Working during the lockdown, craftspersons across India produced illustrations and paintings in traditional styles that depict the behavioural practices being advised by health advisories
The current pandemic is an unprecedented calamity and its economic and social pain is immense. The worst affected are the populations who subsist on daily wage or seasonal income. Barring agriculture, which is still functional, the rural economy is groaning in distress. Since the deeper behavioural changes and social restrictions that the pandemic has imposed are expected to become — and remain — the new normal for a long time, we will have to recalibrate our economic and social patterns so that the hardship of daily subsistence does not further compound problems created by the looming health crisis.
Almost 90 per cent of the workers in India are part of the informal economy and thrive on daily work, with little provision for employment protection. The pandemic has required governments around the world to introduce social distancing and lockdowns in unprecedented ways. These measures have impacted economies and jobs worldwide and in India, too.
One of the vulnerable communities affected by the crisis are folk artistes/craftspersons. With incomes drying up, daily subsistence is becoming a challenge for them. But there is also an overlooked opportunity in this pandemic for both the Government and these communities. The battle against the virus is being fought on two fronts: Prevention and cure. While health workers are making brave efforts to handle the contagion, the preventive part involves deep behavioural changes, which are more effectively achieved through multiple approaches of social messaging that can make people aware. Folk artistes/craftspersons can play an influential role in dissemination of information about COVID-19 in a language that rural India understands and bring about the desired behavioural changes in society. Folk art is the most powerful medium of communication in the hinterland.
To adapt to the new norms of social distancing, we can have smaller troupes. Village heads have become highly mature in handling calamities and we know how Self-Help Groups (SHGs) across the country are responding to the pandemic creatively. Often, responses look to established or well-known systems to relay accurate information and solutions to people. For example, trusted community leaders, artistes/craftspersons can influence the behaviour of people and ensure that accurate and culturally-sensitive health messages are conveyed and that assistance reaches those who need it most.
Folk arts are built on time-honoured wisdom documented through centuries. Much of India’s rural and tribal social structure is built around practices carried forward through folk wisdom. The role of folk art in this entire ecosystem is rather important because it incorporates valuable lessons from folk mythology. Though many fear that the impact of COVID-19 may be the end of artistes/craftspeople, the fact remains that their creativity and resilience can save them. Several organisations and guilds led by not-for-profit Dastkar are in the forefront of efforts to keep the morale of the artistes/craftspersons intact. These people know that while lives are important, livelihoods are no less critical.
India’s folk artistes/craftspersons have long used traditional storytelling for social messaging. It is widely recognised as one of the most powerful tools of communication and documentation of their culture. Many grassroots organisations have already launched several innovative campaigns by channelising the creativity of these people. However, countrywide efforts will be required to protect the physical and financial health of these marginalised communities who have no fallback in these tenuous times.
NGOs have already channelised the creativity of these artistes/craftspersons in a way that ensures their financial sustenance and also reinforces the outreach of the public education campaign about the pandemic and the new social norms it has imposed. The initiative has caught the attention of the world. Working during the lockdown, which has crossed two months, a group of craftspersons across India produced illustrations and paintings in traditional styles that depict the behavioural practices being advised by health advisories.
Since March, craftspersons have produced artwork underlining the importance of social distancing, wearing face masks, washing hands with soap, other hygiene etiquette and avoiding group travel. There are also scenes depicting hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Traditionally, many folk art forms in India were made on large scrolls or as murals to share information with the community. Artists would hold up scrolls in village squares and share messages for creating awareness and eliciting community responses. Ambika Devi is an artist from Rashidpur village in Bihar. She makes Madhubani paintings which show people wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing in village markets.
Bhilwara in Rajasthan is considered a great success story in reversing the tide of infections. It was an early hotspot before the virus was contained through creative approaches. Kalyan Joshi is a Phad artist from Bhilwara. His paintings carry messages in the local language about social distancing and face masks. Joshi’s artworks have become extremely popular with the local people as they relate the idea to their own traditions. Bhilwara is a prime example of innovative strategies in promoting new behavioural patterns.
Apindra Swain, a Patachitra artist in Odisha, was quite discouraged as he had lost his creativity. Yet when he created a classic Patachitra artwork depicting the new normal, people were interested.
It is the responsibility of all citizens, not just NGOs, to ensure that the creative juices of artistes/craftspeople keep flowing, so that the traditions they preserve don’t die out. There are several enterprising ways in which we can support these people. For instance, community stitching of masks, table mats, garden umbrellas, lampshades and so on can be undertaken using folk and tribal art signages. This can be done through prior contracts with buy-back arrangements. The sponsor organisations can arrange for supply of raw materials and sewing machines.
Tribal tours can be organised for city folk and foreigners and attractive product discounts can be offered. This can be factored into the ticket/tour cost. Instead of bringing artistes/craftspeople to the city for the usual folk festivals, tourists can be taken to the villages, where they can perform in their natural setting. This will give tourists a better insight into their culture and be a novel experience for them as well.
Pre-sale of products can be organised with prepaid tour tickets for a group of 10-15 people as per social distancing norms.
In case of musicians, drama troupes, dancers and singers, a large village centre can be identified and made into a sort of kala gram (art village) and artistes can perform there. The number of performers per group can be restricted for the purpose of social distancing.
The Companies Act, 2013, allows for promotion and development of traditional arts and handicrafts to be counted as a corporate social responsibility (CSR), giving businesses an effective cause to support folk artistes/craftspersons. The large availability of space, the presence of vast corpuses dedicated to CSR funding and the business expertise of organising events all come together to make corporations ideal patrons of folk art in these uncertain times. We all can inspire and encourage not only folk artistes/craftspersons but all individuals to use their creativity to adapt to the new normal.
These are people who believe in hard work and a life of dignity. They are the ones who will not die of starvation but from loss of dignity. We must remember that while COVID-19 can be lethal, mental or financial illnesses can be no less fatal.
It is too early to tell if the pandemic will produce an artistic legacy like the great plague of the early 20th century did, but this virus and its fallout have already garnered a huge response. The work produced by today’s craftspersons in response to the Coronavirus has been to either raise morale or money for sustenance. It is also a time-honoured way of documenting our history.
(The writer is a well-known development professional)