Re-envisioning the relationship between the artist and State: Facilitators, not benefactors, are need of the hour

In the middle of October, around 27 artists living in government accommodation, located in South and Central Delhi, received eviction notices. Just last week, the Prime Minister inaugurated 76 new houses for members of Parliament, in the heart of New Delhi.

I put these facts one after the other to highlight two things: The first that it is not impossible for the State to create more accommodation/space if it wishes to. Why are houses not being added to the housing pool reserved for artists then, in order for more artists to be accommodated, rather than ousting those whose livelihoods are in part dependent on their receipt of such housing? The second point that I want to delve into goes beyond the question of shelter. That artists are not members of Parliament, they are not bureaucrats, or officers, is obvious. They are not on the payroll of the government. What then is their relationship to the State?

The pandemic has shown how fragile the cultural sector is, with many countries immediately announcing cultural recovery programmes to prop up their arts and artists. India’s response to such a scenario came too little, too late, and this latest decision does nothing to alleviate the concern that the Ministry is out of touch with the on-ground reality of the artist. One cannot deny that the decision to upend lives of artists — many of whom are above 60 and in the vulnerable, at-risk category for COVID-19 — in the midst of this pandemic, is nothing short of callous and irreprehensible.

Artists have been immensely affected by the pandemic within an already highly saturated space, with opportunities shrinking further, cuts to funding, and reduced performance opportunities and avenues for income generation. But the larger point is that an eviction note of this sort, framing artists living in such housing as illegal squatters, is one that imagines working with art as having an expiration date, at which State support will be withdrawn. And this is where there is a need to sufficiently define what the State considers its responsibility towards the arts and artists.

Many on social media seem to think that since the artists have already benefitted for multiple years from these accommodations, they should make way for other artists. While the idea that more artists should benefit from access to government resources is correct, the call need not come at the cost of those who have had early access to these resources. These accommodations have not just been houses, but multi-functional spaces in a city where it is difficult to find space for practice, and to hold rehearsals, considering the glaring lack of infrastructure built to support such activities. Cement, mosaic and tiled floors have long since been the recipients of the stamping feet of classical dancers, with no sprung wood floors making their way to rehearsal areas. Nor have musicians received access to rehearsal studios with sound acoustics in place.

But even before that, there is a need to understand that art is labour. It involves capital, it involves heavy investment not just of monetary resources, but also of time and energy by individuals, with little or no profit to be gained.

There is a need to reframe art not as creative endeavour or leisure activity, but also as labour, as work, as practice.

The need for this to be underlined comes from the fact that for the layperson, their access to both the art and the artist comes solely as its final product. It comes as the exhibition, the performance, the recital where all the odds and ends are tucked away, and one is left unaware of the hours of rehearsal, the exhausted bodies, the rent for studio space and more, and is left unaccounted for by the public gaze. Most of the schemes and grants available to artists mirror this understanding of art as final product rather than process. The Ministry of Culture offers Repertory Grants wherein the guru/director of the repertory is provided Rs 10,000 per month, while adult students are given Rs 6,000 per month. The Ministry labels both as honorariums (mentioned in their Annual Report 2019-20). In urban cities like Delhi, this is hardly going to take a repertory very far, where studio rentals cost upwards of Rs 1000 per hour.

Other similar schemes are for the holding of workshops, performances, and seminars. Ultimately, they focus on the work that the artist has already put in over months and years, and in some cases, a lifetime. The State as a patron of traditional and indigenous arts must recognise that lump sums of money allocated sporadically over periods do not benefit the artist in the long-term. The State cannot continue in its role, which only mirrors the role played by royalty in its patronage of the arts — that of sometimes providing land, sometimes gifts at the whim of the ruler.

The State as a modern patron needs to account for standard processes and procedures to be put in place for the complete welfare of the artist. What is required is easy access to schemes which improve their overall quality of life, not geared solely towards the creation of art, but instead ensuring equitable access to resources, which allows for greater diversity and representation in who is able to take up the arts as well. Providing housing at subsidised rates is only one such step.

There also need to be provisions for artists to access specialised housing loans, pensions schemes, medical insurance for older artists, as well as education loans and long-term scholarships, which can ensure that those artists who wish to pursue the arts from an early stage can benefit. The government should be putting in place such safeguards through their policy interventions to ensure foremost the autonomy of the artist, rather than fencing in their creative freedom and independence as well as increasing the precarity of their livelihood through bureaucratic red tape.

Further, the artist does not retire. Art is a lifelong process that does not end at 60 years of age. Artists continue to be living archives of their process and practice, even if they are no longer actively performing. To allocate arbitrary age cut-offs for the use of certain resources is unjust. The artist in a sense acts as a lifelong ‘worker’, mobilising their expertise and experience in the propagation of the arts.

However, this maintenance provided should not come at the cost of opportunities made available to new generations of artists. Policy must understand the artist as progressing through life, and not fix them as a static entity with the same needs and expectations from the State throughout their lifecycle as an artist. An approach which takes into account not just the professional competency of the artist, but also how age could factor into it, could offer greater flexibility with regard to the kind of schemes and facilities which artists can apply for, and conversely the Culture Ministry drafts.

Ultimately, the State must stop viewing itself as benevolent benefactor and instead re-envision its role as facilitator of artistic enterprise, which extends beyond what is presented on a stage or in an exhibition, and is of benefit long after the curtains fall. Vanashree Rao, a noted Kuchipudi exponent and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, who is one such artist impacted by the recent eviction notice, has this to add: “I expect the State to treat us like humans, not like files bound with policies framed arbitrarily from time to time. I expect respect for the work that any professional does in any given field.”

At the end of the redefinition of this relationship between the artist and the State through policy intervention lies the need to define the artist as a working professional, but also to recognise how that labour or work differs from retiring someone on a government payroll at a certain age cutoff.

Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge

from Firstpost India Latest News