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Saturday, May 25, 2002

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The mantra of freedom

Aditi De

If a 9 to 5 job is not your cup of tea, try out what many have succeeded in — freelancing. For here you can do things your way at your own pace.

N. Ponnappa

The alternate is infinitely appealing. That's the consensus among individualistic people in the rough-and-tumble of the Indian job market today. Whether cartoonists or public relations professionals, artists or graphic designers, they yearn for freedom of expression despite an unpredictable income cycle.

What makes freelancers tick without a monthly pay cheque and the perks of a job? What do they celebrate while daring to opt out, to tread untrodden paths? What fears stalk their ventures?

N. Ponnappa, Bangalore's best-loved cartoonist, is one of this brave breed of non-careerists. An architect-turned-cartoonist, his has been a life of excellence outside the confines of routine. Today, his daily Offside cartoon treats the local Times of India readers to a good-morning chuckle, as have his cartoons in Midday in Mumbai over the past 17 years.

"I'm entirely a self-taught cartoonist," Ponnappa states, looking back at his 1970-81 stint in architecture at Chennai, Delhi, the US and Africa. "I decided to go freelance because I knew I could do it. I was confident. Of course, my drawing skills from architecture helped. And the fun I had doing cartoons for my college magazine at IIT, Chicago."

Balan Nambiar

One of the country's foremost artists, Balan Nambiar — sculptor, painter, enamellist, photographer and research scholar on ritual performing art forms of the Indian west coast — has celebrated his freedom from the job front every day since he graduated from the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, in 1971. "When I compare my life with those of my former colleagues," he says, recalling his years as a draughtsman in the Indian Railways from 1959-66, "I'm happy with my achievements. I could never have pursued my multiple interests in a 9-to-5 job."

Jyoti Shetty

Public relations practitioner Jyoti Shetty, who gave up her job as head of the PR department at Enterprise-Nexus to set up Proactive Public Relations three years ago, has no regrets about launching out on her own. Speaking of her corporate clients such as BPL and Madura Garments, she says, "They take a freelancer as an extension of their own office, which suits me fine. I want a client who can make me feel at home... . They've been good; they pay me on time."

Revathi G. (name changed on request) is a freelance graphic designer trained at the National Institute of Design (NID). She relocated from Mumbai to Bangalore in 1996, where her clients have included Citicorp, JTM, the India Foundation for the Arts and Tao Knoware. With two under-five sons to care for now, though hers is the supplementary income for the family, she says, "I have the advantage of flexi-time, I can choose the projects I want to do, and there's no boss to deal with."

The streak of independence that all freelancers flaunt is the mantra that keeps them afloat through thick and thin. "If a client wants a press conference, when it isn't needed, I tell them so. I tell them a press release is enough. That's the joy of being on your own," explains Jyoti. If you're with a firm, you'd do a press conference and charge the client a whopping sum for it. I help clients to cut costs. But when I had a client whom I felt wasn't being fair to me, I just dashed off a letter, cutting off the relationship. Earlier, I didn't have that freedom." Mulling over commissions he has turned down because they would have compromised his principles, Balan seconds that, "I've retained the right to say no when I wanted to. I've made use of that right very often, even when it meant losing opportunities for financial gain." Every one of them singles out the whim to travel at random as a major attraction of the self-employed life. "I have time on my hands, I can plan my days or weeks any way I want," points out Ponnappa. "I can get away for weekends, or days at a stretch."

What other advantages does a freelancer have? "In my profession, I have to be on my own to be able to think and work," says Ponnappa. "I'm a daily wage-earner. I'm not influenced by anyone, I don't have to attend any boring editorial board meetings where people give you ideas." Adds Revathi, "You can earn much more than a salary on your own, if you work really hard. But since mine isn't the main income now, I pass up jobs that are uninteresting."

Balan thinks hard, then responds, "I've always had enough, though maybe not for luxuries. The only time I've come close to economic difficulties is when I used all my money to travel to Europe in 1978-79. But European commissions allowed me to travel through nine countries, visiting their museums. This unforgettable experience of 14 months in Europe would not have been possible had I been employed."

Is there a flipside to the freelance experience? "Cartooning is not a high-earning profession. I have no retirement benefits or perks. Not that it bothers me," replies Ponnappa. "To make ends meet, I have to do more than one cartoon a day." He reflects, "I returned to architecture briefly. I did four or five houses, but that was about ten years ago."

Revathi picks out another strand when she says frankly, "You could run into cash flow problems. You have no clue about when incoming cheques will materialise. So, you may have to take a loan for a project you're doing, with little idea of when you can repay it. That can be embarrassing. Or clients may misplace TDS certificates, which leave you in a soup. And in one case, I received a cheque for Rs. 45,000 that bounced!"

"On your own, there are tensions," stresses Jyoti. "On a job, if you're short of funds or your staff hasn't come in, it's your boss's problem. Your money comes and goes as a freelancer. But you can't show you're down in front of your staff."

Are freelance working conditions outside Bangalore very different? Say, in Mumbai? "Clients here pay just about a third of Mumbai rates. And if your quote is too high, you could lose the job," confesses Revathi. "In Mumbai, they're professional enough to judge you by your portfolio. Here, it's more word-of-mouth."

Of freelancing abroad, Ponnappa says, "They're much better paid and have superior cartooning skills. Often, their work is syndicated in 3,000 papers all over the world." Does that imply superior teaching? "Not really. It's all about inference, studying, looking and," he adds with a laugh, "the bug in you!"

Adds Jyoti, "PR abroad is far more organised. They set the clock as soon as the client comes in, and charge by the hour."

No doubt the unspoken truths about freelancing include not splurging when a huge cheque comes in. And having emotional support from family and friends to see you through. Along with lucky breaks when you need it. But basically, these success stories are built on a foundation of unflagging faith in yourself.

The spell that has transformed the lives of Balan and Revathi, Ponnappa and Revathi, is potent — the spirit of freedom courses through their veins. No wonder alternative workstyles have spelt success for these talented, courageous individuals.

Pictures: Anand K.

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