Emergency Covid-19 fund provides relief to starving folk artists in South India

Parai artists perform in Chennai. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR MANIMARAN

BANGALORE - When the Indian government announced the lockdown last month, Mr Manimaran, a musician in Chennai, knew that hard times lay ahead.

Mr Manimaran plays the Parai, a hand-held drum that is often the central percussion instrument in Tamil folk dance, theatre and music. Summer in south India is a period for weddings, temple festivals and all-night folk theatre. Mr Manimaran said that is when artists earn enough money to last them through the year. But after stringent measures were adopted to curb the spread of Covid-19, there could be no concerts or carnivals.

"Initially, I thought it was a short lockdown, so I wrote on Facebook: Kaiyyenda maatom, kalaiyyenduvom," meaning, we won't beg for a living but will produce music, said Mr Manimaran.

But his optimism waned with the lockdown extension to May 3.

For a month now, many Parai artists, folk singers and dancers, street theatre actors, instrument makers, percussionists, light and sound technicians and travelling drama troupes have had no source of income.

After folk artists he had collaborated with told him of their struggles, Carnatic musician TM Krishna decided to help.

"Journalists keep asking me if online concerts are the way of the Covid-19 future. It's frustrating, because that option exists for very few artists like me. It is very clear that social hierarchy has a strong influence on the economic condition of artists," said Mr Krishna.

"Transgender artists, street theatre troupes, even young gymnasts and stage hip-hop dancers in this country are struggling just to put food on their plate," he added.

Mr Krishna set up a Covid-19 Artists Fund. And to raise money, he livestreamed a shut-in concert on March 29, along with classical violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi, mridangist B Sivaraman and ghatam player N Guruprasad.

The concert raised 900,000 rupees (S$16,900) as seed funding for struggling artists. Rupee donations are now collected through Mr Krishna's Sumanasa Foundation and foreign funds through the Tennessee-based Bhuvana Foundation, which works with tribal and underprivileged communities in Tamil Nadu.

Over 30 senior artists like Mr Manimaran have powered this effort, collecting information from their networks about singers, percussionists, instrument makers, drama troupes, make-up artists, stage and costume makers and B-boys and Bharatnatyam dancers who need financial aid. They help identify the most vulnerable groups and verify the needs.

In the past month alone, the Covid-19 Artists Fund disbursed about 3.2 million rupees to about 1,000 artists, mostly across Tamil Nadu but also in a few pockets in the rest of south India. Typically, it transfers 2,000 to 4,000 rupees as an emergency fund directly to the artist's bank account.

"We would like to give more, but even this temporary aid helps rural and really poor artists feed their families for now," said Mr Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman, a musician who plays the nadaswaram, a wind instrument used at Hindu weddings and music concerts. He has helped identify over 150 artists, most of whom play the Thavil, a drum.

"Rather than main artists, we are giving preference to helping the accompanying instrumentalists. They often earn too little to save. Many are eating a single meal a day now, if that," said Mr Kothandaraman.

Mr Dharani, a theatre actor, discovered hundreds of stressed Koothu artists who won't get to perform their all-night street theatre this season.

"This is usually their highest earning season, when they perform the Mahabharata in different villages for 15 days (at) each (one). During the rest of the year, many do farm labour or sign up to the government's 100-day job guarantee. Each of these sources of income has dried up during the pandemic," he said.

"This fund is just a band-aid. Unless we see art as a symbiotic need, as part of our identity and existence, we can't address the reality: the plate (of food) is a crucial part of the art world," said Mr Krishna.

Even after the lockdown is lifted, physical distancing norms and a weakened economy are bound to impact artists.

"Farmers have no harvest, factories are not running, temples and churches are closed, weddings will be small scale. When people have nothing to celebrate, what can artists do?" said Mr Manimaran.

Unable to pay rent in Chennai or go back to their village home, which was blown away by the 2018 Gaja cyclone, Mr Manimaran, his wife (folk singer Magizhini) and his two sons moved into the office of a non-profit organisation as the the lockdown was implemented.

Even under difficult circumstances, the musical family has composed 13 catchy songs about the coronavirus, in different folk styles, with quirky home-made videos.

Mr Manimaran said: "Artists will produce art, but our survival is in society's hands."

Those wishing to support the fund can do so by remitting to the following bank accounts:

Indian Rupees: Sumanasa Foundation - Axis Bank

A/C No: 911010012570386 | IFSC: UTIB0000006

Foreign Currency: Bhuvana Foundation - Indian Overseas Bank

A/C No: 064301000010224 | IFSC: IOBA0000643 Swift Code: IOBAINBB079

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