Akram Khan is the seventh generation Behrupiya performer from Dausa district of Rajasthan. After impersonating hundreds of characters as a Behrupiya and entertaining audiences for several decades, Akram was on the verge of giving up his art as the Covid pandemic snatched away his livelihood.
Behrupiya is a traditional Indian street theatre where artists dress in different costumes as Behrupiyas or impersonators and play characters from mythology and folklore.
Akram learnt the art from his father, the renowned Subrati Behrupiya. Over time, the theatre form has declined and Behrupiya performers are living in poverty. The pandemic only added to their woes.
Last year, he got in touch with Bengaluru-based StillSpace Theatre that has stepped in to help traditional folk artists with their initiative #forartistsandart in 2020 and it later expanded to #CommunityBox campaign this year.
Dinesh Chandra, a farmer in Etah village, Uttar Pradesh, has been keeping alive a traditional folk singing form, Thali Ki Ramayan for the last 30 years. Before the pandemic struck, Dinesh along with six of his fellow artists would earn Rs4000 per month through performances. However, they were left high and dry during Covid as shows and, consequently, earnings stopped.
Thali ki Ramayan is performed using thalis while performers sing interpretations of The Ramayan, which has elements of Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas but mostly the community's own interpretations of the epic.
"I learnt Thali Ki Ramayan from my father at the age of 12. I was inspired by his performances in the village and decided to continue this art after my father's death," says Dinesh. But he rues that the pandemic has ruined everything.
Like Akram and Dinesh, the Covid19 pandemic has left hundreds of performing artists across the country in a difficult situation with no performances and no earnings. With little government assistance, they have been dependent on help from NGOs and social organisations. And StillSpace Theatre is working to help them in every possible manner.
For the love of the arts
StillSpace Theatre’s #Forartsistsandarts initiatives started as an immediate response to the first lockdown that was imposed beginning March 25, 2020. "It is an artist-driven initiative that provided ration to performers in many including Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
“We started in June 2020 and supported over 600 artists in Karnataka with ration distributions during the first lockdown. This was later scaled to over 1,000 artists across India,” says Akhshay Gandhi, artistic director, StillSpace Theatre.
Retired theatre artists were supported with one month's sustenance, theatre artists in Bangalore received help in getting free vaccination and auditorium staff in Bangalore was provided with food items and medicines.
In the second Covid lockdown, StillSpace supported 44 rural Karnataka artists with funds for three months while they also facilitated upskilling them with technology to further their performances.
"My wife Anita takes care of the operations of StillSpace Theatre. Our team would receive 200 to 250 calls per day and we arranged rations according to the needs of the artists. As the ration distribution grew, we arranged for ration to be picked up from the local store by the artists and we would pay digitally," says Akhshay.
StillSpace supported 40 folk and tribal artists from Karnataka with funds raised in the Art of Walking Project conducted by Pankaj Tiwari and Abhishek Thapar. The duo walked from near Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Paris in France to raise awareness on the plight of migrant workers.
The technological edge
It was during the ration distribution that Akhshay and the team at StillSpace Theatre realised the ground realities of traditional artists.
It wasn't just ration they needed but help with taking their performances online so that it wouldn't be completely stopped.
The StillSpace team met with independent Yakshagana artists and provided them with technological support to perform in a temple in October 2020 so that it could be streamed online. Then a team of leather puppeteers performed in Hassan, Karnataka, in December 2020.
A company theatre was able to renew their license and start performing in January 2021, thanks to StillSpace.
As part of the campaign, five workshops were held – one by Behrupiya artist Akram Khan from Rajasthan, Baul musician Dipannita Acharya from West Bengal, Dinesh Chandra, Thali ki Ramayan artist from Uttar Pradesh, Anil Hankare, Lavani artist from Maharashtra and Prabir Sinha, Putul Naach artist from West Bengal.
The workshops were two hours long and included performances by the artists and discussions on the background, history and technicalities of the performances, giving a deep insight into the respective art forms.
"We were supported in this endeavour by The SuperGeographic Ensemble Theatre that gave each artist Rs 5000. We also received donations from those who attended the workshops. On average, for five online workshops we received Rs 26,000 each," says Akhshay.
"We decided to have volunteers familiar with the art form and the language to help set up the online workshops for the artists," says Akhshay.
But the process had challenges.
Ashu Yadav, a 22-year-old theatre artist who works in the development sector, hails from Etah village in Uttar Pradesh. He helped Dinesh to set up the workshop. Ashu says that several obstacles had to be overcome for a seamless process.
The workshop got Dinesh another performance by a group in Lucknow which will be held soon," he adds.
Akhshay, who has been constantly engaged in bettering his craft, says #CommunityBox has changed his outlook as an artist. "It helped me hone my artistic skills. It also helped us as a team to strengthen our problem-solving skills to find solutions,” he says.
(Sravasti Datta is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist, who writes art, culture and human interest stories)