Art is not something that can or should be taken away from the common man or the poor

Recently, there has been some talk amongst the Indian rock and metal crowd about musicians having to ‘pay to play’. This means that instead of artists getting remuneration for performing, they pay a fee to enter the festival as performers. It reminded me of the similar situation that exists in the dance world in India.

Certain festivals or platforms for dance in India have been following this system for several years. It is said that many artists pay large sums to be able to perform in these prestigious festivals. Other festivals may not have this policy of paying to perform, but they offer such inadequate remuneration that an artist does end up ‘paying to play’ in some form or another.

As was the case with the music crowd, dancers are also divided in their opinions about having to pay to perform. Some are vociferously fighting the trend, while others have resigned to adopting the same nonchalance expressed by some in the music world.

As a dancer and a writer, I am entitled to my opinion about this system of paying to perform, but more illuminating than my opinion was an analysis of what happens to art when this system is applied to it. This is not to trivialize what it does to artists – such as the fact that the pockets of artists are hemorrhaging money every time they want to showcase their work, and that artists cannot give their full attention to their art because they must have a steady job to pay the bills - but I have written about this in an earlier article on performance ethics.

The ‘pay to play’ syndrome does contribute to the above mentioned issues for artists, but it also highlights a very specific reality. In this scenario, there is no room for artists who are gifted and talented, but cannot afford to pay. It forces art into the hands of the relatively more affluent, and snatches it away from the less affluent and the poor.

And yet, rather paradoxically, throughout history and in literature, art has belonged in the realm of the common man, not the elite. Sure, the people that patronized the arts have been royalty and the affluent but the artists and practitioners have not. The devadasis in India were wealthy by patronage, but they certainly did not come from affluent backgrounds. The famous painter and sculptor, Michaelangelo also lived the life of a common man. The birth of jazz and the blues, was amidst poverty. And our very own M.F.Husain walked all over Bombay barefoot, paintbrush in hand, painting billboards.

My intention is not to romanticize the poverty of artists, or to say that artists have always been and will always be poor. That certainly should not be the case. Every artist hopes that he or she will be able to survive and thrive through their art. However, art is not something that can or should be taken away from the common man or the poor.

This syndrome almost declares art to be something like a luxury that only the affluent elite can afford to practice. If an artist cannot pay out of his or her own pocket, they don’t get to show their work. The ‘pay to perform’ scenario is as bluntly simple as that. If you don’t have substantial amounts of money that you can spare every time you want to show your work, then you simply don’t show your work. Then, is the message that is being sent out by the syndrome this – pick up a paintbrush, a musical instrument or a set of ghungroos only if you are wealthy? That, in turn, begs for introspection about a crucial question – is the practice and performance of art only for the affluent, or is it for everyone?