Traditional fairs and festivals are an inherent feature of rural life in Himachal Pradesh. There are at least 20 fairs recognised at the State level and many more at the local and district levels. Thousands of artistes earn their livelihood through their performances and selling their art and craft at these fairs.

However, with no fairs and festivities for the past six months due to the coronavirus pandemic, artistes and artisans have been the worst sufferers. So, when theatre group Samvaad Yuva Mandal (SYM) got the opportunity to perform its traditional ‘Banthra’ folk theatre online, it did not shy away from highlighting the plight of the artistes who have been out of work for over half of this year.

Banthra is a form of folk theatre used as a medium to convey the problems faced by common people before the rulers of the small estates in Himachal Pradesh in pre-Independent India. Laced with humour and satire, this traditional form of theatre is still employed in Mandi and some other places to highlight the apathy of the administration towards issues facing the people, says the head of SYM, Mahender Pal, popularly known as Manjeet Manna.

Struggle for survival

Vikas, a member of the theatre group, says he along with other youth earned his living by staging plays at fairs, schools, and colleges. “With educational institutions closed and gatherings not allowed, we artistes have been left high and dry. How long can we survive on our savings?” asks Vikas.

Shivani Negi, president of the Kangra Lok Kala Manch, minces no words while describing the government’s apathy towards the artistes who have been struggling to survive during the pandemic. “As it is, folk artistes get the lowest remuneration, and now in the lockdown situation no one is bothered about them. How can we be expected to survive on one or two ‘online’ opportunities we may get?” she asks. Citing the example of Haryana, where artistes have been paid ₹2,500 each, Shivani wants the Himachal government to consider cash benefits to the nearly 10,000 registered artistes in the State.

Inder Raj (‘Indu’), founder of the Nav Jyoti Kala Manch, says it is not an easy situation for artistes even during normal times, and with no performance for almost seven months in a row, there is little left of their savings. Inder Raj, who has been holding workshops on theatre at several places in the State, says nobody seems concerned about the plight of artistes. “Plays are sometimes a direct satire on politics, so we are nowhere in the priority list and no one seems to care about us,” he adds.

Performance platforms

Coming in support of the artistes, Dr Surat Thakur, retired professor in music (vocal) and author of several books — who was also invited by the Languages, Art and Culture Department for an online programme — admits that the remuneration provided by the government is a pittance compared to the payment for performing at fairs. He feels artistes who solely depend on the performances for their livelihood should be given more opportunities.

The State department of Languages, Art and Culture started providing an online platform to artistes from June. The Himachal Pradesh Art, Culture and Languages Academy is also organising one-hour daily and weekly programmes on Facebook. These artistes are paid as per the government norms. According to government officials, nearly 90 artistes including folk singers, litterateurs and theatre groups were invited to perform online in the last two months. “We have been able to give artistes the opportunity to perform within the budget allocated to us,” says the Academy director, Dr Karan Singh.

According to him, the main purpose of these online programmes is to provide a platform to artistes and help them get some remuneration during trying times. Dr Singh reiterates that the initiative has been instrumental in popularising Himachali culture and literature. The Academy has also been able to document these arts and crafts through audio and video productions. This, he says, will be of great help to researchers and scholars studying the traditional folk arts and craft of the State.

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi