Referring to ancient works such as the Panchatantra, the PM said where there is a soul, there is a story. It might have been a timely shout-out to the community of those serving the arts and culture sectors in India, which have been hit badly in the aftermath of the pandemic. Across the nation, artistes, performers and artisans who make up the ancillary cultural ecosystem had fallen on hard times since the COVID-19 crisis set in.
The reason the impact was so pronounced in these areas is that cultural activities by definition imply activities undertaken in social gatherings, and not through social distancing. Owing to the lockdown, artistes and technicians across the board have now been hit by an avalanche of economic troubles owing to mass cancellations of cultural events across the country. A report co-authored by FICCI and British Council on the impact of COVID-19 on the creative economy of the country was released in July. The ‘Taking the Temperature Report’ said 1 in every 2 respondents in the events and entertainment management sector witnessed 90 per cent of their business getting cancelled between March-July 2020.
In India, where there are as many cultural calendars as there are states, the pandemic has sounded a death-knell of sorts for the local artistic community considering how deeply intertwined the travel and tourism industry is with culture. Chennai boasts of an enviable repertoire of culture, with year-end festivals like Margazhi, which has spawned a mini economy of its own. However, the plight of local artistes during the pandemic had prompted many musicians based out of Chennai as well as across the world, to conduct virtual concerts and fundraisers that could help bring some respite to the community.
According to scholars in the cultural space, artistes in India have been hit harder compared to those in developed nations due to the unorganised nature of the industry. For instance, in many European nations, as the pandemic had begun, national governments began announcing relief packages specific to workers in the creative communities. It was for the upkeep of culture, which was equated as an intangible national heritage. And even though the Sangeet Natak Akademies spread across India have attempted to aid tribal and folk artistes registered with them, the majority of those working in these fields have no affiliation with the government whatsoever and are completely dependent on the goodwill of patrons for their subsistence.
The Ministry of Culture has a tall order, considering the impact of COVID on the cultural landscape. Firstly, there is a need to recognise art and culture not just as an add-on to our social lives, but as an essential thread in the fabric of our national identity, that helps build empathy and brings communities together. The positive impact of storytelling and artistic endeavours on our collective consciousness and our mental well-being needs to be recognised. So should the contribution of those working in these fields.
The Ministry will need to look into the long-term modalities of formalising the sector while creating stipends and contingency funds for artistes in the hour of need. And while we are at it, as part of the National Education Policy, the government could also consider building a digital framework that could enable performing artistes to offer training and courses in various fields through online platforms.
To borrow from the words of John Keating, the charismatic English teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”