest of the nation they too are anxious about what the future holds. It is like we fell asleep in one world and woke up in another. And we still don't know how different will be the world we closed our doors on, from the one we will open them to, after the lockdown is over. Nothing, as we wait out the health emergency and the clouds of the pandemic, seems to give any hope.

Locked down into our homes, from the fear of the Corona virus, and in an attempt to flatten the curve, the dancers are using this time doing what they do best - dancing. From Canada, a Latino dancer sends me videos of his shines. Shines are solo dance movements of varying lengths done as a special punch. In Latino social dancing, one of the partners can break out into a shine for some additional zing. Dancers everywhere in India are using this unexpected quiet time to work on special features, dance moves and turns, honing, polishing and shining them, to get it just right. They are teaching using technology - Zoom, Skype and Face Time. But their students are fewer, indifferent, and scared, like we all are. On their minds sits an incubus. What does the future hold for them?

The lockdown has been unprecedented. Never before has half of the world's population been under such restrictions. Never before have nearly 1.3 billion people of India been pushed into social distancing, quarantine and other forms of inactivity, for so long. This inactivity has brought the economic grid, a world wide web, to a screeching halt. It has forced each of us into a period of limited resources and even less light and hope, and none of us know for how long. As the losses in the economy are being calculated and projected for an indefinite period, the truth of the economic cost is sinking in. The Corona pandemic has brought the global economy to a standstill and plunged the world into a recession that many experts feel will be "way worse" than the global financial crisis of 2008. The International Monetary Fund has called it "humanity's darkest hour", even as its Chief Economist, Gita Gopinath has described it as "Great Lockdown of the Economy". Nobel laureate, economist Abhijit Bannerjee has predicted that from a slowdown, the Indian economy per se, is headed for an economic tailspin. This is not an encouraging reading of the situation. After all, a nation cannot live on doles and PDS rations. And yet there is a critical need to restrict human movement to prevent transmissions of the Corona virus and flatten the curve, being a pre-requisite of defeating it completely. Eventually, life is more important than livelihoods. 'Jaan hai to jahan hai' said, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.

While the Cassandras are screaming hoarse about the economic downspin, real as it is, and Global Consulting Companies, international bodies and think tanks are coming up with solutions, suggestions and simulations, there is complete silence on the sector of art and creativity, from anything we hear emanating from corridors of power and policy centres in India. For a nation that has defined itself by its arts, this is a strange way to recognise the sector's significance to our economic and emotional well being, and the fragility of the arts if left untended.

There are two types of eco-spheres in the art world. 'Eco' here refers to the economics of it. The film and entertainment business, with its deep pockets, constitutes one ecosphere, while those arts that are more Saraswati oriented, and far from Lakshmi. Both are closed to business right now. Cinemas lie silent, theatres are deserted and auditoriums lie darkened and despondent. Film shootings are cancelled. But they will restart once the lockdown has ended, and soon, the Friday to Friday film life style, will begin rolling. Sporting events, the biggest among them being the Tokyo Olympics, have only been postponed till next year. But we do not hear anything so encouraging with respect to Art festivals, Dance programmes and Music concerts that were scheduled during the last weeks. Have they been cancelled, or have they just been postponed? We don't know that as yet. We also don't know anything about the forthcoming cultural calendar. In many cases advances for them have been paid for, and many expenses incurred. Will these events on the cultural calendar be rescheduled? If so, then these expenses will be reinforced, failing which this will become just another burden on the already harried artistes. The performing arts, being live, collaborative and dependent on audiences, for the satisfactory completion of the Rasa cycle, are not easy to hold together. Will they too bounce back as films and the entertainment industry are likely to? Rather unlikely.

Arts matter. Arts matter in many ways. Apart from the inexhaustible joy they can give, or the healing, hope, recovery and relief they provide even in the darkest hour, the sense of self worth they inject in a people and the identity quotient they infuse, they also represent, what acclaimed author Vladimir Nabokov called, "that delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge" (Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov). India's unique gift to the world, an original 'Made in India' project, has been its arts. Some of them have been formally recognised as the Intangible Heritage of Mankind, but much more deserves to be recognised so. Dancers, musicians, visual artistes and poets amongst others are the holders of this intangible heritage. And hence, at least two Ministries should be thinking of them - the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism. With travel under a cloud, the post COVID 19 world will see the arts suffer a double whammy!

The arts remain mostly, part of the unorganised sector. Unfortunately, most artistes from the field of dance, music and theatre are self employed. Very few have any kind of institutional support. This is despite the fact that post independence, India went the way of USSR towards institutionalization, but the numbers of artistes who are part of the institutional system are very limited. Take the example of the Kathak Kendra. It has but a handful of dance Gurus and musicians on its rolls. Most of the salary bill of the Kendra is for non dance / music administrative staff while the numbers of dancers and musicians working as freelancers or contract staff is relatively huge. With no bookings coming in, they are as vulnerable as daily wage labour, with the exception that unlike labour that can be fitted anywhere, including under something like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) programme or the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY). The independent artiste is a carrier of highly specialised learning, which takes a lifetime to acquire, and hence, cannot, and should not, be fitted in just anywhere. So specialised is this learning and training, that an artiste is in effect, a meaning maker, much as an economist, a psychologist, sociologist or a litterateur.

Where would a nation like to put its poets and playwrights? The ones who help us "see" our times, "show" our stories and "seek" ourselves! Our musicians, who sing old songs in new times? Our dancers, who in one movement, evoke a gasp, as meaning, metaphor and message instantly imbricate! It takes an unwise mind and a cruel heart that can see such skills wilt. Can hard economic times make us hard hearted? I hope our leaders will realise that wealth is of many kinds, and our arts are amongst the most valuable, albeit fragile, wealth of India, and deserve as much attention as any other sector in these trying times.

Consequently, on 14th April, the Hon'ble Minister of Culture, Mr. Prahlad Patel announced a scheme by which three types of benefits could come to artistes. As it is, for artistes registered with the Ministry of Culture, benefits from the pension and medical aid schemes were in place. Now, as per the recent decision, the Ministry of Culture extended these schemes to non-registered artistes as well. This will benefit them in the times of Corona lockdown. The Zonal Cultural Centres are the nodal agencies to help such non-registered and poor artistes. But is this an occasional dole, maybe even a subsistence grant, or will it revitalise creativity? Could we not look at something that will energise the art and the artiste?

Let me give an example from the past, a distant past, when such an arts friendly approach to an economic recovery package, was successfully employed. Many readers of this column are probably too young, and may have only heard of the Great Depression, in history textbooks, if at all. With World War II itself having been left so far behind, on the time continuum, the Great Depression, that preceded it by ten years, seems even more distant and remote. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of mankind. It lasted a decade, from 1929 to 1939. It began with the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out investments worth millions, not just in USA, but overseas as well. This severe worldwide economic depression that began in the United States of America impacted the entire world, with the timing of the Great Depression varying across the world. I cite the Great Depression of the 30's rather than the more recent, and hence the more familiar Crash of 2008 that led to the Great Recession, because the world GDP fell by 15% in the 1930s while in 2008 it fell a mere 1%. Thus, suspecting that the global fall in GDP, post Corona, will be very high, possibly even higher than in the case of the Great Depression, I draw your attention to the recovery package created during the Great Depression, which saved America from plummeting.

Although many smaller recovery efforts were made, periodically, after the Wall Street crash, it was the thirty-second President of USA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often referred to by his initials FDR, who came up with the recovery programme called the 'New Deal', which successfully turned things around. FDR's New Deal provided federally funded jobs for millions of unemployed Americans to counter the Great Depression. One of the most significant, and visionary aspects of the New Deal was the segment that contained a relief package for the arts. In fact, the Federal government supported the arts in unprecedented ways for eleven years, between 1933 and 1943. Federal tax dollars were employed to support several thousand artistes, including dancers, musicians, actors, writers, and visual artistes like sculptors, painters and even photographers.

While this Government arts program rescued artists from poverty and despair, in effect, its mission was far bigger. Its larger mission was to promote American art and culture and to enhance the access for an increased number of Americans, to what President Roosevelt called, "an abundant life." So, not only did the inclusion of the arts in the New Deal, give a boost of creative energy to the artistes, but it put the arts to practical use as well, which enabled thousands of Americans to have their first brush with art - even if it meant seeing an original painting, attending a concert, or joining an art class.

For some this government programme may have been an emergency work program, like a food for work programme. In a way it was, but twice over. It fed not just the body but also the soul. Additionally, in this endeavour one can see the burst of American creativity that occurred during a time of tremendous change and tribulation. Thus, not only was this period and its defining features captured by the arts, but it anticipated and initiated many new trends, which we take for granted today. An interest in all things American took many forms- murals of American vistas, traditional stories that were collected, recounted and re-contextualised by folklorists, the writing of plays on American heroes, and prolific litterateurs who wrote on regional, local and oral histories. The best New Deal photographers created visual documents that captured the complex changes in 20th century America. Artistic nationalism was a prominent aspect of much of the New Deal art that celebrated the American country and character.

The support to dance, via the Federal Dance Project, came somewhat later, in 1936, when dance was finally recognised as a semi-autonomous unit within the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre Project had begun in January 1936. This followed consistent advocacy, conducted over several months, to enable dancers to benefit, from the New Deal. Choreographer and modern dance pioneer Helen Tamiris, is credited with this achievement. She was at the helm of the movement for dancers to be recognised for themselves, that commenced as soon as the Federal Theatre Project was announced and dance was made a part of Theatre. Eventually, once validated, by recognition for its own self, under the rubric of the Federal Dance Project (FDP), dance units were set up in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Portland, Oregon. For unemployed and struggling dancers, the Federal Dance Project turned out to be a boon as it hired dancers under four categories - ballet, modern dance, vaudeville, and teaching.

Unfortunately, the project ran into trouble on many aspects, including, the "volcanic" nature of the dancers, a term used by the head of the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan, in her book 'Arena' published in 1940. Some of these volcanic eruptions took the form of resistance to the new elements entering the field of dance. The New York Times of July 21, 1937 wrote that it "is high time that dancing was removed from the hands of the long-haired boys and girls who represent the 'modern' movement...", but Helen Tamiris, the FDP's top choreographer, pushed on undeterred, with her efforts to highlight unemployment, racial inequality, war, and other social ills, in her work, with the definite intention of shaking the conscience of society. In her obituary published on 5th August 1960, the New York Times, credited her with pushing social causes and recognised her efforts with the words: "The validity of modern dance is rooted in its ability to express modern problems and further, to make modern audiences want to do something about them."

Ted Shawn in 'Dance of Shiva'

Despite the tension, the FDP was patently successful, producing as many as two dozen original dance dramas, with many of them going on to be quite popular. Myra Kinch's 'An American Exodus,' played in Los Angeles from July 1937 to January 1939. Myra Kinch had trained in "Ethnic dances" with La Meri, a pioneer of Indian dance in America. She acted in a few Hollywood films as well, amongst which was the Oscar-winning film, 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' (1935), in which she played an unaccredited part of a dancer. In later years, she was to appear regularly at the Jacob's Pillow Festival, founded by modern dance pioneer, Ted Shawn, who had visited India with his wife Ruth St. Denis and their Denishawn dance Company, and had many Indian numbers in his repertoire, including the 'Dance of Shiva. Because of Shawn's soft corner for Indian, oriental and ethnic dances, the Jacob's Pillow Festival, offered a ready stage for visiting and resident Indian artistes to showcase their art. In fact, Kinch even choreographed two popular dances for Ted Shawn - 'The Bajour' in which Shawn played a gypsy king and another one called 'Sundered Majesty', which was based on King Lear.

Helen Tamiris was not only concerned with establishing modern dance as a viable art form, but also wanted to bring dance to a wider audience. She got a chance to do this with the Federal Dance Project. Many of her works dealt with social issues, like racism and war. She is best known for her suite of dances called 'Negro Spirituals' which were created between 1928 and 1942. She choreographed eight Negro Spirituals, which were performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 1939 with six other short dances, in a programme shared with Hanya Holm. Tamiris's 'How Long Brethren?' that depicted the despair of unemployed Southern African-Americans, was danced to Lawrence Gellert's 'Negro Songs of Protest' sung live by an African American chorus. Lawrence Gellert was a white collector of Negro songs. It was due to his effort that most people even heard the poetry in these songs. It served as a valuable store of information on black culture which most white people were not aware of. It was also probably for the first time that federal funds were utilized in the creation of American dance, which focused on problems faced by African-Americans. Tamiri's major productions during this period included 'Salut au Monde' (1936), 'How Long Brethren?' (1937), 'Trojan Incident' (1938) and 'Adelante' (1939). 'How Long Brethren?' ran for six months in New York City and won her the Dance Magazine's annual award of excellence for 1937.

Salut au Monde

Other dancers and choreographers who took part in the Federal Dance Project, and rose subsequently to great fame, were Katherine Dunham, Doris Humphrey, Ruth Page, and Charles Weidman. The FDP provided hundreds of jobs to dancers who needed them, and brought dance to many thousands of Americans who might not otherwise have experienced it. Finally, scholar Ann Dils writes in her paper on the Federal Dance Project, that as the "first national program dedicated to the financial support of dance and dancers", it helped set the stage for later programs, such as those of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington DC and the National Endowment for the Arts. Eventually, both the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Dance Project, were terminated in 1939 when Congress blocked funding.

Even though short lived, the Federal Dance Project showed that even in darkness, it is possible to create light, for and with dance. Today when dance and the other arts find themselves in a quagmire, maybe we can find the inspiration for a tropicalised version of a New Deal, for new times. India has an acute need for support to the arts in these times. Who knows, there may be a collateral dividend, a new energy in the arts. But, this support will need to think out of the box, to be effective. How does one uphold the arts in these difficult times? These should be the fulcrum around which the Union Ministry of Culture and also the Ministry of Tourism should be thinking about issues of art, creativity and the creative industries.

What could be the 2020 New Deal for Indian arts, in the times of COVID-19? The patronage patterns followed in India, for the arts, is in effect a programme of regular government support. When at the time of independence, it was decided that to protect the arts from the vagaries of an immature market place, the government, it was decided, would replace feudal patterns of patronage that had prevailed till then. In all honesty, this is the perfect moment to segue into the recognition of the fact that the arts have also given back to society in the past, especially, when in times of natural calamities and emergencies, the arts have helped raise money. So, how can there be a new deal for both the arts and the artistes? Let's look at what is happening in the world.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed recently by the House of Representatives of the United States of America, intends to offer a historic $2 trillion in financial relief to organizations and workers across the country. It has also provided a sum of 300 million USD for the arts. The Arts Council of the United Kingdom, has also provided a sum of 160 million pounds for the arts. Germany's generous aid and relief packet for those working individually includes specifically, those in the arts. The country's Culture Minister, Monika Grutters, acknowledged that the current "situation places a great burden on the cultural and creative industries and can cause considerable distress, especially for smaller institutions and independent artists." She pledged, "I will not let them down," before she came up with the package, and she announced it while praising artists for being, "not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now." In New Zealand, Creative New Zealand, the national arts development agency, is establishing a multimillion-dollar emergency response package to support artists, groups and organisations impacted by Covid-19. The agency working on a focused programme will initially spend $4.5 million in supporting more than 80 arts organisations, and in releasing resilience grants for artists.

What must India do? Above all, it needs to think afresh, creatively and in an out of the box way, since as a developing country we do not know how long Corona will continue to cast a shadow. So, possibly a combination of long term and short term measures, will need to balance. Some sustainability funding and some special task oriented grants could be conceived of. The aid promised by the minister, Prahlad Patel is a short term measure. It is welcome, but it is short term and individual centric. What about a second package, this time in the form of grants. These grants could be specially designed to work in the times of Corona, when distancing is essential.

What can be the tasks at a time when we are compelled to, and would do well, to maintain social distancing? An example of such a task could be the jotting down of oral histories of dance. This is much needed and has long been missing. Now that we have a dance collection at the IGNCA, these histories could be attached to it. Through this specific, future oriented, past based activity, we can grow the dance collection in a focused way. This national recording exercise will serve as an invaluable archive for future scholars. This is but one example, and undoubtedly needs to be thought through, and deeper. In addressing the specific needs of the Arts sector, the Government of India would do well to realise, that India is not just an important centre for the arts, but an arts centre of the world. So we must do everything we can to nurture them, even in the toughest of times.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.


Well researched, beautifully written, this article flows along with a good rhythm.
   - Uttara Asha Coorlawala (April 20, 2020)

Very informative and probing article by renowned author-columnist Dr. Arshiya Sethi. Fortunate to have been in touch with her for many years and always an enlightening experience to listen to her thoughts. She is an inspiration to many.
  - Meenu Thakur (April 19, 2020)

Very enlightening & informative article. Performing artistes - both classical & folk - are a neglected lot in Bhaaratam which is known for her art & culture. As long as there is no professional status to arts, like other professions (doctors, engineers, IT & scientists), it will remain just a casual passion and pastime. Art & culture are not in the priority list of the Government, but used only to proclaim the greatness of the country's heritage. Funding is not available for arts & culture. To get the available fund in the concerned department or Ministry is a Herculian task, dissuading artistes in applying for funding. After cumbersome procedures, to get the sanctioned money in time from the government is yet another gruelling affair; sometimes one has to go through a middleman operating in between with cut of 30%. Funding is the most stumbling factor in the performing arts field. In spite of all these onslaughts, art and artistes survive due to the dedicated few and few public sympathisers.
- VP Dhananjayan (April 16, 2020)

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