Deserted Museums, Jobless Artisans: How Covid-19 Has Impacted India's Art Landscape

In the last two months, no Indian museums have had any visitors.

Their long corridors, whose white walls are adorned with carefully curated art at normal times, have been sitting forlornly in the dark. Galleries have not heard chatter in their exhibition halls, or the sound of click-clacking heels on their marble floors. No performer-- theatre artist, musician, singer or dancer -- has stood below the floodlight of the stage, and the empty seats in these auditoria have been gathering dust.

Artisans, many of whom are currently without jobs, and have had very limited ways to sustain themselves during the last two months of national lockdown, imposed by the government to curb coronavirus are praying for things to ‘get back to normal’. Instead of yarn, they are spinning hope in their looms, at their rural workshops through these dark times.

It is perhaps needless to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the art ecosystem forever. It has not only altered the business of art -- the way auctions are held, art is exhibited, history is preserved and displayed --- but also brought a paradigm shift in the way people perceive art, the way they experience it. That is what adverse time does to art -- it changes art, compels art to interact with it, document it, and evolve through it.

Art Imitates Life

“Art responds to adversity in a multitude of ways. If we look at history, during the famous Bengal famine in the 1940s, artists like Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad made sketches of the plight and human tragedy that was unfolding. Such macabre depictions did help in bringing the much-needed attention to the catastrophe.” points out Swarup Dutta, a Kolkata-based artist, scenographer, photographer as well as a designer.

“I feel this pandemic will be no different. Artists are responding to the pandemic and are bringing various insights, almost creating a visual map of the pandemic. These arts will remain as vital documentations of the dark times we are living in, bringing in reflections of us as a society. The choices we made, our collective failures, the politics and its impact on people, increased surveillance and its impact on individual freedom, class disparity, collective fear and paranoia, mental health issues, empathy and the lack of it -- all of it will be expressed through art.” he adds.

Tasneem Mehta, Honorary Director & Managing Trustee of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, claims that the defining quality of the art that is being produced during the pandemic won’t just be ‘pandemic themes’, because that would be ‘too simplistic’. It would rather be how artists respond to this pandemic, their deeply personal experiences during this catastrophe.

“Certainly, the trauma will evoke a response and different artists will represent their thoughts in their own inimitable way. That’s what makes art so special. And others may absorb it and it may emerge in their work years later. Each artist responds differently,” says Mehta.

“Artists see what others don’t and they make the mundane meaningful. We already have many eminent Indian contemporary artists addressing various issues. Some of the contemporary artists are already producing art and social commentary on the pandemic through social media,” she adds.

Going Digital: Insta auctions, virtual tours

Since the arrival of COVID-19, there has been a worldwide restriction on the mass movement, which has definitely affected the way people view art.

“In India, the lockdown has propelled institutions to engage in online creative interactions. A few art galleries already enjoy a good online engagement but this crisis has given us a push to rethink our engagement with the audiences and in what ways we can support the community in these times,” explains Mehta.

“I think that the physical experience of seeing art will never be completely replaced, even so, the virtual engagement with art can now be focused, without distractions of the social milieu and the rush of daily life and travel,” she adds.

Many museums have already opened virtual tours, galleries have focused on doing e-exhibitions, claimed. Jalpa H Vithalani, curator and owner of Mumbai based art gallery, Cosmic Heart Gallery.

“As far as museums are concerned, Danforth Art Museum in Framingham in Massachusetts has gone online during the pandemic and is even hosting art classes on Zoom. Even world-famous museums are opening with online exhibitions which include Louvre Museum in Paris, Singapore Art Museum, Tate Modern (London), Scuderie Del Qurinale in Italy, The Museum of Fine Arts (with conversations, music, art) in Boston, and of course, The Frick Collection in New York,” says Vithalani.

“In the past too, we have made several art sales via mails, and WhatsApp interactions. But, now with in-person interaction becoming difficult, virtual mediums can also serve as a great connecting point for galleries and buyers of art,” adds Vithalani. Swarup Dutta also pointed out that Instagram auctions are becoming the new norm, with many artists and art collectives currently selling their arts for supporting relief work.

“Some of these trends will be adopted as long term methods of interaction and outreach. Technology will play a big part in enhancing such experiences. These experiences will become increasingly submersive, interactive, and multi-sensory.” he adds.

There is no denying the fact that the live entertainment industry and all those associated with it have had to bear the economic impact of this crisis. However, the digital medium has turned out to be a new and strong avenue of continual engagement with audiences. It has helped people remain connected to the arts and artists they admire, claims Khushroo N Suntook, NCPA Chairman and Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) Founder.

NCPA, which is the heart of Mumbai’s cultural events, always has an impressive lineup of cultural shows and events, but in the last two months, all those have stood cancelled. Currently, they are not selling tickets for any new shows, and are instead focused on expanding their online presence.

“The NCPA is a repository of artistic treasures, which we are now taking to viewers through YouTube. The NCPA@home digital series is a result of the curatorial work of the genre heads and senior members of the NCPA who have chosen performances from our archival library, so they can be viewed from the safety of home. This is a free showcase for everyone,” explains Suntook.

While the online presence and brand building exercises are important, it is a poor form of a revenue generator and has not been able to effectively help out businesses related to live performances, as well as museums and galleries, whose revenues have taken a hit due to the pandemic.

“The Bhau Daji Lad Museum's entry ticket prices are low compared to most other public museums, but April- May are peak seasons for footfalls due to the summer holidays. Keeping the Museum shut during this period, which was absolutely essential given the current crises, has also resulted in a loss of revenue that is generated from the footfalls,” claims Tasneem Mehta, Honorary Director & Managing Trustee of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

Jalpa H Vithalani, whose SoBo Gallery has remained shut for the past two months also confesses,

“We have to run our fixed costs, but there is no other way. We have been looking after the staff and encouraging them to complete any back end work from home these days.”

However, it is the digital presence and exposure that is giving new hope to the artisans working in rural markets, who do not have any other way to reach out to the buyers currently.

Adversity is the mother of all artistry

Itishree, a weaver entrepreneur from a village in Anandpur subdivision which is around 80 kms from Gopalpur, Odisha, has her investment in raw material and working capital stuck due to the lockdown. But, she is making ends meet, and paying craftswomen, and artisans who work her during this difficult time.

"It has been difficult to pay for their salaries. Previously, the artisans I would commission for two saris, I am only giving them one now. But, they are also in a lot of trouble, and I am worried for them because they are my responsibility too.” she said.

Juri Das, another young weaver entrepreneur from Jharpara, Nahira, a tiny village in South Kamrup in Assam is also facing similar difficulty because she heads a group of 15 associate weavers, and hasn’t been able to pay remuneration to all during these trying times.

“Those who are really poor, I am paying them. But, my artisans have also come together to help me through this crisis, and they are managing their finances for the time being,” says Das.

"There is a sense of community among them, and each of these artisans is trying to help each other out,” she adds.

Both Juri and Itishree have been facing considerable difficulty since the lockdown came into implementation.

In the initial days, getting local raw material was also difficult, because of travel restrictions. But, with those restrictions easing out in the later part, they have found ways to continue with their work.

“Another main concern for us is that the yarn that used to come from China isn’t coming in anymore, so we are looking into locally sustainable solutions like mulberry to substitute it because, without that yarn, our work would just stagnate,” said Itishree.

The only reason that Itishree and Juri are staying afloat is the digital marketing skills that have been acquired from Antaran, an initiative of Tata Trusts, that aims to empower artisans and provide a marketplace for them to connect with the buyers. During this pandemic, these skills have become determining factors in who survive the crisis, and who doesn’t.

“The opportunities are coming even during this pandemic to the enterprising, and the aspirational, those who can use their digital training for their benefits. Those who did not try to learn the digital ways, those who have not tried to evolve or have stuck to their master weavers locally are in deep trouble now.” points out Sharda Gautam, Head of crafts, Tata Trusts.

“If you look at weaving clusters, income, in general, has been impacted. Big retailers are not in a position to sell, so they are not in a position to the source material. The same scenario exists for smaller retailers. Even with buyers who had placed the orders, they have not been able to collect orders, and neither have the weavers been able to send them in many cases,” says Gautam adding that this current equation has led to a liquidity crunch for the weavers.

The Business of Art

The Indian art world is an unorganized sector and the sudden virus attack has affected the livelihoods of many artists, leaving them emotionally and financially helpless. They are not only struggling to make ends meet but also do not have the provision to access their art spaces during this crisis.

“Many artists have to work in studios, because installation and many other forms of art require big spaces, and cannot be made at home. However, due to the lockdown, they have not been able to reach their studios as well” points out Vithalani.

Riyas Komu, a Mumbai based multimedia artist and curator claims that except for a few renowned Indian artists, not everyone makes a lot of money selling art, and while artisans are neglected in social protection schemes, artists barely have any such scheme available to them. Therefore, several artists, especially those who are not linked to any gallery system, are not even able to produce, exhibit art (even online), or sell them due to lack of resources.

“Like most other professional communities, the art community is also staring at a bleak future. Galleries and art collectors, the financial mainstay of the art community, speculate a standstill in its operations in the physical form in the days to come,” claims Komu.

“Collectors too are cautious in the wake of this uncertain financial situation. The crisis has already started affecting the art ecosystems everywhere. It has pushed the artists' community into a precarious situation, while there is silence all around.” he adds.

The issue in India is that we don't have or support a robust cultural economy as a nation, explains Komu.

“The budgetary allocation for art and culture is minuscule. So taking protective measures should come as an immediate policy intervention, otherwise, this sector will suffer. The nation should come forward and recognize and reorganize the cultural capital of this sector to sustain art-production and support artists, especially the ones living in the margins. We must protect and nurture our art ecosystem so that during and after the pandemic, we can foster new ways of critical thinking and evoke a cultural economy that emphasizes social equity, affirm solidarity and also ensure revenues for the art community at large.” says Komu.

“Many countries that depend on the cultural economy have extended relief to artists including England. Germany, for instance, has announced a financial package of 3 billion euros to support full-time artists and small-art industries to secure small independent artists from financial ruin. Currently, India is one of the premier art production centres in the world and there are many small sectors connected with it, and the labour of art-making has also become isolated by the crisis,” he adds.