Corona impact Music

Cancelled music festivals - much needed pause?

Organisers and artistes are looking at the positive side as events across North America stand suspended

On January 15, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival’s V.V. Sundaram made one of the most difficult decisions in his life. Backed by the committee of organisers, collaborators and artistes themselves, he decided to defer the event.

“We were keeping a close eye on the spread of the Coronavirus in China and when the first case was detected in the U.S., we knew we had a job to do. So, with a heavy heart, we postponed the Aradhana,” he shares.

Some called the decision premature, others, callous. After all, it’s well-known that apart from bringing together and unearthing young talent, offering memorable experiences, and bridging geographical distances vis-à-vis South Indian classical performing arts, the Festival also provides India-based artistes with anywhere from 50-75 per cent of their annual income.

From the album of Classical Arts Society of Houston

From the album of Classical Arts Society of Houston  

“Just in visa applications and flight tickets alone, we had already spent over $150,000. But we had a premonition and defaulted to erring on the side of caution,” Sundaram adds. Yet, he never imagined the situation would transform into the pandemic that it eventually became.

Soon enough, artistes themselves started to cancel their tours that involved Cleveland amidst a host of other cities, an annual pilgrimage of sorts. In Houston, Texas, Chennai’s Madras Players had already landed, performing their version of English play, ‘Trinity.’ After a successful show in Toronto, with only two days before their sold-out show in Houston, the virus was announced a global pandemic. They flew back immediately and the organisers kicked into problem-solving mode.

“We began to understand the magnitude, so we cancelled our annual Thyagaraja Aradhana event that was supposed to include a grand finale concert and lec-dem by vocalists Ranjani-Gayatri,” says Nalini Sadagopan, president of the Classical Arts Society of Houston. While the financial losses were significant, she credits her patrons and audiences for giving her confidence that the organisation will emerge “just fine, at the end of this all.”

The domino effect was immediate and soon, organisers were thinking far beyond March and April. Sadagopan was forced to cancel the organisation’s much-anticipated collaboration with Asia Society to host Malavika Sarukkai’s ‘Thari’ and was prepared for even more cancellations through the end of the calendar year.

The Cleveland Aradhana

The Cleveland Aradhana  


“The silver lining, though, is that we’re spending our time developing our organisation, fleshing out projects that have been in the pipeline for ages, and working on grant applications and much-needed web development,” she says. Her positivity, a force of strength in the most trying of times, is being emulated all across North America.

Out on the East Coast, young violinists and organisers Neha Krishnamachary and Sharada Krishnan grapple with the crisis and its implications for the future of live shows in a multifaceted manner. Yet, their overarching attitude is one of gratitude, and it’s not hard to see how they got there.

“As an artiste myself, this sudden standstill has allowed me to look inward with music and reminded me that above all else, I engage in music for myself,” Sharada Krishnan, founder of New Jersey-based non-profit organisation Brindavani tells us.

While a stroke of luck allowed the organisation to be untainted by the presence of the pandemic, wrapping up its largest event of the year in January, she knows that the platform it offers young artistes by way of youth festivals is a large and important one and implores them to look at this as a “blessing in disguise” rather than a “phase of lost opportunities.”

Violinist Neha Krishnamachary echoes the sentiment. The president of Yuva Sangeetha Lahari (YSL), the organisation was prepared to host its largest two-day youth music festival, ‘Dhvani,’ in June in its usual venue — Morganville New Jersey’s Guruvayoorappan Temple. The weekend usually sees 12 back-to-back concerts, performed exclusively by North American youth, often to a dynamic audience of 100-150 people.

“We announced last week that we would be cancelling, and some people are still shocked, given that June is so far away. But we’re dedicated to hosting a geographically-diverse range of artistes from across the country and this is too much of a threat to ignore. As organisers, risking the health of our artistes and communities is simply not a step we can take,” she comments. It’s the first time the organisation has cancelled the festival in seven years.

Travel West to California, a land of some of the country’s largest and most profitable sabhas, and the outlook is equally bleak. Facebook pages and email inboxes are flooded with apologies and cancellations, and definitive answers seem obsolete amidst the chaos.

“This year, one of our most special, we set out to stage 74 artistes - everyone from Dr. Yesudas to vidwans Aruna Sairam, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt and many others. In light of the pandemic, we have postponed our annual festival and monthly programmes up until September, and the losses are extraordinary,” laments Shekar Viswanathan, president, secretary, and founder of the Indian Fine Arts Academy of San Diego (IFAASD, California).

And the numbers don’t lie. With over $100,000 in losses as well, he’s relying on his patrons for support, postponing the festival to the first week of September with hopes that the situation will normalise enough to be able to move forward.

Across the board, the feeling of uncertainty is certainly ubiquitous. While the world increases its consumption of the arts to take its inhabitants through these shaky waters, it remains ironic that artistes are some of the “most-suffering” members, waiting in anticipation for the day that they can return to the stage once more.

Streaming live

Of course, the pandemic also promotes a discussion that many artistes and organisers have brushed under the rug: the need for live-streaming. Often times, Carnatic and Hindustani artistes view live-streaming as a by-product of social media accounts rather than streams of revenue and many prefer not allowing live-streaming as it can detract from a concert’s physical footfalls, resulting in a loss of tickets and a dilution of the concert experience as a whole.

But if a virus, limited only in man’s capacity to social distance, can do one thing, it is to thrust that belief system in question, ushering in those such as iCarnatic founder Ravi Natarajan to bring to light what he has been doing for so long.

For years, Natarajan has partnered with Sundaram to live-stream the ten-day Cleveland festival to participants unable to attend live.

While free concerts, events, and competitions are streamed at no charge, the Festival’s ticketed concerts, with single ticket sales at $40-$50 per evening, require purchasing iCarnatic’s approximately $100 package.

Detecting viewers’ geophysical location using their devices IP address, the service prevents those in Cleveland from livestreaming, ensuring that the large State University’s Waetjen and Drinko auditoriums are full with audience members. However, this pandemic could be Natarajan’s moment in the spotlight.

“iCarnatic can most definitely expand its horizons — we can stream more festivals and charge, ensuring that artistes take a cut and allowing us to invest those profits into our own festivals and initiatives as well. Perhaps, this is the way forward,” he suggests.

The uncertainty is one rarely experienced in this creative sector and as organisers recalibrate, artistes heal, and people use arts as an escape, we see that perhaps, the pandemic is the transformative shift that the world of kutcheris was waiting for, all along.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 11:00:11 AM |

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