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Nothing is more 'Local' than the Arts of India: A suggested 'Package' to support them

May 30, 2020

In my last column I had made a plea for a 'package', in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, for Indian artistes. Maybe I was delusional in thinking that the gatekeepers of the domain of the arts in India are proactive, read extensively and will at least take the hint if not get inspired. Not one to give up in the face of inertia, in this column I persist in my demand for a 'package' for the artistes of India in response to COVID 19 and the peculiar and unprecedented situation that faces the arts today.

The unprecedented setback by the Corona virus that has impacted the entire world has not spared India. In fact, the Indian economy that was already doing badly with falling GDP and an unprecedentedly high figure of joblessness, has now got on to a downward spin, and threatens to spin out of control. No sector has escaped its ill effects. The sector of culture and creative economy, which represents our priceless heritage of the arts, is also severely hit. Art remains an 'Unorganised Sector' making it susceptible to the vagaries of disasters even as all artists have become among the most 'Endangered Species'. Given the fragility of the constituency, there is palpable worry, emanating from the community as well as its stakeholders and watchers, that the arts may not survive in their glory, unless hand held and helped at this stage.

The arts are demanding and artistes have to give their all to acquire the proficiency and excellence required. Thus, arts as long as they are being practiced, respected, valued, nurtured, taught further and monetised, flourish. Even those who cannot pursue the performance dream have spaces where they become part of the arts ecosphere, becoming comperes, curators, arts organisers, critics, technical supporters and practitioners of allied arts. But all of them depend on programmes, and in some cases on teaching and creative forms of collaborative work, for their economic survival. All programmes are cancelled in the period of the lockdown, and due to that and social distancing, or to use a more precise term, physical distancing norms, the resumption of programmes in the near future looks bleak. For the same reason, teaching is not happening and unlikely to get back to normal. Collaborative projects are also in the realm of speculation only.

The special quality of our arts comes from the Guru Shishya parampara and it is this Guru Shishya parampara that is hit severely in the times of lockdown and physical distancing. While riyaaz and individual practice continues, and actually probably flourishes as there is so much time at hand, allowing for going back to basics, doing shines, developing stamina and thinking things afresh, it is teaching and performing that suffers most. In the absence of teaching, the net generation of artistes cannot be prepared. In the absence of programmes, the present generation of artistes cannot grow in experience, form and reputation. Worst of all is that in the absence of both teaching and showcases, there is no fresh money coming into the sector. With this prolonged lockdown and dreary economic situation, the few savings have almost all been eroded. Therefore, special, farsighted efforts need to be made to keep the artistic life of our people pulsating, alive and healthy.

Below, are suggestions, for the Ministry of Culture and its constituent agencies that it could employ to counter the crisis of the moment. The suggestions are both long term and immediate in nature, institutional and 'out of the box', regular and special, and are aimed at addressing holistically the challenges created by this situation.

The fist point naturally comes in the immediate action plan category. Even within this plan I suggest a two pronged strategy, to address the humanitarian crisis and create institutional efficiency within the Ministry of Culture. First let us visit the points for immediate humanitarian relief. The experience of the migrant labour where there were no lists available, and hence money transfers were possible for only a fraction of the labour, taught us a seminal lesson - the need, significance and importance of lists. Lists are described as the most basic management tool and here lists mean the database of artistes in all categories and genres of the arts, in all regions, cities and villages of the country. Fortunately, even if inadvertently, many lists were created and now only need collation. All seven Zonal Cultural Centres, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), the National School of Drama, MOCs grants sections, all have lists of all classical, folk and contemporary performers. This list must be collated immediately by these offices which are not busy at this time since these days they are not engaged in their usual and regular activities. By referring to artistes who are registered with them or artistes they have booked in the past, they can create the core list to which additions can be made later. Through social media and the multiple networks of artistes, a more thorough list can be made. In digitally strong India, this can be achieved within a week. Using this master-list, we can reach out to the expansive population, with representatives of all supporting and allied arts, like stage, sound, light, costume designers, technical experts and all who constitute the larger arts community that are all suffering together.

Naturally, the Ministry of Culture, being the Nodal Ministry covering a pan Indian spread of artistes, would do well to establish a Nodal National Coordination Control Room for Artistes (NNCCRA). This Nodal National Coordination Control Room for Artistes must be located in the Ministry of Culture and work under the direction of a senior functionary of the Ministry, at least at the level of a Joint Secretary. This Coordination Room will continue to handhold the artistes from all disciplines and the ancillary and support artistes in the Arts ecosystem, as described earlier, throughout the entire period of the lockdown, its possible future extensions and in the period before all things become normal. It needs to have a set of dedicated telephone lines and an email and Whatsapp, through which an artiste in need may reach out for help. These contact numbers, emails and Whatsapp number, need to be publicised to all artistes and by Doordarshan, so that those who may have been missed out from the core master list or be in dire need, can reach out for help through these routes.

It is a well known fact that food stocks have been surplus for several years, and that our godowns are spilling forth. In fact the recent plan, now disbanded, of using excess rice to produce ethanol, testifies to the fact that we have surpluses. Reports say that we have large surpluses, at least three times our immediate requirement. Therefore, one of my recommendations is to urgently provide rations and food essentials to the artistes, for three months at least, as a hamper, with the compliments of a grateful nation. At present, this surplus has only a notional value and so can be redirected to benefit the artistes. Through this national list of artistes and by using technology, social media and internet, we can announce ways by which the artistes can be helped by rations, and other essential provisions. In fact, we can create small hubs of help, through the coordination of area police and NGOs working in food supply to the needy. Additionally, State Departments of Culture and the Zonal Cultural Centres can also help to reach these packets of food and essentials, even in the period of the lockdown. All artistes can help identify those in need. There is sufficient community feeling among the artistes to look out for each other. It is capacity that they lack.

As many Gurus are senior in age and have accompanying health problems, one problem that they face is that of medical care. With the rule of those above 65 to continue on a 'stay at home' mode, they need special attention. In cities like Delhi, the Beat Constable keeps an eye on senior citizens, dropping in to meet them and check out their needs. A similar link needs to be established between the Beat Constable and the artistes who are senior and super senior citizens so that if they need, the police vehicle or ambulance can be made available to cart them to hospital. Whether the Beat Constable system can take on this responsibility, I leave for the head of the police department to decide on. What is certain is that senior artistes and Gurus will need help with medicines and possible medical assistance to tide over problems during the period of the lockdown and while awaiting normalcy.

Just as all economists including the two Nobel laureates and one former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India have reiterated, to kick-start the economy it is very important to make sure that some money is in everyone's hand. Only then will there be liquidity and we can hope that its spend will create a demand, and that it will get the economy on a roll. Therefore, since there are no sources for earning money and savings have dwindled over the months of the lockdown, a monthly (temporary) cash grant scheme may be made available from the Ministry of Culture. In these uncertain times when landlords are demanding rents despite the patently difficult times, to take care of these demands and to take care of other expenses, a monthly grant of Rs. 10,000/- may be offered to all artistes in an egalitarian and democratic manner. This spend can be adjusted against the money apportioned for running festivals, melas, workshops etc. which are not happening now.

In fact, artistes need cash. Among the actions of institutional efficiency that the Ministry of Culture needs to prioritise are that pending sanctions must be cleared immediately. This pertains to commitments that have already long since been made to the artistes. For instance, all pending sanction letters for Production, Building, Salary and other grants for the years 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 must be issued immediately. It must be appreciated that in the absence of such documentation even banks are unable to provide compliance documents like Utilization Certificates. The MOC after completing its own responsibilities should ask for the submission of all pending documents for 2019-2020. This is already accounted for and must be dispersed at the earliest.

'Out of the box' treatment may well be required for the next set of grants. First and foremost, time lines for the next set of grants by MOC should be announced - for submissions, scrutiny, confirmation etc. The next set of grants may need to be different from the usual and could include some lateral, radical and most certainly 'out of the box' ideas. One such idea that we propose, which can play out even in the period of the lockdown, should this extend, could be for the Recording of Oral Histories. Eminent Gurus, artistes and performers with unusual life stories can record, with the help of associates and disciples, their stories and personal experiences of performance, teaching and learning. Thus instead of a production, which may not be possible if physical distancing continues, an expansive oral history can emerge. If this could be accompanied by a collection of legacy papers, press papers, programmes, posters and other memorabilia, and especially photographs and videos, ferreted, gathered and garnered from different sources, we would have a well illustrated history as well. This could then be linked with the IGNCA, and serve as a valuable resource for future scholars.

Another request I would like to make is for tax write-offs. This request is made with reference to the 'Tax Deducted at Source' component of the grants as well as the GST component. In case this cannot be done in toto, maybe a section or a fraction can be excused. If not even that, then maybe we can have delayed filings, so that arts and creative industries stakeholders have that additional buffer to fall back on.

Some future possibilities that the MOC could consider to alleviate the pressure on the artistes, include discounted airfares for dance related travel, group life insurance, group health insurance provisions as well. The government may at this stage like to take this opportunity to explore possibilities of a social justice treatment to the problems faced by the insurance. The government may at this stage explore the possibilities of insurance of costumes, jewellery, props and instruments. Pensions, for disability and old age would be very welcome. As the most visible place an artiste hopes to occupy is digitally, maybe the government can directly sponsor performances and conversation, talks, interviews and lectures on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, as these are youth friendly (hence future oriented) forums and revenues can always be channelled into Artiste Relief and Benefit.

In the golden ages of Indian history, one notices the importance attributed to the Arts. As early as the Indus Valley Civilization there is proof of art being prized. As early as in the Pre-Christian era, the state and the wealthy sponsored art. This accounts for why so many riches still survive. The artistic support from the court in the Mauryan period, virtually the first nearly pan Indian kingdom of India, is exemplified in the artistic quotient to the edicts, and pillars embellished with capitols, one of which forms the state capitol of India. The Gupta age known as the golden age of Indian arts, clearly reflects the links between the arts and statecraft. Samudragupta was not just a lover of the arts but also an artiste himself. Not just northern dynasties but southern and regional dynasties reveal how governments were drivers of artistic work. Emperors Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjahan were well known supporters of the arts, and saw it as an example of the status of the State. Aurangzeb stands out as the one who did not support the arts, and has consequently become a reference point for the bad days for the arts. Let our times not be known for bad days of the arts. Be vocal about local, says our Prime Minister. Nothing is more local than the arts of India.



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 through her NGO, Kri Foundation (estd. 2003), and has extended her academic work to Indian dance in the diaspora.


Comments

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Namaste. It is an excellent article.
1. To prepare an all India list of artistes.
2. Our Art is our identity of the country. So it should not be given least priority.
3. The local SNA body when approached, they just raised their hands.
4. In central level, Government should take care of this issue through the points raised by Arshiya ji.
- Suprava Mishra (June 3, 2020)


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Dr Arshiya Sethi , in her well-articulated essay, has touched upon some very relevant issues. I second her suggestions, particularly of NNCCRA. The artistes, particularly of lesser-known artforms, thriving on teaching are the worst sufferers during lockdown. Unless and until they are organised through institutional effort the artforms are likely to suffer a major setback. Thank you, Dr Sethi, for such a timely article!
- Sharodi Saikia, Sattriya dancer (June 1, 2020)


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Namaste Arshiya-ji. A very well written, need of the hour article which needs to be noticed by the MOC and SNA. Creation of an All India Directory of Professional Artists will go a long way in channelising the grants and other funds available for the artists in a much more streamlined manner. As President of ABHAI which I am heading since 2018, I can vouch for our full cooperation with Governmental Agencies and the Zonal Cultural Centres in getting this master list ready so that the funds can be directed to the most deserving and the right artists in a timebound manner. At this point, I would like to also point out that at ABHAI we have attempted to make a difference in lives of 150 artists till date since the 14th of April 2020, helping them to gain a foothold. And all this we could accomplish with our own funds collection initiative which is Rs.13 lakhs till date. And the Mission continues in the true spirit of #Atmanirbhar.
- Roja Kannan (May 31, 2020)


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This exhaustive well curated article by Arshiya Sethi-ji should immediately reach MOC for their judicious consideration of all the suggestions she has given. Unfortunately people sitting at the top seem to have no inclination to take up suggestions coming from artistes like us. Art, artistes and culture are the least priority subject of any government, and present Government is also no exception. I have written open letters in the press as well as directly to PM and FM for urgent need of protecting the art and artistes and Bhaarateeya Samskriti. So far no action seen in the scene. The cumbersome procedures and documents required for grants from funding bodies, dissuade & discourage artistes and well functioning cultural institutions to apply for any kind of financial assistance from the Govt departments. Adding to that problem, delay in getting sanctioned aids in time is frustrating. As Sethi has mentioned, several such pending disbursement of funds disheartens the creative urge of genuine artistes. A lot of non professionals are engaged in undermining the actual professionals who do not indulge in malpractice, such bribery and commissions to a middleman etc.
All said and done, kudos to Sethi for giving constructive suggestions which I hope and pray will reach the attention of the concerned govt and private NGOs.
- Naatyaachaarya V.P. Dhananjayan, Chennai (May 31, 2020)


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