The shifting terrains of Indian Music amid COVID 19

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As we enter the third month of COVID induced lockdown, the cracks are beginning to widen, for artists, the stage is silent, the curtains have come down, and the applause has dried out. They are among the worst hit by the pandemic and struggling to stay afloat in the absence of regular gigs. As with any other industry, the most vulnerable – folk artists, regional musicians, technicians—are the worst hit. The timing could not have been worse. In what seems like a cruel irony of fate, the pandemic has coincided with the fertile harvest season which ushers in happy tidings and steady earnings in the form of increased social events, weddings and festivals.

The pandemic has once again laid bare the class hierarchies and deep-rooted fault lines of the art world. On the one hand, there are artists happily conducting Facebook, and Instagram lives to connect with their audiences, while on the other, there are others for whom the pandemic has struck like lightning. Coming from the remotest corners of the country, many artists, especially ancillaries, earn their bread and butter from tours and concerts, by accompanying lead artists and vocalists to places far and wide. They lack not only the infrastructural support available to upper class, urbane, tech-savvy artists but also the technical knowhow to reach out to audiences via social media.

Noted Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari recently took to social media to garner support for his team of accompanying artists who, according to him, are worst hit by the pandemic. “These are generational musicians solely dependent on their art for sustenance. This crowd funder is an attempt to try and help them in a moment of crisis when they have dedicated their entire life to the craft.” On being asked why not choose an online fundraiser concert instead, he says, “For anyone familiar with the process, they can tell you how bureaucratic the system is. It takes a long time to get paid, sometimes even months. What are the artists supposed to do in the interim? They need the money now.”

Many industry veterans are coming forward to extend a helping hand to fellow artists. Renowned artist TM Krishna ran an online benefit concert and prominent singer Shubha Mudgal also raised funds to help fellow brethren. “A lot of work is being done in the backdrops by several artists in the form of fundraisers, online petitions and concerts. It is just that the message needs to be amplified so that it reaches the most vulnerable of all”, adds Aastha Goswami, classical singer and disciple of Padma Vibhushan Girija Devi. But is it all gloomy for artists and musicians? Or there lies more than meets the eye?

Social media: The need of the hour?

Acknowledging the huge role played by independent musicians in generating art, Dhruv says, “Since the lockdown began, I have done a wide range of work – lives, talks, and Qawwalis— both paid and unpaid for a wide range of audiences. The response has been phenomenal. Going ahead, an online presence is going to be crucial.”

“Demands for Facebook lives, and online programs keep pouring in from several quarters. While we try our best to reach out to the audiences in the best possible ways, it is not always possible to create the same ‘Mahaul’—characteristic of live concerts. I cannot ask other musicians to join in as the logistics are not always feasible. There is also the element of social distancing which one has to abide by”, says Aastha Goswami.

Aastha Goswami

Dhrupad vocalist and musicologist Aditi Sharma has a different take on this. She says, “Art in the ambits of Indian culture permeates through the realms of divinity. The philosophy associated with Indian art forms is not solely exhibitionism. It has more to do with Aatma-darshan rather Kala-Pradarshan. Indian art forms, according to our rich ancient wisdom, are a medium to attain salvation. Artists dedicated to Indian art forms are not merely are the performers or the ‘entertainers’ but also have a moral responsibility to preserve our rich past and heritage.”

It comes as no surprise then that Aditi finds social media a bit too casual for her likings. “Classical music concerts seem to strike a balance between entertainment and devotion. Many of such concerts are attended by connoisseurs of art who believe in giving the artist due respect. So, for me, the online world of social media along with its characteristic nonchalance is a bit unsettling. There is an etiquette to attending concerts which I feel need to be respected by people as we adapt to changing times. We need to move ahead but have to ensure that tradition coexists with modernity.”

Diversity of opinion notwithstanding, there is almost unanimous consensus on the need for social media as a platform to showcase Art. The degree of it may vary which is also incumbent on the very nature of music and art. While Sufi music over time has managed to marry commerce and creativity deftly, classical music remains a predominantly niche arena.

“This doesn’t mean we are snobbish. I am myself taking to social media to take my art to those who want to be introduced to something new. All I am asking for is due respect for my art, a legacy I have been honoured to represent”, remarks Aditi when asked about the reluctance of classical singers to sing for the masses.

Aditi Sharma

Traversing the tightrope between classical and popular, Dhruv seems to have found a niche for himself. Qawwali has emerged as a highly popular form of music worldwide with several patrons across ages, across religions. He is careful to ride the tide and says, “Believe it or not. We are in this for good 4-5 years. The economy is shrinking, nations are dealing with unprecedented socio-political crisis, and the spending capacity is shrinking. Even if the pandemic is over, who is going to shell big money on arts and entertainment? It is not going to be a priority for people. We have no choice but to embrace the order of the day.”

Free work: exploitation or opportunity?

Money has become a contentious issue since the lockdown began. Several artists have been raising the alarm over free work in the virtual space. “Many online ventures are mushrooming with the lockdown in place. There are mostly good intentions, but only praises cannot help artists run their homes. They don’t need to be paid exorbitant sums or pre-lockdown remuneration, but some help is a must. Free work has to stop at some point”, weighs in Aditi.

Several classical and folk artists are busy touring the world for concerts. Concert date is booked four to six months in advance, but the COVID situation has stalled things infinitely. “Even a lot of accomplished artists are finding it hard to come around the skewed state of affairs. The lack of robust policies and inadequate funding makes it difficult for the freelancer artist to survive”, adds Aditi.

According to Aastha Goswami, it is not black and white. There is a dichotomy that runs between survival and happiness that one needs to understand. “One can classify artists in several categories. Some musicians have an alternate source of income such as online classes, teaching jobs in universities and those who have an online presence of admirers. I find such musicians more forthcoming on doing free work. And then some simply can’t afford to do this no matter how much they want to.”

Dhruv, however, sees free online work as an investment for the future. “I don’t think it is exploitation. I see it more as creating a web presence and keeping the discourse going. There is an audience out there waiting to be engaged. If you have something relevant to say, say it. It also helps me keep busy as otherwise, I would have been travelling taking the message of Sufism to different parts of the world.”

The virtual set up

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Talking about the modalities of virtual interactions, Aditi says it hasn’t been a difficult transition as most musicians already have an “Abhyaas sthaan” (practice room). It is just about adapting to the smaller nuances. Braving technicalities hasn’t been much of a challenge for Dhruv too, “It is not feasible to go live with a heavy set up given the challenges of connectivity and internet infrastructure. However, smaller arrangements work just fine and create the desired impact”, he says.

Looking Inwards, Spreading Cheer

The dawn of the pandemic has brought with itself the urgency to warm up to the tests of time. Taking Art online has become a necessity. “I think a lot of musicians need to shun the arrogance typically associated to the high-brow art, and established artists need to promote the younger generation to bridge the gap between the classical and the popular, and more collaborations can make this possible. I am convinced if the artists put forth their point of view with humility, the public will eventually understand”, opines Aditi.

“People are scrambling for a modicum of sanity, and I cannot shut my doors to my audiences. Art is not about holding on but about giving away what you have to bring joy and happiness. I am in fact, inspired by the folk artists who are willing to brave the infrastructural challenges to share their art. They are so forthcoming. How can I then not do my bit when my music also helps ignite a ray of hope?” asks Dhruv.

“At a time when the world is reeling under the crushing impact of the coronavirus, why don’t we shun the rat race and look inwards? Isn’t music also about saadhna (meditation)?” asks Aditi Sharma invoking the need to invest in the art and the process come out with something more substantial, more powerful, more heartfelt.

“Art has a huge role to play in giving people a semblance of hope. In times of crisis, people need food for the soul, and Sufi music just does that”, shares Dhruv adding, “music has healing powers and I am using this tough time to showcase the infinite potential of music to heal and inspire.”

Will art emerge stronger?

“Definitely”, says Dhruv conviction palpable in his voice. “It’s important to find your anchor in tough times such as this while not losing sight of the bigger picture. Once this is over, there will be new opportunities, bigger audiences and new platforms to embrace art. There is light and at the end of the tunnel and I am hopeful”, he adds taking my leave politely as he readies himself for yet another evening with his online audience.

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