Not making a song and dance...

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Not making a song and dance...

Thursday, 09 April 2020 | Pratibha Prahlad

Not making a song and dance...

...but the cultural and creative sectors need financial help, too, as they have been ravaged by the impact of stringent public health measures imposed by the Govt to stem the pandemic

The cultural and creative sectors across the world have been ravaged by the impact of stringent public health measures, with performances and arts festivals cancelled, theatres, museums and cinemas closed and film and television production halted. The list, sadly, goes on. For the unorganised arts sector in India, the impact is worse than ruinous. In times of crises, artistes are often among those most affected. In addition to health concerns, this is a challenging time for many in our community as we deal with cancelled incomes, investments made for booking venues, paid advances to technical and other staff that cannot be recovered, cancellation of teaching and other such activities. In addition, trying to make plans for future dates for performances and festivals, resuming teaching and choreographic activities, while sustaining one’s creative inspiration, in these very uncertain times is very unnerving.

March has already had a devastating economic impact on India’s non-profit arts sector. Since the first State-level orders of cancelling all events, sports activities, anything that meant an audience or congregation, in early March, nixing of several scheduled events, festivals and performances has been reported across the length and breadth of the country. Many freelancers have seen their livelihoods disappear overnight. We are entering a period of unprecedented isolation and worry for people in the field of culture, be they artistes, stage workers, technicians or other workforce that come under the category of self-employed people.

As we know already, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors and others involved in artistic pursuits are vulnerable and suffer from insecurities that come with the territory. The situation is unique and  heartbreaking, because there are so many implications for everybody and there will be a domino effect on all those connected with the arts sector. Artistes are crying out for help from the Government in a bid to seek revalidation and have resonance.

 As COVID-19 continues to spread across India,  both Union and State Ministries of culture should  sustain this sector as best as they can, so that artistes and organisations can continue to nourish the imagination of people across the country, both during the crisis and in the period of recovery.

Recognising that in the current pandemic, artistes as independent workers, arts organisations dependent on gathering groups together and creative people engaged in travel and exchange are especially affected, both Union Ministries of Culture and Tourism and State Governments should be proactive. They should be committed to creating, amplifying and sharing resources to support artistes and communities, always as part of their mission and at this time especially.

It is hard to understand why there has been a stony silence from the Culture Ministry. It’s almost as if we do not exist for them and/or, if we do, they do not care about the welfare of the sector they are mandated to be working for.

The Ministry should stand with the cultural and creative sector in these difficult times. Their duty is to do everything they can to mobilise further support from the Finance Ministry for these critical sectors.

While I welcome the Prime Minister’s Office’s and the Finance Ministry’s swift responses to aid and change rules to support a huge majority of Jan Dhan account holders, migrant labour, daily wagers, struggling businesses, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), deferred payment of EMIs, deferred filing of Goods and Service Tax (GST), claiming refund on taxes and so on, I, once again, appeal to them, to understand that cultural and creative businesses are also struggling  and they need financial support now.

Our country is generally recognised as the arts and spiritual capital of the world. Our responsibility is to nurture and nourish our artistic heritage and deep-rooted culture and traditions and we can do this, at this time of crisis, only by valuing and preserving our living artistes, performers, teachers the cultural workforce and to give them assurances and hope that the Government stands with them to ensure that there is a semblance of stability and security in their lives until life reboots to “normal.”

The following remedial measures for the arts and culture sector can be considered by the Government. Set up a culture relief fund recognising that artistes and cultural workers exist within precarious work and employment conditions, often as self-employed or contract workers.

They are also the driving force of our artistic and cultural sector and the broader creative economy. The Government must also direct some of the Corporate Social Responsibility monies towards the culture relief fund and ensure that dedicated funding is available to the arts and culture sector as part of the recovery plan.

Artistes and culture workers, who have been hit hard by lack of earnings, could be given a basic minimum payment to sustain themselves for these three-four months.

Artistes, culture workers and non-profit organisations must be given the option of deferred filing of taxes until January 2021, reclaiming of Tax Deduction at Source (TDS) on fixed deposits and savings that they may have, deferred payments of rentals, deferred filing of TDS, GST(as the case maybe), electricity and such overhead costs incurred for maintenance of culture spaces that cannot operate for three-four months.

Plus, grants already approved for non-profits for organising conferences and festivals or individual events and programmes must be made available to such organisations by relaxing compliances until things slowly return to normal.

Those non-profit organisations that have been unable to conduct events, conferences, or performances due to the  outbreak of COVID-19 should be permitted to utilise the funds for other activities that they may decide to conduct in future as per the timelines and curation, without imposing restrictions of compliances to a said financial year.

Artistes and culture workers should also be given health security for themselves and their families, should any be affected by the current pandemic.

Non-profits currently availing of repertory grant and salary grant be given funds to reimburse salaries of dancers, musicians and culture workers, who have not come for rehearsals because of the lockdown and to maintain the number of artistes and others on their payroll, so they are secure and can continue artistic pursuits.

Also, 20 per cent of the grants that they were given in the last two years, should be given to non-profits working in culture as “sustenance or maintenance fund”, for any of these factors that determine their situation: Employees who stopped working due to COVID-19 and do not have access to paid leave or other income support. Workers who are sick, quarantined, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19. Staff who must stay home without pay to care for children that are sick or need additional care. Employees who still have their employment but are not being paid because there is currently not enough work and there is uncertainty of work in future.

Non-profit organisations understandably cannot continue to retain and pay staff salaries because of the uncertainty of funding and future work that will be available.

Many countries that have experienced the severe impact of Covid-19 have doled out benefits to the arts and culture sector, recognising its importance and valuing its contribution in upholding the creative strength of their nations.

It is time for India to act, too, and give some tangible benefits to the arts and culture sector that is engaged in propagating the intangible heritage of our country.

Creative capital has always been anchored by a rich spirit of community and mutual generosity and I hope that CSR for culture becomes mandatory to reboot the sector. Without sufficient funds, creativity and creation of works of dance, music, painting, sculpture and others will suffer. Therefore, continuing communication and exchange are crucial for all of us.

(The writer, a Padmasri awardee, is a celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher, choreographer, researcher and author)

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