Curtains down on the livelihoods of folk artists amid the surging Covid wave

MADHU BALAJI / NARAYANAN V Chennai | Updated on April 22, 2021

Curbs on public gatherings to curtail the pandemic spread add to their woes

When John Milton, a fifty-year-old folk artist from Chennai, received a call from his fellow artist, Milton could not control his tears. “I am selling my phone for ₹10,500 to meet my expenses. I will not be reachable for quite a while,” the artist, who returned to Kerala, told Milton.

Milton has got used to such painful separation in recent times. “Over 60 per cent of performers have quit. They find other jobs that pay them, and they never return,” said Milton, who runs Bharatha Kalai Koodam at Villivakkam in Chennai, to teach traditional art forms such as Thappattam, Silambattam, Oyilattam, and Poikkal Kuthirai.

The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn the curtains down on the lives and livelihoods of many folk artists like Milton, who were dependent on corporate events, birthdays, marriage functions and temple festivals to earn a living. Before Covid-19, Milton had over 40 artists and he would get nearly ten events a month. He used to arrange performers for events in various places such as Madurai, Tanjore and in Kerala. Today, only eight artists have chosen to stay with Milton, but they too are employed in other jobs.

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“We rarely get any business. The government has restricted the number of attendees to events. How would people book us?” Milton asked, adding, “Even if we get one event in a month, we need to meet conveyance charges to take it up.”

The second wave of Covid and the restrictions on public gatherings to curtail the spread are still keeping their lives in the dark.

“Just when they thought they could revive, things are again going down due to the surge in Covid-19 cases. Most artists come from the poorest sections of society. People from the middle class or superstars are not representatives of the reality of the state of the artists,” said TM Krishna, a noted musician, writer and activist.

The situation is no different for Vishwa Bharath (29), a famous Parai artist in the city who trains and performs Thappattam and Parai Attam at corporate and public events with his Folktales team.

“In pre-Covid times, we used to get 25 shows per month. At times, we even had daily shows but after Covid, getting two shows a month itself is a big achievement,” Bharath said.

At the height of lockdown last year, Bharath got into online tutoring for a few months to keep the show going. This year, he along with his team did few awareness campaigns for Covid-19 and got few performances during the election.

“We got some performances during the election but Parai Attam is a group art form where 8-10 artists are required but during election time, they were allowing only 3-4 people since candidates had some restrictions on spending,” said Bharath.

“We ourselves also avoided a lot of shows during elections since I don’t want to put my team members at the risk of infection,” he added.

Financial crisis

During the lockdown phase, Milton has sold around 26 sovereigns of gold to tide over the financial crisis. Of which, he paid two months’ salary to the artists before they withdrew to their native.

In view of the pandemic, the Tamil Nadu government announced a payment of ₹1,000 as a special relief fund to the registered members of folk artists welfare. However, Milton said the assistance applies only to registered artists and he wasn’t even aware of the registration process.

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TM Krishna commented, “In most of the cases, the money never went to the artists. The State government does not have a proper record of who are the folk artists. It was individuals and private organisations that did the most to these artists during the pandemic. And that is unsustainable.”

Krishna also added that the need of the hour is an economic system in the lines of NREGA for the artists, marginalised artists & artisans and legislation that guarantees work and money on a self-selection basis.

Published on April 20, 2021

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