Shankar Vishvanath Hegde, 42, from the coastal village of Nilkod in the southwestern state of Karnataka in India, has spent nearly every evening of his adult life dressed up as a woman to play female characters in the wildly popular regional Yakshagana theatre. The folk opera artform sustained him for over two decades, until the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed his livelihood.
Hegde’s pre-pandemic 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. But then the pandemic silenced Hegde’s vibrant nights.
“It was demoralising to sit at home when the lockdown started, and I am not willing to accept donations,” Hegde tells VICE. “And so, I found a way to perform online.”
Hegde and his 23-member troupe have three recorded performances online on Shaale.com, a Bengaluru-based immersive platform that hosts performances and learning content on classical and folk arts.
Thousands of folk and tribal artists, who are part of India’s vast informal economy, have been unable to earn because of the pandemic. Some are turning to an unlikely platform to save their culture: the Internet.
Marginalised performers are finding tech solutions in the hopes of reaching a wider audience and creating sustainable revenue streams. There are several efforts to put Indian traditions on digital, globally accessible platforms. Baul singers from Bengal, Chhau dancers from Odisha, and Qawwali performers from Malwa are among the few who are finding their groove online. The marriage of the creative and performing arts industry with the digital economy isn’t new, but many esoteric artforms of folk and tribal communities are making their debut into the virtual space due to the pandemic. Audiences with a discerning ear can choose from workshops, lec-dems, live and on-demand performances.
Once Hegde got over the initial shock of the pandemic taking away his livelihood, he came up with an alternative plan: hiring a wedding videographer from the village, scripting truncated versions of the original six-hour long performances, and putting the performance up on Shaale.com. He believes he’s amongst the first to monetise Yakshagana online. Overseas subscribers can watch for $7 and those in India for $2.71 (Rs 199), but Hegde’s once joyous theatre evenings are now replaced with the anxiety of tracking viewership numbers.
While Shaale.com has offered several other Indian arts in recorded format, there are also nonprofit tech start-ups like Kalbeliya World that livestream dance workshops from the heart of Rajasthan.
Rekha Sapera, 20, is a professional dancer from the Kalbeliya community, an impoverished tribe of itinerant performers from Pushkar.
In the wee hours of the morning, Sapera enthusiastically teaches around six students joining her over video conferencing app Zoom from the West Coast of the United States. Students pay just $10 an hour-long class. Kalbeliya World has assigned her a volunteer “buddy-dancer” who translates and manages Zoom invites, teaches the women to set up the camera and check the sound, and handles the promotion and signups. By pairing the Kalbeliya women with multi-lingual dance-buddies, Kalbeliya World has offered classes in Spanish, French and Japanese too.
“These workshops saved me,” says Sapera, who has managed to support her extended family of over 12 people through these online classes. From famous dancers like Padma Shri Gulabo Sapera to young women like Rekha, the platform has 11 women dancers who teach students from across the world.
Georgina Mejia, a teacher from Mexico City, took to Kalbeliya World as it was more freeing than Indian classical dance, which she felt had too many rules. She heard about the workshops from a local Kalbeliya dance teacher and started learning Kalbeliya during the lockdown in Mexico. “It was easy for me to follow the classes because Kalbeliya dance involves a lot of improvisation,” Mejia, who attended Kalbeliya workshops for nearly three months through the pandemic, said.
Indians, however, have been less enthusiastic to sign up, organisers say. Since April, over 600 students have enrolled on Kalbeliya World from countries in South and North America, and Europe.
“We wanted to find a sustainable economic system so that the 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 temporary idea to help folk artists in Rajasthan earn during the pandemic has now turned into a tech-startup project run by women for women. Kalbeliya World’s setup is easy for the women to use. “I have a phone and data pack, I put the phone on the window sill for the class,” Rekha Sapera says, turning the video camera for a tour of her hut. There are unpainted mud walls on either side of Rekha, and behind her is a red cloth which partitions the small space into two. A wooden frame holds up the roof made of plastic sheets. Nearly half a dozen other family members sleep outside under the desert sky.
A majority of Indians, like Hegde and Sapera, are first generation smartphone users and find it difficult to harness the untamed power of the digital sphere for economic gains. India has over 504 million Internet users, the second highest in the world, but with 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. Moreover, adapting traditional artforms for an online audience isn’t easy.
“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 the traditional performers are backed with a crew involving set designers, musicians, light 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,” Kumar 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. Being online translated to transcending the boundaries of their villages and towns. The world could see them. They had arrived on the virtual stage.
Hedge’s experience in Yakshagana theatre is 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.com 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 long 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.” However, the process of onboarding performers and attracting audiences is slow. Shaale started in 2018, and it is this year that rural folk artists have approached them for collaborations. Subscriptions have reached over 4,000, he noted.
“Earlier folk and classical artistes 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 that prospects for folk arts will improve.
Despite the vicissitudes of performing online, Hedge points out, “Not everything can be for profit. Sometimes you do it for your mind and love of the arts.”
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