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Survival in Times of Coronavirus Pandemic: A Theatre Artist is Now Begging on Kolkata Streets

A grab of Kolkata-based theatre group Natakkiya's performance pre-pandemic. 
(Image for representational use).

A grab of Kolkata-based theatre group Natakkiya's performance pre-pandemic. (Image for representational use).

With the pandemic snatching away the bread and butter from hundreds out there, the theatre world has been one of the worst to be affected and has barely caught the eye of the government.

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Shreya Basak

A slim-built man with thinning black hair, clad in a puffy half sleeve shirt and trousers walk around in the streets of South Kolkata, begging. Forty-seven-year-old Joydeep Sarkar, a theatre artist with 15 years of experience, performed his last theatre act on March 4, 2020. Now, he says, his survival depends on the kindness of strangers.

"I have been a thespian all my life doing small roles here and there. With the onset of the lockdown, I have run out of my resources and there’s nowhere I can go," he said.

Sarkar, a resident of Kolkata and a survivor of severe depression, has been associated with two theatre groups, Sheba and Kashipur Onnyorup, based in Kolkata’s Shobabazar for the past 15 years. Theatre has been a healer for Sarkar until he was forced into poverty with the pandemic shutting down the curtains.

A security guard at Autism Society West Bengal, Sarkar got paid Rs 200 for every role. His monthly income comprised of the salary of Rs 3100 that he drew from the Society and the extra that he made with his theatre acts. As the Coronavirus pandemic hit, the institution reduced his salary to Rs 2,000. Sarkar found it increasingly difficult to run a family of four with that amount and with no theatre, he had barely any choice left.

It's a similar story for Gopal Ghosh, a 50-year-old technician, who has been working at theatre halls for over 32 years. Having run out of resources, Ghosh had to choose an alternative earning source by selling phenyl, sanitisers etc to survive the pandemic.

Heading a team of 4-5 youth, Ghosh, a resident of Kolkata’s Bosepukur has been dependent upon the different fundraising groups initiated by various theatre groups in the city.

After a hiatus for nearly six months, the West Bengal government decided to open cinema halls, open-air theatres, jatras, and allow musical and dance performances in the State from October 1, however, subject to physical distancing norms.

"People do not take up theatre with the sole purpose of earning money. It’s not a money-making venture but people indulge in the art form for the love of it," says 24-year-old Abhrajit Bhattacharya, a former performer at Natakkiya.

ALSO READ: Art in the Times of Corona: Artists Weigh Their Choices as Kolkata Lifts Curtains Off Open Air Theatre

The young thespian from Kolkata is one of the many who had to face a professional threat during the lockdown.

However, stemming from a "privileged background", Abhrajit highlights the misery of hundreds of others in the city and its outskirts, whose sole livelihood has been from theatres and how their lives have turned topsy turvy due to the lockdown.

65-year-old Amitava Mukherjee, a dedicated backstage worker and a former thespian says that if it wasn’t for the kindness of few fundraising groups including Shoubhratrityo, small-time workers like him would have "fallen right on their faces".

Shoubhratrityo was created by senior thespians and Bengali actors including Shantilal Mukherjee, Kaushik Sen, Asit Basu and Bimal Chakraborty. With the onset of the lockdown, the artists came together to help their colleagues in the theatre circuit, whose entire life skills revolve around the world of the stage.

Young thespian and actor, Rwitobroto Mukherjee starring in Generation Ami, Rokto Rohoshyo, Open Tee Bioscope among other films, started an independent initiative called ‘Jela Fund’ (District Fund) from March 20 along with his peers Anirban Bhattacharya, Joyraj Bhattacharya to connect to various theatre workers in and around Kolkata.

The theatre circuit consists of many such people including mere ticket sellers near the Academy of Fine Arts or other government-owned theatre halls, freelance and small-time actors, sanitisation workers, technicians, who are not employed by any unit and work on a per-show basis.

These temporary relief groups collectively raised Rs 8 lakhs, which served nearly 1,000 people.

"They (the relief groups) exist, that's why we are existing, somehow. I shudder to think if there’s an extension of the lockdown, where will we end up in the coming days," says a visibly worried Amitava Mukherjee, who now banks upon the few shows he is getting offered.

With almost no help from any government body or local authorities, the theatre circuit has no strong body to fall back upon.

The world of theatre in the city doesn’t function in a very professional manner, the small-time workers are essentially daily wage earners.

"That the government is completely indifferent to the age-old art form and its struggle, became once again clear in these months of the lockdown," says Joyraj Bhattcharya, a thespian associated with Theatre Formation Poribortok.

The existence of Paschim Banga Natya Akademi in this instance has been questioned.

"We received zero support from the forum. They haven't paid much heed to the misery of the daily workers, whose livelihood has been at stake. But now we see the forum is too eager to organise a natya mela (drama fair) and I do not understand how much our health protocols would permit that," says Joyraj Bhattacharya.

In comparison to the film world, which has a more advanced regulation body and "interests of both State and Central governments", the theatre world lacks any such support.

"I don’t think the government even has any idea about the number of people who constitute the theatre world and the same faces, who have been affected at large by the pandemic. I believe our State government doesn’t even possess the human resource to support these uncountable numbers of artists and workers, who have lost their livelihood due to the crisis," says Rwritobroto, who began his film career with Kahaani.

He said that a good portion of these funds have come from online performances and concerts by various artists including well-known Indian television actor Anirban Bhattacharya.

Joyraj Bhattachrya, who has also been associated with PM Basti Kitchen Community (a drive to help people affected by the cyclone in North and South 24 Parganas) was part of a recurring online concert called Buland Irade, which was last held on October 4, a way to raise funds.

In another similar development, Theatrician became one of the first groups to take theatre online from March. The revenue collected over the shows has been utilised for fundraising.

However, Zahid Hossain, an actor at Theatrician says that online theatre has its own flaws.

"Having a poor internet connection destroys the feel and direction gets massively affected. With limitation of space and screens, it gets really difficult to run the show," says Zahid adding, "What we miss most is the live audience mainly constituting the elderly crowd, who take interest in theatres".

Satakshi Nandy, a dancer and thespian for the past 10 years, who recently directed an online performance (a work of dance, music and camera) in association with Strange Fruit Dance Theatre, makes similar points. She highlights the numerous technical glitches that interrupted their live show and unfortunately there hasn’t been any response from the streaming platform in this regard.

“Due to a sudden technical glitch during the online streaming, many viewers couldn’t even watch it. We had decided to initiate a refund to make it fair,” says Satakshi adding, “But it was kind of the audience to have cooperated with us and not demand the refund.”

Although online theatre has served as a major source of fund raising, it happens to violate its basic principle — the “archival value”.

“I do not believe that theatre can be done digitally. It is directly contradictory to its core value. The moment it is recorded, it loses its concept,” says Joyraj Bhattacharya.

Nevertheless, the different parallel fund raising programmes initiated by independent groups in the city including Bratya Basu’s Bratyajon Ekannoborti Poribar, Jadavpur Manthan’s Jahar Naamey Samachar, Partha Sarathi Deb’s Nandikar, have come forth to constantly run recurring shows to ensure help pouring in, says Rwritobroto.

With the pandemic snatching away the bread and butter of hundreds out there, the theatre world has been one of the worst to be affected and has barely caught the eye of the government.

Theatre, an ancient performing art form that made its way to the audience way before the glamour and glitz of cinema reached our living rooms, has always struggled to hold its legacy.

Yet the show must go on.

Emergency Fund for West Bengal Theatre Workers (District Fund): If you or someone you know would like to come forward and help, please contact: +917980020381 (GPay), Madhurima Goswami, State Bank of India (Pottery Road Branch), A/C: 20023938429, IFSC: SBIN0008439


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