The fingers would move deftly on the algoza to the rhythm of Mirza-Sahiba, Jugni and Dulla Bhatti. With equal ease, Bhajan Lal would pick up the tumbi and strike at the strings with such grace, there was no dearth of work. Radio programmes, melas, university programmes, weddings — all platforms were equally valued; they brought him subsistence. But this was until March last year. As the pandemic struck, the very hands that played the algoza found themselves gathering whatever scrap they could find.
A B-high grade artiste with All India Radio, Jalandhar, since 1995, he now sets out on his bicycle, negotiating the bylanes of villages around Samrala, looking for waste boxes, shards of glass, newspapers and broken plastic wares. Whatever he is able to collect by 1 pm is sold to a dealer. On a good day, he earns Rs100, but there are times when he finds no scrap at all.
Before the pandemic struck, life was different. Folk artistes had busy careers, not too well paying, but satisfying. Bhajan Lal especially commanded respect for his ability to play several instruments. Bharat, a choreographer from Meham village in Rohtak, was happy to be able to provide his young daughters with whatever they asked for. But as coronavirus swooped down upon the world, gatherings became a bane. Bhajan Lal, Bharat and several like them were suddenly in a changed world, one that had no place for them. They were soon left to look for alternative sources of income. Lacking any other skills, they found themselves working as daily wagers.
Bharat, a graduate in arts, too, takes up odd jobs. “I do whatever I manage to get — sometimes I am a construction labourer, at times, a painter.” The second wave has worsened things. With not much construction activity happening in the village, he has had no work for more than a week. At fate’s mercy is dholak player Shamsher Singh from Julana village in Haryana’s Jind district. For the last two days, he has been engaged with the digging of a pond. The work would have ended by the time you read this and Shamsher would be back to hunting for work to feed his family of five, including three kids, the eldest of whom is 11.
The pandemic has been especially unkind to artistes who live in anonymity. Often part of groups led by famous men and women, the limelight understandably stays away from them during the good times. And during the bad times such as these, they don’t make for a good story of deprivation either.
“The lockdown has left us hand-to-mouth,” says Raj Kumar, whose father, Gurcharan Singh Chatra, was a known name in Malwai Giddha. The dance form has become a major attraction at weddings in the last few years, says Raj, but with the guests now limited, there is no place for it. Following his father’s death in January, the baton of the 15-member group he helmed is in the hands of Raj Kumar and his brother. But with the situation not abating, he is unsure how they are supposed to carry forward the legacy. Most of the people from the group are now daily-wagers; Raj has turned a cook, his brother Des Raj, a driver.
Tales of misery seem unending and agonising. If 86-year-old algoza player Swarn Singh Mahi, from Manewala village near Machhiwara, Ludhiana, is suddenly at the mercy of those around him, there are so many across Punjab and Haryana quietly awaiting death. Once a singer at hotels in Ludhiana, Vishal Sonu now sells tea leaves. “For the first few months, I waited for things to get normal. But when the wait seemed never-ending, I entered the trade of tea leaves. I did not give a second thought to it as am I already under a debt of Rs70,000,” he says. Pending rent of shop and godown has been worrying 60-year-old Narinder Singh and his son, Ramandeep, of Master Fauji Band in Ludhiana. Work was going steady and they would earn Rs5,000 per day. As the pandemic rendered weddings simpler, they went out of work. Ramandeep took up work in a medicine factory, but that too shut down recently. He now does odd jobs, earning barely Rs300 per day.
With all the entertainment activities coming to a halt due to restrictions, small-time folk artistes feel doomed. In Himachal, especially, the cancellation of village fairs has meant that hundreds of dancers and musicians are out of work. “Covid-19 has snatched our livelihood and we have been forced to work as labourers for subsistence,” laments Roshan, a folk artiste from Chamba, whose wife is also a folk singer.
Work is irregular and doesn’t pay much; Rs400 to 500 per day is what he earns, and work is available for about 10 days a month under MNREGA as well as at private construction sites. Earlier, he would earn about Rs20,000 per month by singing Chambyali folk and playing khanjari and other instruments for tourists in Khajjiar, besides performing at weddings and jagrans. Supporting a family of six is getting tougher by the day.
The story of Vishal from Baijnath in Kangra is no different. “My wife and I used to earn our livelihood by singing and performing one-act plays at weddings and religious events. Covid forced me to become a driver, but I met with an accident last year. There is no hope now,” he rues. The family of 55-year-old folk singer Vipin from Jawalamukhi is also in dire straits. It is now dependent on his wife, an anganwadi worker, who earns Rs6,000 per month.
No help in sight
Along the thread of despair run stories of neglect. If artistes in Punjab and Haryana rue that neither the government, nor the North Zone Cultural Centre or the cultural academies have offered any assistance, artistes from Himachal say they feel abandoned by the temple trusts that did not come to the rescue of the people associated with them. “While ration rotted in godowns and was donated to gaushalas, artistes were forgotten. Essential items like foodgrains and LPG cylinders have become dearer, adding to our woes,” says an artiste. Those empanelled with the public relations department are enraged that the department has failed to pull them out of this condition. Bharat says the NZCC, Allahabad zone, asked artistes in need, including him, to share their details. “But no help has come as of yet. The Haryana Government doesn’t seem to care,” he says.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official with the NZCC, Patiala, says that while no artistes are registered with the organisation, it has been helping those who approach it by giving them online programmes. However, insiders say that such programmes are few and far between. The official admits that there are hundreds of artistes in villages across the region who do not have any idea that there is a body like NZCC that works for their welfare. “Approaching us for help is out of question for them,” he says.
In the face of continuing uncertainty, these artistes are unsure of what lies ahead. They are fighting it out, but are not sure how long can they sustain. “I am an artiste, I have never done anything else,” says Bhajan Lal, who dusts his instruments daily. “I do not know how long this will last. I sometimes just wish this disease claims me.”
— With inputs from Bhanu P Lohumi and Manav Mander