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How are the arts and entertainment artistes faring?

  • Published at 04:04 pm August 7th, 2020
Bappa Mazumder
Bappa Mazumder shares the impact of the pandemic on musicians Facebook

Second part of a two-part feature story on the impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industries of Bangladesh

Two Eid vacations are already over in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic Covid-19. Before that the general holidays of Bangladesh - declared by the incumbent government to tackle the outbreak - were lifted temporarily, to give the economy of the country some little time to move and breathe, as a stagnant economy leads to starvation for all. Now, the country is so desperate, that new restrictions and new laws are being enforced to ensure that the virus outbreak does not get worse from here, however, most people of the country have been given permission to go back to their jobs and businesses, albeit, within the new health and safety guidelines. This is to ensure that the economy keeps moving in the little speed it has now, before famine and mass depression breaks out. The number of daily infections is still ranging between 2000 to 4000 every day. People are still dying every day. Some are losing everything overnight. And among all the sadness brought by the pandemic, monsoon floods, sudden and unrelenting rainfalls, natural disasters that break dams, stagnant economy, rampant job lay-offs, frustrating salary and wage reductions, late payments, etc. I am once again going to use my keyboard to write about the suffering of the people of the entertainment industries.

Why are the entertainers important or relevant still? They are also people like the rest of us, who use their minds and bodies to work for a living. They are human beings first, and professional artistes second. They are our relatives, friends, colleagues, loved ones, and all other monikers we use when are in any relationship with any other human being. Remember, how I wrote that most people have been given permission to go back to their jobs? Well two sets of people are still not being able to go back to their regular jobs, as organizing mass gatherings and performing for them is their job.

These two sets of people are professional theatre artists and professional musicians.

This piece is the second part of a two-part feature story on the impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industries of Bangladesh. First part focused on the makers of video content and their artists. This part will specifically give testimonies from thespians and musicians, and how they are affected by the pandemic.

Before going further, a disclaimer is in order. This written piece is not an opinion piece. I will not provide crunched numbers, statistics, graphs, pie-charts, and other similar things that are usually found on opinion pieces and research papers to prove my points. This is a reflective piece that I hope will make the readers reflect just as I have on the repercussions of this pandemic on the arts and entertainment industries. I will provide personal statements from a few individuals, whose work we follow both knowingly and unknowingly, just so that the readers can empathize with them just as I have. These people do not need sympathy or charity. They are all self-made. I am merely lifting the curtain a little bit to give you a peek on their lives, so that you may give them the minimum courtesy – which is reflecting on their troubles and sorrows, and giving them empathy.

Impact on theatre artistes and professionals

I interviewed professional theatre actor Kaberi Jannat of Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT). 

Regarding the impact of the lockdown on theatre, Kaberi said: “There is the hunger to perform for artistes. We perform because we have a hunger to create; it is not just about the money. Most people who get into the creative industries, come with the aim that they will create something. Each performance by an artiste is their own creation. Without performing we cannot satisfy that hunger.

Still from Centre for Asian Theatre's performance of 'Stalin' Courtesy

“There are many in this field who work independently, such as artistes, directors, or people from technical teams such as light, sound, etc. Everyone is sitting ducks. So those who are affluent, they may survive, but those who do not have any savings or assets, are probably terrified about the coming days.

“In theatre we are not being able to do any rehearsals. For rehearsals, we need a certain venue, where we all gather from various locations. So, due to pandemic we cannot gather at the rehearsal venue, so we cannot practice, or read the script together. In our troupe, we were planning to develop some new work, but all work for them has stopped completely. So we have all become stuck in all our respective works related to theatre. The result of this is that after the pandemic, when we all get out, we will still not be able to do the rehearsals right away. Maybe, finding a venue will not be an issue, but during rehearsals we will not feel confident giving the dialogues in front of each other, due to fear of virus. Our co-artistes might not feel confident. None of us will know whether we have the virus in our body or not. The terror of unknowingly infecting others during rehearsals will stay with us for a long time. 

“On the other hand, when it comes to getting venues for our performances that is a whole other concern; whether the theatre authorities will give us permission to use their stages for our performances. Let’s say that we do get to book a stage. But will the audience come? From what confidence shall we invite the audience to our performances? I wonder at how we may ask the audience to come watch our shows, after such traumatic moments. We already struggle to fill all the seats during normal times, as people do not come to watch theatre as much as they did before. So, right after the pandemic, whether we will get an audience or not is a very big concern for all of us. So if there is no one to watch, then for whom shall we perform the drama?”, Kaberi added.

I asked Kaberi, how does the stage productions get financed. She replied: “Theatre happens from personal or group initiatives in this country. Usually a theatre troupe is owned by one benefactor or three or four as a group. There are no government subsidies for this. Theatre troupes finance their own productions. Since the government does not finance independent theatre troupes, maybe the state of the troupes is not an exclusive fault of the government restrictions. Rather lack of economic activity impacts theatre. But if we do not get venues or audiences, then we will not be able to finance the productions. A portion of the costs of putting up a production comes from the ticket sales. And if we cannot sell tickets, then that will also create an impact.

“If you take ticket price out of the equation, as in theatre is offered for free, and if you still have empty theatres, then for whom shall you perform? Dramas tell real stories that are from our own society; it shows conflicts, and it gives hope. If there is no audience to show these things to, then there is no value for giving so much effort. For TV series, people watch it from the safety of their homes. There is no need for a live audience for that art form. So for TV audiences it is not a problem. Maybe, quality may differ from olden times, but that is a different matter. In the case of stage, quality has not regressed I would say, but the audience is very important. Since this disease is very contagious, this outbreak is creating a very big impact on theatre. However, we are still full of hope. Theatre always makes us dream, and gives us hope. Certainly, we will return to our glory days. We will overcome such disastrous times by coming together for each other. We will be there for each other from a distance. We are all mentally prepared to overcome this, and we are all slowly preparing for the reality after the pandemic ends. 

“In the case of theatre, many of the people involved are either students, or people with low income. Not all can do theatre simultaneously with other professions. Either they cannot give time, or concentrate on either task properly. So those who are just involved with theatre, and are not working anywhere else, they are the ones who will suffer the most. Artistes can never ask for alms from people. But artistes do get behind the general people in times of disaster. We have been volunteering for the needy and the destitute. We will keep doing so, no matter what the cost is to us. That is the hope I keep in my heart,” Kaberi added.

CAT, however, did perform their hit play, Stalin, in the midst of this pandemic, and streamed it live on Facebook, so that all thespians and theatre lovers can enjoy their performance for free. The CAT folks love theatre and not even a pandemic as destructive as Covid-19 could keep them away from performing. 

Set of Open Space Theatre's 'And then there were none'  Nazmul Shakil Hosain

Tisha Mahjabeen Chowdhury, the founder and CEO of Open Space Theatre (OST) also spoke to me about how her theatre troupe was impacted by this pandemic. She said: “As you know, Open Space Theatre always aims to bring forth new talents; we recruit our new actors from the audience, train and practice with them for months, and the best performers get casted in the upcoming productions of OST. Because of the pandemic, thinking about everybody’s safety - health of actors, technical crew, and the audience - we are not arranging any shows. We are waiting for the contamination rate to subside and for theatre spaces to be safe again for mass gatherings.

"To keep in touch with our audience, we have created a Facebook group, 'A Million For Theatre'. Here, we share posts that inspire people to know more about Theatre and to engage in it. We will keep our followers posted about our future activities through this Facebook group."

Impact on professional musicians

I spoke to Bappa Mazumder to get the perspective of professional musicians. Here is what Bappa had to say on the impact of a pandemic on musicians: “Most people might think that professional musicians are very wealthy, and will not be impacted all that much by this pandemic because of their wealth. However, such thoughts are wrong and uninformed. Musicians make money in two primary ways- either they sell their music to people through albums or singles, or they perform live in front of fans in a concert. Both ways of earning livelihood have been massively impacted by this pandemic.

Bappa Mazumder

“Firstly, let us talk about concerts. There have been no concerts organized in-person throughout the ongoing pandemic, to keep everyone safe from the virus. Musicians have relatives too, who are suffering from this virus, and we prioritize the health of our fans before anything else. In every concert, security of fans is a major concern for all musicians. The love from our fans sustains our livelihood, and nourishes our creativity. In a contagious virus situation, the risk is maximum when it comes to mass gatherings. Therefore, us musicians did not organize or take part in any ‘live in-person’ concerts. Rather we opted for online concerts held through social media platforms.

“These online concerts require a lot of time, effort, energy and commitment from a lot of people so they can be organized. These are thankless tasks to be honest, and the money generated from such concerts goes to charity, which is an amazing thing. We musicians perform in online events, and also in live in-person events, to stand behind those people who need our help the most. I am proud of all the musicians who are continuing their performances through social media platforms and online concerts. They are keeping music alive and most importantly they are giving people hope.

“However, the fact of the matter is, online concerts do not generate any recognizable income for musicians. In live concerts, we get some money from the organizers or the sponsors of the concert. In online concerts, the goal is charity and it should remain so. But without live concerts to sustain our careers, how shall we continue making music for our fans? How can we remain relevant to all those fans in all the districts of Bangladesh, who may not have access to social media to enjoy our music, but come in great numbers to watch us, when we visit their communities? They deserve to hear our music too, as their love over the years has also helped us reach where we - established musicians - are today. Therefore, I believe, it is high time for the online concert organizers to think about ways to significantly pay the musicians they invite to perform in their events. Already musicians are struggling to survive in this pandemic, and they do not have any live events to make money from. If they cannot make any significant money from online events, the only option they have right now, then many musicians might be lost forever. 

“As for album sales, this was a problem well before the pandemic. Internet and accessibility of music in current day and time has led to declining album sales for many years. There were no music stores left. Cassettes and CDs became obsolete in the digital age, which started well before the pandemic. After the pandemic started even music producers and labels are suffering from the state of the economy. The entire industry is affected. There is very little hope remaining among professional musicians. Royalties from things such as ringtones, or performing music for video content is not simply happening. And us professional musicians are all trying to survive the pandemic to the best of our abilities. Now everyone is trying to sell music on digital platforms and in the forms of singles. Industry is saturated, as we have an abundance of talent in this country, and that is a very good thing. But all musicians would need help in some way, in order to survive the pandemic. Musicians need to make money to keep the music industry alive.

“However, I will mention again that I am very grateful to all the musicians who are keeping their spirits up and performing online in some capacity. You are giving everyone hope. I am incredibly proud of all the musicians of this country. Let us hope we can keep our art alive,” Bappa added.

If you have had the patience to read up until now, I hope you have gained some perspective on the struggle of theatre and music artistes. I consume the art they create to keep my sanity intact. I am sure a lot of my readers and friends do the same. Now they are going through tough times just as much as the rest of us, because of this pandemic. If we do not empathize with our beloved artistes now, then when?


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