Hitting the low note

Until March 23, the music scene in New Delhi was following the festive calendar. Spring was in the air and the capital heaved under heavyweights who had stayed back after Holi, holding their audiences in thrall. With them on stage were their accompanists. Listening to them were fans but also younger singers and professionals. Backstage there were sound recordists, mike technicians and stage assistants. Outside the auditoriums jhal muri and chaat stalls vied for customers, the fragrance of foods mingling with the musical notes in a vibrant, interdependent ecosystem. Then COVID-19 happened and things came to a standstill. Four months later, the auditoriums and grounds have emptied out. Where are the people of this ecosystem? How are they surviving?

The post-pandemic world is a lonely one, each artiste to her own. Just like the millions of migrants who lost their jobs overnight, musicians found their sources of income drying up overnight. Where once they had hopped from concert to concert, city to city, nation to nation, they are now teaching classes or even selling their instruments in desperation.

Roman Das, a pakhawaj player who loves jazz and the blues, says: “We artistes do isolate ourselves to reflect on music, but this was an isolation unlike any other. I was forced to confront my solitude. It spiritually and economically drained me.” With no earnings, Das began to dip into his savings. A little help came from online platforms such as Studio 15, which invited listeners to log in for a token fee, but it could hardly compare to a live stage performance. Singer-composer-theatre artiste Sudhir Rikhari wonders if people will pay to listen to him online. “Everything online is free. You get a platform, but will it be sustainable?” he wonders.

Southern blues

In the south, the busy season for musicians is April-June, until the peak December Season starts. This is especially true for those whose livelihoods are interconnected with social and cultural rituals. The lives of nagaswaram and thavil artistes, folk and harikatha performers are intertwined with the temple calendar, festival season, village fairs, and marriages. Most of them are part of groups where the senior artistes hire them as and when the need arises. “The main nagaswaram or thavil player is supported by a junior performer. The former gets the show and pays the latter a small sum. They manage with this; it helps that at temple or marriage programmes, their food is taken care of,” explains Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma, chairperson, Sangeet Nritya Academy.

“I was supposed to perform on April 2, the first day of Ramanavami,” says Lakshman, a well-known nagaswaram artiste of Karnataka. But that was cancelled as were a host of wedding assignments. “From Sankranti in January to mid-June, when the Ashada month begins, we usually do well. Then from Shravana onwards we get programmes. Weddings give plenty of opportunities. We even invite players from smaller towns like Mulabagil, Kolar, Tumkur and Mysore. We make enough to make up for the months of Ashada and Dhanur,” he says.

Palanivel and his wife Prabhavathi are both nagaswaram performers. “The last four months have been very bad. Some of us have small savings but most artistes are in a bad place. They have sold ornaments for food.” Unlike Tamil Nadu, not every temple in Karnataka keeps a nagaswaram-thavil ensemble. “Only in big temples and those run by Muzrai department there is work for us,” says Palanivel. Thavil player Rajkumar, in fact, has left Bengaluru to return to his village.

But in Tamil Nadu too, the indefinite closure of temples was followed by restrictions limiting persons inside a temple to 50, and so musicians were left out. Nagaswaram player P.K.M. Ravi had temple concerts lined up till September, but they are all now cancelled.

S. Sunil Kumar, Chennai-based ganjira artiste, is trying online classes. “I used to conduct these only when free, now I focus on it full-time. Of course, it has given me time for more practice and to hone my skills,” he says. Kumar has teamed up with others to raise funds for nagaswaram and thavil artistes who he says are the worst affected by the lockdown.

Even classes are not possible for thavil artiste Raja, who has played in temples, weddings and fusion concerts for 27 years now. “The minimum cost of a thavil is Rs. 15,000-20,000. Very few want to invest that much and learn,” he says. Raja does some volunteer work and spends most of his time practising. “Digital concerts are bunkum,” he says. “Nobody can listen after 10 minutes. The magic of a live concert can never be replaced.”

The missing state

The idea that “going online” is a solution is belied again by Girija, a feisty Chennai-based tambura player who can’t keep the anxiety out of her voice. “Main artistes can go online. They can perform even without a tambura artiste. But what will people like me do?”

Sadly, most artistes are not equipped for any other job. The nearly 10,000 nagaswaram and thavil artistes in Karnataka have formed several associations but “not a single one is doing anything to protect our interest,” says Rajkumar. There are no pension or health schemes. “We must learn from the film industry,” say Raja and Lakshman. “They have a strong union that protects its workers.”

Where is All India Radio, which had emerged as a patron of music after Independence? The broadcaster provided a platform for artistes after grading them, with fees set as per grade. Where are the music sabhas? And the Sangeet Natak Akademi? All these institutions have a generous corpus but none of them has stepped in with support for musicians at a time it is needed the most.

The crisis is huge. And although there is gratitude for the help that has trickled in from the big stars and NGOs, artistes cannot survive on random acts of kindness. It is time we set up institutions and systems, funds and insurance policies to help the music ecosystem ride out the bad times.

With inputs from Deepa Ganesh

and T.R. Sudha

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics

Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 2:21:56 AM |

Next Story