The stage goes dark: How performing arts industry is hurting from Covid-19 crisis
Covid-19: Economic Fallout

The stage goes dark: How performing arts industry is hurting from Covid-19 crisis

The pandemic has brought the industry to a standstill.

By Nikita Bishnoi

Published on :

The stage is empty, the music has stopped, the costumes are locked away in a steel box lying in a corner. Mandi House, the cultural hub of Delhi where rehearsing artists livened up the sidewalks and the tinkling of anklets wafted out of its three auditoriums, has fallen eerily quiet.

In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the seven roads converging at the Mandi House Circle that harbour the workplaces of thousands of artists are deserted, an endless array of shuttered shops, locked gates, and faded posters of concerts and plays that never were.

It’s a similar story across the country as concerts, plays and shows have been cancelled, or indefinitely postponed. This means that for most performing artists, and the industry as a whole, there has been no work for nearly two months now.

India’s performing arts industry, as it is informally known, was estimated to have a market size of about Rs 27,500 crore by the end of 2018, according to a study released by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in December 2016.

Those who rely on the industry for livelihood include theatre artists, dancers, musicians, singers, puppeteers, set designers, light engineers, scene lifters, and sound technicians. Most of them are self-employed. They are usually paid based on the duration of their performance, popularity, even ticket collections. There are, however, no estimates, official or otherwise, of the total number of people employed by the industry.

The industry feeds several related businesses such as artist and event management companies. And except for some artists who are able to perform online, the industry has come to a standstill. So much so that insiders said they could not estimate the extent of the losses yet.

“The industry was the first to shut and will be the last to open. And looking at the current situation, live events won’t happen for a very long time,” said Mourjo Chatterjee, who runs an artist management company, On Stage Talent, in Mumbai. “We had to cancel roughly 50 shows that were booked. A few clients were good enough to tell us to keep the advances, the rest we paid back.”

It would take a long time to get the industry back on its feet even after the lockdown was eased or lifted, Chatterjee said. “Social distancing may be the new norm even if the situation goes back to normal. There will be fear among people and they won’t go to attend a concert where normally thousands of people would gather. We will have to take it as it comes, but it is a long way from here,” he explained.

As the novel coronavirus is predicted to be around for a while yet, social distancing measures to contain its spread will likely stay in place even after lockdowns end across the world. This means that performing artists will be confronted by a different world. And they are aware of it.

John Jaideep Thirumalai, a bass player in Mumbai, has been a part of the industry for around 30 years. He was scheduled to perform in a series of 12 concerts in the United States, alongside actor Hrithik Roshan and Kishnakumar Kunnath (KK), starting April 12. Their tour never happened as travel restrictions kicked in. He performed in his last concert on March 12.

“We artists travel a lot. I am out for 250 of the 365 days. But I think that’s going to change," he said. "We will need to have checks and tests before travelling and we might need some other kinds of passes after landing. Now they are saying we need to travel light, so maybe I won’t be able to carry my instrument for concerts and will have to hire one in the city I’m going to. We may witness many other changes post the lockdown."

In the meantime, the artists are looking for alternative stages to perform, primarily online. A discussion is ongoing in the industry about how the artists can do justice to their work now that most of them don’t have a stage or an audience.

Since the lockdown was imposed, Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan has been doing online talks, and posting videos of performances by her and her students. She did her last live show on March 16. She was scheduled to do three more shows in March, eight in April, and three in May. All were cancelled.

Narayan pointed out that while “established self-employed artists” might be able to live off their savings, the industry’s “other layers” were going through a rough patch.

“For the front rankers, their savings will see them through. Then we have second rankers, whose savings can see them through as well. But we also have so many supporting musicians who are dependent on recordings or live programmes for daily bread,” she explained. “And these people are not very big names. Folk artists, for example, are often not very big names so they don’t have enough savings. On top of it, they have families where they perhaps are the only earning member. So folk artists are as badly affected as people in supporting roles. And what about light technicians, makeup men, stage hands?”

For now, Narayan noted, performing online was the only option for the artists, and for only some of them. Still, it was no match for a live performance.

“The actual performance is to see, you have to experience it,” she explained. “You have to feel the vibrations. You have feel the energy of the performance and the artist. How do you get it on screen? You can’t.”

Her view was echoed by Aditi Mittal. The comedian hasn’t done a live show since March 8. She has been posting videos online in which she uses her home setup to make a commentary on the “new normal”.

Mittal said the “shared experience of enjoying an act” couldn’t be replicated online. “Humans are made to feel the energy of each other and that’s something I like about standup. It’s just like writing in the sky. People get to see it, and experience the magic of the moment together,” she explained. “Even if it’s the shared experience of everyone in the room such as yourself, it either heightens the experience or makes it dull depending on how everybody else is feeling.”

M Sayyed Alam, director of Pierrot's Troupe, a theatre group in Delhi, insisted that the performing arts is not the same without a live audience.

Giving the example of their play Ghalib in New Delhi, which has been staged over 400 times since 1997, he said, “Two sentences into the play, I need to hear laughs. I can proceed to the third dialogue only after my audience has reacted to the first two. That is how I have worked all my life, I don’t know of any other way of performing a play. An online performance cannot ensure audience reaction and that’s why performing online seems to be a bizarre concept.”

These are desperate times, though, and Alam isn’t really averse to experimenting with production techniques. “I have managed to sell written plays online and look at experiments that can be carried out with production in these times. I am not against video production of dramas but I believe that the quality of production should be such that it does justice to the artists’ performance,” he added.

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Nearly 15 km from Jodhpur city, Rajasthan, is Jogi Ka Gaon, the home of Kalbelia dancers. For most of the village’s 45 families, the folk dance is their source of livelihood. Suva Devi Kalbeliya, the most famous of Kalbelia dancers today, has been performing in India and abroad all her working life.

“I haven’t done a show since March,” she complained. “And only if we earn for six months can we survive for the rest of the year. This year we have worked for just three to four months. We do not know how we will survive this year.”

Rajasthan has a “cultural festival season” that begins in October, when tourists arrive in numbers. Through the season, folk artists are invited to perform at gatherings and hotels across the state. Once the festival season ends around January, the marriage season starts and folk artists are again in demand until June. This year, the marriage season has largely passed these folk artists by.

“We are anxious about what will happen. We don’t have much ration left in our village. It is tough for us,” Suva Devi said. “On top of all this, we don’t think the folk artists would be called for shows anytime soon given that the social distancing measures might stay in place for another year. Cultural shows organised by the state government during the tourist season may not happen either. There will, in any case, be far fewer tourists this year and that means much less work for us.”

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The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the industry: it had barely started recovering from the hits of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, and was looking forward to a good year. And the pandemic could prove more debilitating than either demonisation or GST, argued the composer and musician Paresh Kamath.

“The year 2017 was a washout because everything fell flat after demonetisation. The number of shows fell by 70-80 percent,” he explained. “Then GST was introduced. People were unaware how it worked, how much money you could pay at the end of the month, the calculation, etc. Nobody had any idea how it was going. So 2017 was a very bad year. But then it picked up. In 2018 and 2019, the graph was upward. We planned an album and had other plans because we felt it was working now. This present outbreak has come at a very bad time.”

Posters of performances that had been scheduled for April and May.
Posters of performances that had been scheduled for April and May.

Now, it would take at least six months after the lifting of the lockdown restrictions for the industry to get back on its feet, predicted Hitesh Bhatt, the longtime business manager of singer Kishnakumar Kunnath (KK).

“The last few years were great for the industry. In a month, we would do five-eight shows. Right now, it’s totally shut,” he said. “GST and demonetisation affected the business, but not to the extent the pandemic is affecting us.”

He added, “We did four-five shows in February but in March we could do only one show. So, losses started in March. We are not sure when the actual work will start again. Even if the lockdown is lifted in May, people can join the shows only when the social distancing measures are relaxed. Once things return to normal, we will need at least two months for people to get interested in big concerts. Corporate concerts, I think, will be the first to start because they are usually not huge gatherings and fewer permissions are required. In the next phase, college events will start. The third phase will see public or ticketing events, or club events. So, it may take at least six months for public events to start because only by then can the economy open completely.”

But wouldn’t people be wary of large gatherings, particularly if social distancing advisories stayed in place? “People have short memories. When life gets back to normal, people will come to concerts as well. I’m not worried about that,” Bhatt replied. “I think once life gets back to normal, we will have 50 percent of the business we were doing before. After six months, things will get back to where they were.”

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Naturally, the travails of the industry extend to the cultural centres, academies and auditoriums that are integral to the performing arts.

The Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur city was established by the Rajasthan government in 1992 to promote the state’s artists. It boasts theatres, art galleries, and art studios where art and culture shows were frequently staged before the outbreak.

Kiran Soni Gupta, the centre’s director general, said they were set to host several workshops and an Adivasi festival when the lockdown hit. “Performing arts activities such as theatre, dance and music happened frequently. When we organise any festival, we invite artists to participate. Otherwise, a lot of artists book our venues for their performances,” she said. “Some bookings were already there and a lot of people wanted to book as well. However, we withheld that. Whatever bookings were done are on hold. Whenever the lockdown is lifted completely, we will give them a choice to reschedule their programmes.”

For now, the centre has taken some of its activities online. The annual Children's Summer Festival, for example, will feature an online course each on the visual arts and the performing arts. In other years, the festival would include a minimum of 16 courses, the theatre course being the most popular. The centre has trained several prominent artists over the years, including Anuranjan Sharma and Gagan Mishra.

Unlike conventional subjects, however, it’s harder to teach the performing arts online, several art teachers told Newslaundry.

In the case of dance, for example, Narayan said hand and body postures of the students had to be righted as they performed, which cannot be done online. “We classical artists are used to precision. Online teaching always has a time lag, sound travels late, sometimes visuals are not clear,” she explained. “The only advantage online teaching has is that my students who are in foreign countries and couldn’t connect with me often can now attend my regular classes.”

The National School of Drama, the country’s most prestigious academy of the performing arts, has postponed admissions to its popular three-year acting diploma course.

Asked about the decision and the difficulties beginners might face in learning, Suresh Sharma, director in charge of the school, explained, “Performing arts cannot be done solo. Talking about trainees and beginners in the field, there’s no classroom reading as in other colleges, universities. We can only teach modern Indian drama maybe, classical Indian drama or world drama online. This is a practice-oriented field, until we don’t ask the student to practise body movements, screenwork, designing or direction, they wouldn’t learn. Moreover, every activity involves a group. With social distancing in place, no group activity can happen.”

“The second issue,” he continued, “is that there won’t be any public performance. So, how will a student judge themselves? We won’t be able to have them perform in front of the public, then how will they develop confidence? So, training will suffer until the social distancing measures are in place.”

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