INDIA: Pandemic: A Vulnerable Time for Artists

Deepa Punjani*

Like in most places, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected all walks of life in India as well. Its theatre and artistic community are bearing the brunt too. There have been efforts to raise funds for theatre and performing artists, but State intervention remains a low priority.

Public funding for the Arts in India has always been too little, with no strategic focus or sound policy. Even in an extreme situation like this, most artists are left to fend for themselves. Individual artists, cultural organisations, NGOs and collectives have initiated fundraising campaigns for artists, but it is not enough. It is high time that the theatre and arts community in India form solid groups and alliances that can emphasise upon their State and local governments the need to build funds for artists, especially to provide for emergency funds.

A roadmap needs to be put into place that would help future generations of artists. In a country as diverse as India, it is important to recognise differences and work within particular and distinct artistic ecosystems as the need may be. 

Meanwhile, Indian artists are exploring online and digital ways to connect and show their work like their counterparts elsewhere. Naturally, younger artists find this easier. Not all online content or the initiatives taken are always worthy or meaningful, like anywhere else, but some are very creative indeed. 

Given that all artistic activity has come to a halt in physical spaces, Indian theatre critics and observers are also adapting to watching and writing about shows and content online. There is no doubt a combined effort to keep the spirit and the momentum going, but it is anybody’s guess how it may all pan out over the coming months.

Parts of India are still in lockdown. There is hope that some degree of normalcy may be restored towards the end of June, but it cannot be said with any certainty. The city of Mumbai, which is the most prominent centre for artistic activity in the country, is the worst affected.

Mumbai is also the commercial and financial nerve centre of the country, and the economic situation is steadily worsening. This has already disproportionately affected some sectors more than others, one of which is the cultural sector. Covid-19 has also further exposed the social and structural inequities of our system.

It is a particularly vulnerable time for artists in India who question the status quo. India is at a critical juncture to preserve the promises of her Constitution and to safeguard her democratic institutions. Activists, academics and artists are being targeted by an increasingly authoritarian executive. This insidious situation is now all the more dire within the larger context of Covid-19. Worldwide too our fundamental freedom and rights are being compromised as mass surveillance is becoming the norm. We need to be alert about this.

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Finally, on behalf of the Indian National Section, I want to convey to all national sections and all members of our organisation that we must too come together to find effective ways to help each other and support each other. The Indian National Section promises to do the best it can to help or shoulder any initiative in this regard.

As the nature of the Covid-19 crisis was becoming clearer towards the end of February this year, we made the hard decision to call off the IATC Conference for Established Critics in Delhi. Our hosts, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, have been extremely supportive and we hope that we can rekindle our plans in better times. 


*Deepa Punjani, an ExCom member of IATC, is a lawyer, legal journalist and theatre scholar with particular interest in feminism and gender representation on the Indian stage.

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