As the first lockdown unfolded in March 2020, friends and connoisseurs told me that this would be a fruitful time for creative persons. “You have so much time to dream, think and create”. Just for a moment, I too believed this fallacy. The linear equivalence drawn between free time and creativity seemed logical. What it did not describe, though, was the meaning of free time. It is assumed that free time exists when we are doing nothing. That ‘nothing’ comes from not participating in physical or intellectual activity, which entails busy-ness of action and the ensuing transaction with the outside world. These, we are made to believe, robs us of an uncluttered mind. Free time is the opposite! A private, unconditional space that allows our mind and body to dive deep into unexplored depths, unhindered by commitment. The lockdown, I was told, provided artistes, writers and creative people this opportunity.
This was just not correct. Were we really free? The free-ness I speak of is not physical mobility but emotional and psychological fluidity. An environment where ideas emerge, move, marinate and then—in a burst of inspiration—flow into form. The lockdown was the antithesis of this state. The mind was clouded, a heavy fog permanently hung over our heads. The Covid pandemic not only instilled the fear of suffering and death in us, but also clogged our evocative spirit. We were trapped in a dense cold prison with high walls that shut out all light. Our minds were permanently drawn towards numbers. How many were infected today, we wondered? How many died? The words we typed most often on our keyboards were Covid, Corona, Covid-19, pandemic, Covid statistics or Covid meter. We were desperate to understand more about this virus. Which vaccine can we take and when?
Every conversation, irrespective of the intimacy we shared with the individual, was centered on the disease. Anecdotes on symptoms, hospitalisation, death and cremation were normalised within months. Living in this uncertainty was not freedom.
This was not a crisis that triggered creative activity. Socio-environmental or political turmoil have often caused the needed fissure for inspired works of art. But this was not such a situation. This was not a fight for freedom, rights or ideas. We were all immersed in a universal struggle for existence. We couldn’t breathe, figuratively and literally. It is distinctly possible that, as the pandemic subsides artistic expressions of the experience will emerge, but right now, I believe whatever we are receiving from artistes is reactive. There has been no room for experience to sprout serious art.
An artiste needs leisure and its quality is determined not by the amount of non-working time available. It is a state of mind when she is able to receive with unchecked mindfulness. The extent of regular workload that occupies our daily lives does not determine leisure. This re-understanding of leisure is essential because the older view comes from a position of privilege. It leads to the presumption that greater and more sophisticated art is produced by people who are not preoccupied by the drudgeries of life. And it trivialises the art that fills the everyday lives of marginalised communities across the world.
Photograph by Shutter Stock
The pandemic also created a sense of panic among performing artistes. The prefix performing indicates that our art object is created among and with people, a community activity. All of a sudden, this vanished from our lives. Musicians and dancers felt the vacuum. There was no one to share their art with. Artistes are a fragile species who need constant reaffirmation and cultural validation. Irrespective of the fame attained by an artiste, this need neither recedes nor diminishes. A sense of desperation engulfed the artistic world. There were fears of becoming irrelevant, even forgotten.
In such a scene, social media platforms and YouTube came to the rescue. A sudden spurt of activity erupted on all these platforms. Concerts, dance pieces, singles, Facebook or Instagram lives flooded the digital space. Most artistes did not care about the quality of what they dished out. They just wanted to be seen and heard. Likes, comments and a count of the number of followers replaced the applause, nods of approval and the culturally specific sounds of appreciation.
The digital space is not a new entrant in the performing world, but it has always co-existed with the real. The pandemic forced us into an unusual circumstance. The real world of performance, relationships and sharing shut down. All that remained was the virtual. Inevitably, this came with its own set of problems.
A ‘like’ or comment is not the same as involved appreciation. It is the crude reductionism of rasikatvam (discerning appreciation). The artiste surrendered to this instant gratification along with the connoisseur. As the pandemic raged with no end in sight, things got more complex. The algorithms that determine our every digital act, have taken over art making. We are told by these equations that videos need to be short, catchy and contain certain key components to generate enough viewership or get close to virality. Don’t forgetting tagging! The right words and phrases need to be tagged. Even better, just pay for more views.
We are today providing 30 second dumps of art. This is not about the duration, but on what guides these transformations. Art is such that you can experience it in 10 seconds or in 2 hours. But it depends on the nature of the artistic exploration and not because only one works. Within every art form, there is the short, long, slow, fast, titillating and intense. Art forms come into being through the inter-connections and relationships forged by these various features.
When we reduce an art form to just one mode, and that too, a method determined by conditionality, it loses its soul. In pre-pandemic days, the real-life artistic existence was a powerful counterfoil to these digital invasions. But the last two years have tipped the scales to the virtual side. We have to wait and see how much this will affect the performance and learning of art when we return to physical life art experience.
While we discuss the struggles of the digital arena, let us not forget that most of the performing arts exist beyond this circle. The fact that everyone owns a mobile phone does not mean the online channel is a viable artistic, social and economic avenue for all artistes. Most art forms in India are socially and geographically specific. The audience is local. They do not have audiences across the country and do not cater to NRIs who want to consume ‘Indian culture’. The NRI population is over-loaded with people from the Brahminical caste group. Therefore, what they demand online is a tiny bandwidth of Indian culture. Even among the artistic group that provides for this need, the beneficiaries are few.
In such a skewed context, the situation of marginalised artistes has become dire. When temple events and social gatherings were banned, everything ended for marginalised artistes. They remained at home unable to sing, act or dance. A few found a way to use the social media space, but a large section had nowhere to go. Not only was this emotionally traumatic, the economic effect has been terrible. With no socio-economic support system, many artistes gave up their art. Even in normal years during the non-performance season, artistes work as agricultural workers, in small shops, or by doing odd jobs. Now this has become their only work. Some artistes with fragile home environments and in deep financial debt were unable to handle the loss of the only thing that gave them an identity: their art. They committed suicide. But, despite all this, whenever I spoke to artistes who needed support, they asked for an opportunity to perform, not a dole.
I would like to end with a proposal to all state governments in India. It is imperative these governments provide marginalised artistes with socio-economic cover. Much like MNREGA, governments have to ensure that artistes in need are guaranteed 100 days of work every year. Artistes must be chosen on a self-selection basis. There can be an upper limit on the number of people who will be selected every year. The per-day honorarium must be kept below the normal performance rate, so that only those really in need will apply.
Opportunities can be district-specific, with government schools and colleges holding performances every week. Art forms of the district must become an integral part of every government function and social welfare awareness projects. Tying this entire project with tourism opens up a plethora of possibilities. This will most definitely uplift cultural awareness within each district and give people self-worth and aesthetic recognition. Crucially, this interaction will go a long way in reducing caste and communal tension and address gender inequalities.
Unless we proactively work to change the socio-cultural landscape of Indian artistes, claiming cultural diversity on national and international platforms is violence against artistes.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Parched Culture, Withering Leisure")
(Views expressed are personal)
T.M. Krishna is a renowned Carnatic classical vocalist and social commentator