Internet reviving India's folk arts
Thousands of India's marginalised folk and tribal artists haven't been able to earn a living because of the covid lockdown, but some are now turning to the internet to help save their culture and create a viable revenue stream.
Several platforms have emerged in a bid to put Indian traditions on the digital map. Baul singers from Bengal, Chhau dancers from Odisha and Qawwali performers from Malwa are among those finding their groove online. While the marriage of the creative and performing arts with the digital economy isn’t exactly new, many esoteric artforms of folk and tribal communities are now making their debut online. Audiences with a discerning ear can choose from workshops, ‘lec-dems’, live and on-demand performances.
Shankar Vishvanath Hegde, 42, from the coastal village of Nilkod in the southwestern state of Karnataka, has spent nearly every evening of his adult life dressed up as a woman playing female characters in the wildly popular regional Yakshagana theatre. The folk opera artform has sustained him for more than two decades. Pre-lockdown, his patrons included rural audiences and niche theatre circuits familiar with the music, dance, and extempore dialogues drawn from Hindu mythology. Under the clear tropical night skies, audiences were entertained from dusk to dawn on makeshift platforms amidst paddy fields and outside Hindu temples.
“It was demoralising to sit at home when the lockdown started, and I am not willing to accept donations,” Hegde told VICE. “And so, I found a way to perform online.”
He decided to hire a wedding videographer from the village, scripted truncated versions of the original six-hour long performances, and put the performance up on Shaale.com, a Bengaluru-based immersive platform that hosts performances and course content on classical and folk arts. So far, Hegde and his 23-member troupe have added three performances to Shaale. He believes he’s amongst the first to monetise Yakshagana online. However, his once joyous theatre evenings are now replaced by the anxiety of tracking viewership numbers.
While Shaale.com has offered several other Indian arts in recorded format, there is also the not-for-profit tech start-up Kalbeliya World that livestreams dance workshops from the heart of Rajasthan.
One is Rekha Sapera, 20, a professional dancer from Kalbeliya, an impoverished tribe of itinerant performers from Pushkar. In the wee hours of the morning, she enthusiastically teaches a half-dozen students from the US West Coast over Zoom for just US$10 per hour-long class. Kalbeliya World has assigned her a volunteer “buddy-dancer” who translates and manages Zoom invites, teaches how to set up the camera and check the sound, and handles the promotion and signups. By pairing the Kalbeliya women with multilingual dance-buddies, Kalbeliya World is now offering classes in Spanish, French and Japanese.
“These workshops saved me,” says Sapera, who has managed to support her large extended family via these online classes. The platform now has 11 women dancers who teach students from across the world. Since April, more than 600 students from Europe, and North and South America have enrolled.
“We wanted to find a sustainable economic system so Kalbeliya women could weather the pandemic,” says Ayla Joncheere, an academic and co-founder of Kalbeliya World. A majority of the dancers are illiterate and unfamiliar with technology. What began as a stopgap to help folk artists in Rajasthan earn during the lockdown has now turned into a tech-startup run by women for women.
Fortunately, Kalbeliya World’s setup is easy to use. “I have a phone and data pack. I put the phone on the window sill for the class,” Sapera says, turning the video camera for a tour of her hut. There are unpainted mud walls on either side of her, and behind her a red cloth that partitions the small space. A wooden frame holds up the roof made of plastic sheets. Nearly half a dozen other family members sleep outside under the desert sky. While India has more than 504 million internet users — the second highest in the world — there’s a significant rural-urban divide. Unlike their pop-culture and Bollywood counterparts, these artists find themselves at the deep end of the digital tech-economy pool.
For folk and tribal performers wishing to go online there is a lot riding on a smartphone and a data plan: their livelihood, and the future of their artforms. On the one hand, digital technologies can potentially preserve their heritage; on the other, folk artists are being edged out by techno-cultural and economic pressures. And there's also the task of adapting traditional artforms for an online audience.
“There is a whole ecosystem required to make sure the online performance is good,” explains Keerthi Kumar, a Bengaluru-based dancer and technology trainer, who has been conducting digital literacy workshops for performers. He notes that traditional performers are backed by a crew of set designers, musicians, lighting technicians and sound engineers, many of whom have lost their jobs too. “In a successful online performance, you need to recreate all those aural and visual elements, and you can re-employ the crew,” he explains.
However, the biggest challenge in a digital economy is the tussle between free content and attempts to monetise it. In her research, Aditi Deo, an ethnomusicologist at Ahmedabad University, found that rural musicians may not have the same mindset towards monetisation as Spotify or Gaana.
“Earlier rural artists would think that if their music comes online, audiences would naturally follow,” she explains. While being online has meant transcending the boundaries of their villages and towns, it isn’t immediately financially viable.
Hegde’s experience in Yakshagana theatre is a case in point. Over the years, free videos of his performances garnered thousands, sometimes millions, of views on YouTube. But when he went online on Shaale, there were just a few hundred takers. He quickly learnt that patrons of folk and tribal artforms haven’t yet made a transition to paying for online performances.
“For a long time, our performing arts have been running on donations,” says Skanda Ananta Murthy, founder of Shaale.com. “But there needs to be a steady revenue stream for the performers to be supported.” Getting performers onboard and attracting audiences is a slow process. Shaale started in 2018, and it is only this year that rural folk artists have sought to collaborate. Subscriptions are still small at 4,000, he notes.
“Earlier folk and classical artists were hesitant to enter the online marketplace, as it felt like forsaking the physical performance and losing an audience, but now they know that’s not the case,” Murthy explains, hopeful prospects for folk arts will improve.
Despite the vicissitudes of performing online, Hegde points out, “Not everything can be for profit. Sometimes you do it for your mind and love of the arts.”
ABOVE Kalbeliya dancer Aasha Sapera hosts an online dance class in Jodhpur
PHOTO Sunil Verma/AFP