Pavan K. Varma | Support the arts during pandemic, keep India’s culture alive

Columnist  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Governments, which are responsible for the support and nurturing of artistes, have always treated culture as a priority of the last resort

An artist makes a clay idol of Goddess Durga for puja festivities, at Krishna Nagar in Nadia District. PTI Photo

One recent morning, when dark clouds had covered the sky, and a wonderfully moist and cool breeze was blowing, I sat down on my terrace garden with a hot cup of tea and listened to the raga Megh Malhar sung by the greatly talented vocalist Fateh Ali Khan.

The skies were pregnant with the possibility of rain, so I tarried a little longer, replenishing my tea and heard Pandit Nikhil Banerji’s magical Surdasi Malhar too. The morning wound up marveling at the sheer genius of Kishori Amonkar’s Gaud Malhar.

The millennia old tradition of classical music is but one window to the remarkable cultural civilisation that we are legatees of. There are ragas for different times of the day, and for different seasons. Malhar, which played that morning, is the raga of the rains.

As the artiste moves from one note to another, one can, with one’s eyes closed, actually visualise the swirling clouds, the sensuous onset of rain, the smell of the parched earth at last receiving relief, the lull before the skies break into the grand symphony of a full shower.

India’s cultural legacy, in any area -- music, dance, sculpture, poetry, aesthetics, literature -- is a very precious thing. Artistes represent generations of cumulative knowledge, and years of sadhana or devotion to learning and practice.

But governments, which are responsible for the support and nurturing of artistes, have always treated culture as a priority of the last resort. The ministry of culture -- and other sarkari organisations in this area -- are overladen with bureaucrats who know little about the arts, are masters of file pushing, turf protection and bureaucratic hurdles.  

Most unfortunately, artistes for them are a “commodity”.  Support for them is a favour rendered, not a service provided to those who are the repository of our cultural heritage.

Not surprisingly, few of us ponder to think what a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic does to the entire ecosystem of our artistes. They cannot perform, because auditoriums are no longer open.

They cannot teach, because cultural schools are also shut. There are very few patrons of the arts left who will persist with salon gatherings, since even small gatherings are risky. All of this has led to an asphyxiation of earning streams.

Most of our artistes today are in dire straits, especially those who literally survive on the meagre earnings from performances -- percussion players, sarangi maestros, accompanying vocalists and instrumentalists.  The same is the plight of the community of supporting artistes in the film industy.

Some classical artists have taken to the social media to project their performances. Others have organised performances on platforms like Zoom. A few dedicated lovers of the arts are providing a platform for artists on the Internet.

One of them is my good friend, Dr Ajit Pradhan.  He is a leading cardiac surgeon in Patna.  But his passion is the classical arts. He and his wife Anvita run an NGO called the Navras School of Performing Arts. Every week Navras organises a “virtual” performance of an artiste, sustaining the arts in these trying times, and providing some income to the artistes too.

But such instances are the exception, and hardly enough to provide generic succor to the besieged artistic community. The worst part is not knowing when things will revert to normal.

My dear friends Shobha and Deepak Singh, who run the Shri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra, are deeply worried about when classes will be able to resume at the kendra.

In the interim period, how do they continue to support the teaching staff, and maintain the facilities? Kamani Auditorium, which they run, and which is a cultural landmark in New Delhi, has now been shut now for months.

I worry too about bookshops. Many of them have opened, at least in those cities where the lockdown has been lifted, but very few customers come by.

Bahri Sons, in Khan Market, which used to be full of book lovers at any time of the day, has seen its clientele dwindle drastically.  The owners, Anuj and Rajni Bahri, book lovers themselves, take all the necessary precautions.  

Recently, I visited their shop to sign some copies of my latest book The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram. Sanitisers are available when you enter, and when you leave.

The shop assistants wear masks and practice the mandatory social distancing. The same protocol is practised at other book outlets too, such as at Midlands, in Delhi’s Aurobindo Market. To my mind, it is safe to go to these shops. Those who love books need to show their support.