Mask On. Blindfolds Off: Surveying Arts and Culture during Covid19 in India, by Arundhati Ghosh

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Mask On. Blindfolds Off: Surveying Arts and Culture during Covid19 in India, by Arundhati Ghosh

An essay by Arundhati Ghosh, Executive Director, India Foundation for the Arts (IFA)

Henceforth, perhaps, we will refer to our time in this world as before- and after-Covid19. This disease, raging across the world, has caused utter ruptures in our lives. It has also shown us how blind many of us have been to the structural injustices that have always been part of our world. We see the devastations around us, especially in the lives of the less privileged than us like migrant labourers, daily wage earners, sex workers, and others who have no safety nets. It is making us realise how broken our social systems already were. While some of us are trying our best to help, we understand it will be a herculean task to reach everyone in need.

Amidst all of this, somewhere, the community of the arts and culture gets left behind in discussions, relief, support, and policy. Like all other times, in crisis or in abundance, the artists are not accounted for as a community that needs help. The fragile economies that barely held them together before the pandemic, has had its back broken. There are no audiences, no paid work, and no sense of when life will get back to ‘normal’, or whether it ever will. The changes in this world are rapidly affecting our realities of making and experiencing art. The worry of not just financial sustenance, but also of creative and artistic continuity and the ability to adapt to the transforming world, is making everyone anxious. And in the past few months, having gone through every government website meant to aid this sector, I have not found a single word of support.

Concerns from the field

From my experiences at the Listening Posts – Open calls to artists and cultural practitioners to participate and share - of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), and conversations with friends in the sector and with those that are in facilitative roles for the arts and culture, here are the concerns that have been raised by artists from across the country and its diverse disciplines and practices:

One of the foremost and immediate concerns that the artist community is currently facing is the threat of losing incomes, employment, and livelihoods – partial or complete, short term or long term. This concern runs across traditional and contemporary forms and both in rural and urban areas. Within this larger community of artists, persons with disabilities or compromised immunity who depend mostly on freelance work are likely to be further marginalised.

Another concern pertains to the creation of performance work, spaces to present them, and audiences. In the present situation, given that the possibilities of ensemble work and audience-artist assembly look bleak, how artists create work, reach their audiences, and what spaces need to be explored are questions that need deeper thought and engagement.

While it may be argued that the online space provides new opportunities for presenting work, it comes with its own set of concerns. Firstly, the internet is an elitist medium that is accessible only to a small section of society. People who cannot afford or access technology and gadgets are excluded from these artistic experiences. Secondly, existing applications and digital platforms are not conducive to sharing or teaching all art forms. While they might partially work in some cases such as music, they are inadequate for forms such as theatre or dance that involve significant physical interactions. The over-digitalising of arts may be detrimental to the aesthetics of particular artistic practices and forms, also bringing into question their online and on-screen sustainability.

Further, the pandemic has also caused shifts in individual and collective priorities in society. From small families to large corporate houses, funding for the arts has faced a severe blow. The arts community itself is feeling isolated with no collective voice. This situation calls for the reconsideration of research based on fieldwork since these modalities might not work in the near future.

Overall mental health has taken a toll, too. Anxieties from the lack of support from the government or any other entity, and that of options in the present moment, and the severe uncertainties of the future are making artists feel isolated, lonely, and despondent.

Suggestions from the field

Many suggestions have come from artists with respect to what kind of support is needed in the field. These range from reframing funding programmes across grantmaking organisations by redefining their terms to reflect the limitations on mobility and contacts of the current times, to creating guidance frameworks for online presentations of various artistic disciplines; from working on strategies to support Universal Basic Income modules for the arts to creating opportunities for the redressal of issues in the arts and the arts ecology, including issues of systemic and structural inequalities and injustices; from conducting surveys for rural artists in need and creating directories and databases of those unconnected to the digital technology of any kind to more organisations like IFA and others becoming a bridge for the arts and a representative for artists to connect, work, and lobby with governments, insurance companies, audiences, art lovers and donors, students of the art, and social change-makers.

However, the bulk of suggestions have called for the creation of online platforms and support through funding.

Regarding online platforms, it was felt that platforms that facilitate the sharing of resources in the arts should be built. These platforms should also facilitate online audiences, networking and building collaborations, rethinking of pedagogies in art schools and the integration of arts in school education, and building master classes for teaching differently. These platforms should also generate ways to build online revenue models by organising skill-building workshops for using, sharing, and monetising the arts through digital technology and provide space for discussion of key issues facing the arts.

For support through funding, suggestions included encouraging multi-disciplinary projects through collaborations, and work that seriously regards sustenance and survival within the ecology; curating young artists, providing monthly stipends for young artists and mentors to pull through this time, supporting marginalised artists who fall outside the digital footprint, and helping artists connect to hyperlocal urban communities; enabling home/personal archives to relook at materials, collating and cataloguing them, and documentation of work; making the digital space more democratic one for the arts, and creating digital tools to connect artists and resources as well as a digital space to create and work together.

There were suggestions to support many more artists to continue to work through much smaller grants of INR 20,000-30,000; to support smaller initiatives that affect practitioners’ lives, taken on by artist-led collectives and groups, and to fund films on performing arts. Support should be extended to work that is reflecting on this critical phase, and not just to individuals, but also fledgeling organisations that are struggling to support good ideas during these difficult times.

Initiatives to Support the Arts and Culture Sector

Artists and cultural practitioners in many cities dived in to help accelerate relief activities as soon as the lockdown began by way of fundraisers and initiatives to support arts and artists. The Chennai based Carnatic musician TM Krishna has been organising online musical concerts and festivals through his Sumanasa Foundation to raise funds that have so far supported thousands of artists in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. The Artists for Artists initiative in Mumbai has been delivering rations to artists in need. Joyraj Bhattacharya and his Platform Theatre have been raising funds to support technicians and production professionals in theatre in small towns of Bengal. The filmmaker Q started a Sari Challenge for all genders to support sari makers of Dastkar. I led a campaign to raise funds for the weavers of the Charaka Foundation in Karnataka. There was also ADAA – Assistance for Disaster Affected Artists – run by Shubha Mudgal, Aneesh Pradhan, Sameera Iyengar, Rahul Vohra, Mona Irani, and me that has raised Rs 42 lakh for folk artists across the country. ADDA also created three model support schemes for Artists and the sector and sent it to all 29 Chief Ministers in the country as a suggestion for grant policy. There are many other initiatives that have been put in place which I am sure I am missing.

It is interesting to note, however, that while artists have given time, effort, and money to support relief work for disadvantaged citizens across the country, all the fundraisers for artists and the cultural sector that I know of have been spearheaded by artists themselves. Governments, state or central, have had no role to play, neither have Corporate CSR or other large Indian or international funding organisations. Given how artists in this country have mostly depended on their own ingenuity and entrepreneurship to survive amidst all odds even in ‘good times’, this is no surprise for them. But it begs the question of how this country values its arts and culture and those who practice it, given that a large part of our tourism revenues, soft diplomacy, and faux supremacy as a nation depends on this sector.

Future of Support for Arts and Culture

There is no doubt that it is going to be difficult, more difficult than it already was. Most of our institutional supports have shifted, or soon will, to Covid19 related relief and rehabilitation work. There will be more pressure than before to move the focus from cultural work to what the development sector calls ‘socially relevant’ in very narrow, limited, and banal ways. There will be thoughtless and desperate work coming out of that perspective. There will be extreme jostling for the meagre funds that will be offered by some. Almost every cultural organisation I know has applied for the emergency fund announced by the Goethe-Institut. Very few will get it and rejection will add to existing maladies. Individual support has been affected severely by the instability of the markets. While many of them, believers in the fact that artists are the hope makers of the future, will continue to support in small ways, the sector will seriously have to look at active advocacy and strong fundraising initiatives to continue their work. The sector will have to again fall back on their inventiveness, learn new technologies and get creative about their functionalities, discover more economically viable processes, and make resources shareable during this time. While some believe pressure needs to be built on the government to come forth with support for our sector, I would suggest it may be a more judicious and better use of our time to once again, all over again, be self-reliant – atmanirbhar - and build our collective ecologies of support from within. Because there is no other option.

***

Arundhati Ghosh lives in Bangalore and likes writing poetry, fundraising and more recently, baking. She leads India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), a nationwide, independent grant-making organisation.

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