Folk entertainers struggle to survive Covid downturn

 With five kilograms of ghungroo tied to her feet Chhaya Nagjakar practices her steps to the beat of a popular song for hours every day in her small house in the town of Miraj in Sangli district of Maharashtra. The 35-year-old tamasha artiste hopes to dance once again before thousands of mesmerized spectators sometime in the future.

While Chaya persists bravely with her art hundreds of other performers of this centuries old Marathi folk theater form have hung up their costumes and dance accessories due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the last year and half the combination of repeated lockdowns, shutting down of village fairs and strict social distancing measures have decimated incomes and forced many to seek other means of livelihood.

“I haven’t stopped practicing even when I go hungry. But, now my patience is starting to wear off” confesses Chaya.

There are about 85 small and big tamasha mandals or collectives in Maharashtra in which thousands of folk artists work. Every year from Gudi Parva (mid-April) to Buddha Purnima (late-May), village fairs are organized all around the state where tamasha is routinely performed. All that is gone now and many artists live a hand-to-mouth existence.

COVID Response Watch LogoDamodar Kamble, an elderly tamasha artist also living in Miraj, says artistes are worried what will happen to them if the situation does not return to normal soon.

“When the first wave of corona subsided for a few months earlier this year, many artists were able survive somehow, even by selling vegetables. With the lockdown getting much stricter after the second wave it is not easy to get any work” he says.

The situation is very similar for performers of lavani, the traditional folk dance popular in the state, which is also a source of livelihood for thousands. The period from March to May every year is considered important for organizing lavani cultural programs in Maharashtra, especially in the West and Marathwada regions. During this period, lavani groups in villages and towns are booked for public programs organized after the harvesting of sugarcane in this ‘sugar belt’ of Maharashtra.

“This is our season in terms of earnings. But, in the first year of the Covid pandemic all the programs were canceled, while in the second year there were no programs at all” says lavani artist Surekha Jumbade who has been confined to her house in Osmanabad since the sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown in April last year.

While tamasha is a form of folk Marathi theatre, accompanied by music and dance, lavani is a combination of traditional song and dance, performed to the beats of dholki, a percussion instrument noted for its powerful rhythm and quick tempo. Often these performances carry strong messages or social or religious reform and are popular with workers in large cities such as Mumbai and Pune who have migrated from rural areas.

Even before the coming of the Covid crisis the demand for both tamasha and lavani shows were declining due to audiences turning to television and internet programs for entertainment. Despite this, folk artists were still able to eke out a reasonable existence through performances in rural areas.

Like Surekha, most of the artists in different lavani groups, work on a contract basis and are paid only after the show is over. Without a regular salary it has become difficult to meet all their daily needs.

According to the president of the Maharashtra State Lavani Artists Federation, Santosh Limbore, this is not the first time that he is facing such a calamity. But, this time the trouble is bigger and has lasted much longer.

“Earlier when demonetisation was implemented in the country, lavani groups received very few invitations for performances” he remembers. Natural disasters such as drought or severe floods have also affected incomes of the lavani artists on several occasions in the last decade.

The financial situation for the circus business has gone from bad to worse due to the Covid pandemic and lockdown. (Photo Credits: Rambo Circus)

Another category of entertainers whose fortunes have dipped sharply during the Covid pandemic are circus artists, once very popular with audiences in Maharashtra.

“Things were not good even earlier, but due to the Covid epidemic and lockdown, we cannot perform stage shows any more and our difficulties have increased” says Sujit Dileep owner of the Rambo Circus Company, that used to regularly tour many parts of the state every year. According to Dileep he had to sell his house and mortgage his land in order to run the circus. The maintenance costs for the circus he says come to an average of a million rupees rupees every month.  Circuses find it difficult to raise capital from banks for their business as they don’t have fixed assets and depend on daily performances for revenue. Petitions to the state and central governments for support have not drawn any response. Many circus companies have stopped paying their artists and employees due to lack of shows in the period between the first and second wave of Covid.

Indeed, for a long time now, circuses not just in Maharashtra but across the country have been fighting for their survival. There was a time when the circus was highly sought after even in the metropolitan areas of India. However, this gradually waned due to round-the-clock entertainment programs on television within people’s homes. The mobile phone and internet access have also limited the appeal of circuses even more. Circuses have been hit also due to the ban imposed by the government on the use of animals like elephants and lions, which used to be a star attraction in their shows. While a few decades ago there used to be hundreds of circus companies in the country today the number has come down to just 27. The first circus show in India was performed by a troupe from Italy in 1879. Following the latest downturn induced by Covid some circus companies have turned to online platforms in the hope of winning back viewers. The Rambo Circus Company for example launched a one-hour online show for the first time on 25 September last year.

“We think going online might help at least cover our basic costs” says Jaikishan, an artist of the Rambo Circus Company.

“Online shows are more convenient as we can combine live performances with pre-recorded stunts and programs that can be broadcast any time” says Promila, a female circus artist.

However, some artists also believe that online shows may not be a substitute for live ones.  “Circus performers get more satisfaction from shows that take place inside an auditorium or tent,” says Biju Pushpkaran Nair, who has been playing the role of clown for two decades. According to him, despite their low incomes circus performers prefer to perform before live audiences as that is where they get true satisfaction for their art. “The magic of the circus lies in the thrill that runs through the crowd and the applause they give back to the artists, but those days seem very far away now” he says.

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Corona pandemic.

Courtesy: Covid Response Watch



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