Will the Arts Survive the Covid Pandemic?

Pranita Choudhry

While diverse forms of art have kept us going during lockdowns, discussing how social distancing and restrictions on events and classes has impacted professional artists

The pandemic has pushed us to imagine a world with a renewed idea of mental well-being. Never before have we been locked up within our four walls left to our own devices with little or no social interaction. Many found it distressing, especially those who have children and were trying to balance work and domestic life and those who don’t have a conducive environment at home. Others found it liberating with extra time to do what they want.

Many of us indulged in painting, dancing, singing, gardening, photography, and could now have a nine to five routine and at the same time find solace in these co-curricular activities. It is this time to explore that saved us from feeling low, under-run, de-motivated and depressed. We turned to the arts when it came to balancing our moods, emotions, self-worth, and to a certain extent, to save us from ourselves. As the Harvard Health Review puts it, exercise, as in dance, can not only “promote chemical balance” but also “deepen the mind-body connection.” Online classes became the need of the hour, with instructors in need of new skills for teaching online.

“With studios and theatres shut down for long periods and the foreseeable future, how the industry is going to survive, sustain artists, keep livelihoods going is unknown and certainly not discussed enough.”

It is ironic how many of us in full-time jobs now relied on art to keep our mental well being afloat, however, for the full-time artists, this was a time of confusion, stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness. With studios and theatres shut down for long periods and the foreseeable future, how the industry is going to survive, sustain artists, keep livelihoods going is unknown and certainly not discussed enough. “It’s a desperate situation, especially for, say, nadaswaram artists, who earned their living by playing at temples or at weddings. Both those options have been locked out! What will they do? Similarly, so many artists were employed by the tourism industry. Where will they go now? no one in power has spoken up nor acted on behalf of the artists. The sector seems orphaned,” explained Padma Shri, Geeta Chandran, an eminent Bharatanatyam dancer.

“For artists, dancers, singers or more so over for the performing arts there lies a strong sense of social network and support. Being creative is one aspect, but demonstrating your art and reaching out to an audience is another.”

Another aspect was the pandemic altering the nature of our social capital. Being part of a community is what makes us feel wanted, engaged, have a sense of belonging that helps our confidence and also our mental health. If you are working for a business, as a banker, lawyer or a doctor, you may not rely on your social web as a necessary part of your profession. However, for artists, dancers, singers or more so over for the performing arts there lies a strong sense of social network and support. Being creative is one aspect, but demonstrating your art and reaching out to an audience is another. The pandemic stripped having a space to share, perform, talk, embrace and celebrate. Instead, we are now online, which while in many ways is a saviour in the absence of having a physical space to engage, cannot possibly replace the feeling of feeding off each other’s energies in rehearsals and performance. “The coronavirus is so insidious because it attacks one of the central yearnings of human nature, which just so happens to be the bedrock theatre is built on: our desire to assemble.” said theatre artist Nicholas Berger.

Artists don’t work for benefits or salary packages, they are often independent with little security and assurances. The pandemic has made some fears come alive, where a lot of creatives are having to trade their time to look for ways to have a stable and enough income through alternative jobs rather than doing what they do best, to create. Rajesh Baderia an artist from New Delhi says: “Due to Covid-19, all economic activities were severely impacted so did the art scene. As art is not considered a necessity and is almost entirely supported by art lovers, investors and connoisseurs, and due to the pandemic, all of these are out of scene and as a result, artists have seen their incomes disappear entirely,”.

“This does not mean abandonment and discontinuation of a career in art. Artists are claiming various spaces online on social media platforms.”

Moreover, what about those who support an artist’s work? “The most disturbing outcome is many folk and supporting artistes and backstage staff being pushed to the brink because of cancellation of rehearsals, major festivals and regular performances” explained Aditi Mangaldas, a renowned Kathak dancer. Government support has come in as a saving grace, but this support is mostly only available in developed economies. However, this does not mean abandonment and discontinuation of a career in art. Artists are claiming various spaces online on social media platforms. They are now grappling with various other questions on how to navigate copyright issues? 

How does one become an expert on shooting a good dance video, one for which you need specialization and training, how do you manage the technical glitches that come about through invasion on zoom, fault in the wifi or just simply phone device failures? This is especially true for singers and dancers, as a performance is the most delicate intangible process there is the experience of which can be ruined by even the smallest technical glitch. This is all well and good for artists who can afford to have a smartphone, shoot videos and keep uploading them, but what about the artists working in remote areas with lack of access to resources or even the internet? How do they survive and navigate the demands when they have been so used to perform live for an audience? “Thousands of folk and tribal artists, who are part of India’s vast informal economy, have been unable to earn because of the pandemic.” (Mahima Jain, Vice, 2020)

“It’s important to recognise that artists are going through a tough time, and take the responsibility and initiative to encourage and support artists you may know or have heard about.”

Now you are forced to remain indoors, with little avenues to have a community, take and give inspiration, and feed off the energy that drives the soul to remain a pathfinder and a creative. It’s important to recognise that artists are going through a tough time, and take the responsibility and initiative to encourage and support artists you may know or have heard about. Instead of expecting free sessions online, make donations to art organisations and pay for performances. Can you imagine a world on the other side of the pandemic, where there would be no more creatives who follow their passion and create their craft that keeps us engaged, alive, debating and discussing? It’s important to stick together during these hard times and support one another, and function as a unit. “We will survive this and the only way is that we can all come together with solidarity and no more free stuff” Sonam Kalra, singer and composer.

The pandemic doesn’t discriminate, young, old, rich, poor, doctor, artist, we are all vulnerable to the virus, but some are at a greater risk to it than others. It’s important to question the relevance of the arts and what it means to you. Why do you enroll in singing and dancing classes? Is it simply to pass their time or is it an integral part of their upbringing, engaging with our culture and heritage. Can you imagine a generation with no access to this? It is crucial that now more than ever we support the arts and the artists. 

Here are some useful links for artists and supporters:  
Experimenter Grant 
Khoj Support Grant 2020
Serendipity Arts Grant 
The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts 
ASEF culture360
Indian Foundation for the Arts Grant
Danish Arts Foundation
UNESCO – International Fund for Cultural Diversity 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion. She is also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer for over 20 years and continues to perform in group and solo choreographies.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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