A pandemic and artists’ art of survival: La Tribune India
The fingers moved deftly on the algoza to the rhythm of Mirza-Sahiba, Jugni and Dulla Bhatti. With the same ease, Bhajan Lal picked up the tumbi and struck the strings with such grace, the work was not lacking. Radio programs, melas, university programs, weddings – all platforms were equally valued; they brought him sustenance. But that was until March of last year. When the pandemic struck, the very hands that played algoza found themselves gathering whatever they could find.
Top performer with All India Radio, Jalandhar, since 1995, he now sets off on his bike, negotiating the alleys of the villages around Samrala, in search of trash cans, shards of glass, newspapers and plastic items broken. Anything he can collect at 1 p.m. is sold to a merchant. On a good day he earns 100 rupees, but there are times when he can’t find any junk.
Before the pandemic, life was different. Folk artists had busy careers, not too well paid, but satisfying. Bhajan Lal imposed above all respect for his ability to play several instruments. Bharat, a choreographer from Meham village in Rohtak, was happy to be able to offer his young daughters whatever they asked for. But as the coronavirus swept the world, rallies became a scourge. Bhajan Lal, Bharat and many like them were suddenly in a changed world, a world that had no place for them. They were quickly abandoned in search of other sources of income. Having no other skills, they found themselves working like daily bets.
Bharat, also an arts graduate, does odd jobs. “I do whatever I can get – sometimes I’m a construction worker, sometimes a painter.” The second wave made matters worse. With little construction activity in the village, he hasn’t had a job for over a week. At the mercy of fate is dholak player Shamsher Singh from Julana village in Jind district in Haryana. For two days, he has been busy digging a pond. The job would be done by the time you read this, and Shamsher would be back looking for a job to support his family of five, including three children, the oldest of which is 11.
The pandemic has been particularly nasty to artists who live in anonymity. Often part of groups led by famous men and women, the spotlight naturally stays away from them during the good times. And during bad times like these, they don’t make a good story of deprivation either.
“The containment brought us to light,” says Raj Kumar, whose father, Gurcharan Singh Chatra, was a household name in Malwai Giddha. The dance form has become a major draw at weddings in recent years, says Raj, but with the number of guests now limited, there’s no room for it. After the death of his father in January, the relay of the group of 15 members he led is in the hands of Raj Kumar and his brother. But with the situation not improving, he doesn’t know how they’re supposed to pass on the legacy. Most of the people in the group now make daily bets; Raj became a cook, his brother Des Raj, a driver.
The stories of misery seem endless and agonizing. If Swarn Singh Mahi, 86-year-old algoza player, from the village of Manewala near Machhiwara, Ludhiana, is suddenly at the mercy of those around him, there are so many across Punjab and Haryana quietly awaiting death. . Formerly a singer in the hotels of Ludhiana, Vishal Sonu now sells tea leaves. “For the first few months, I waited for things to get back to normal. But when the wait seemed endless, I entered the tea leaf business. I didn’t think about it because I already have a debt of 70,000 rupees, ”he says. The wait for the rent of the shop and the godown worries Narinder Singh, 60, and her son, Ramandeep, of the Master Fauji Band in Ludhiana. The work was stable and they would earn 5,000 rupees a day. As the pandemic has made marriages simpler, they have pulled out of work. Ramandeep started working in a medicine factory, but this one also closed recently. He now does odd jobs, earning barely Rs300 per day.
With the cessation of all entertainment activities due to restrictions, small-scale folk performers feel doomed. In Himachal, in particular, the cancellation of village festivals has put hundreds of dancers and musicians out of work. “Covid-19 took away our livelihoods and we were forced to work as laborers for our livelihood,” laments Roshan, a folk artist from Chamba, whose wife is also a folk singer.
The work is irregular and poorly remunerated; 400-500 rupees a day is what he earns, and work is available about 10 days a month under the MNREGA as well as on private construction sites. Previously, he earned around 20,000 rupees per month singing Chambyali folk and playing khanjari and other instruments for tourists in Khajjiar, in addition to performing at weddings and jagrans. Supporting a family of six is getting more and more difficult day by day.
Vishal’s story from Baijnath to Kangra is no different. “My wife and I make a living singing and performing one-act pieces at weddings and religious events. The Covid forced me to become a driver, but I had an accident last year. There is no more hope now, ”he laments. The family of 55-year-old folk singer Vipin from Jawalamukhi are also in dire straits. He now depends on his wife, an Anganwadi worker, who earns Rs 6,000 a month.
No help in sight
Along the edge of despair run stories of neglect. While artists from Punjab and Haryana street that neither the government, the North Zone Cultural Center or the cultural academies have offered help, the Himachal artists say they feel abandoned by the trusts of the temple who did not come to the aid of those associated with them. “While the ration rotted in the godowns and was given to the gaushalas, the artists were forgotten. Essential items like food grains and LPG bottles have become more expensive, adding to our woes, ”says one artist. Those in the public relations department are furious that the department failed to get them out of this condition. Bharat says the NZCC, Allahabad area, has asked artists in need, including him, to share their contact details. “But no help has arrived yet. The government of Haryana doesn’t seem to care, ”he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, NZCC official Patiala said that although no artists are registered with the organization, she has helped those who approach her by offering them online programs. However, insiders say such programs are rare. The official admits that there are hundreds of artists in the villages of the region who have no idea that there is an organization like the NZCC that works for their welfare. “It is out of the question for them to ask us for help,” he said.
Faced with the lingering uncertainty, these artists do not know what to expect. They fight, but don’t know how long they can last. “I am an artist, I have never done anything else,” says Bhajan Lal, who dust his instruments daily. “I don’t know how long this will last. Sometimes I just wish this disease would claim me.
– With contributions from Bhanu P Lohumi and Manav Mander