These days, a group of about half a dozen artists from the Kathputli Colony – puppeteers, drummers, dancers – come together, wearing masks, to practice their art in a small aerocon room. The room, whose wall is covered with black fabric, has a mobile phone on a tripod, a microphone, an audio recorder, lights and a laptop. The artists rehearse for Kathputli Utsav, an online art festival to be organized in February by the University of Manchester in the UK for artists from the colony.
“The two-hour event will feature performances, lectures and panel discussions on the condition of artists in India during the pandemic,” said Vijay Maitri, a community leader and theater artist. “The online event will be televised live from our colony to be seen live on the big screen at the University of the UK.
Artists here have used technology to save their art and livelihoods during the pandemic. “
Indeed, hundreds of performing artists and artisans in the Kathputli settlement, perhaps the largest performing artist community in the country, have turned to technology in the last two years of the pandemic. , hosting online shows, workshops for kids, and making educational videos using puppets on a variety of topics, including Covid.
When the pandemic struck, artists in the colony performing at weddings, birthday parties, malls and restaurants struggled to make ends meet as the shows dried up.
In fact, Covid-19 has been a double whammy for 2,800 families in the Kathputli settlement, who for more than four years have been living in squalid conditions in a transit camp in Anand Parbat after their settlement was demolished for DDA’s first in situ slum rehabilitation project. . Displaced and unemployed, they struggled to survive. “When the first lockdown took place, the situation was dire; many families here had nothing to eat. A few young artists, who had savings, raised money to help and also contacted nonprofits across town, who came forward to donate ration kits, ”says Maitri.
As part of the relief efforts, Maitri and her young team of volunteers also hosted an online show on Zoom in an effort to get people to contribute to the fundraising campaign they launched on a crowdfunding platform. . More than 100 people, says Maitri, watched the event live across the world and some of them helped raise funds. “That’s when we realized that our artists can also do shows online to earn money,” says Maitri, an engineer turned social activist, born and brought to the settlement of Kathputli, where he came to live and work for the community after quitting his job at a multinational company. “We started teaching young artists in the colony how to create live events on Zoom, Facebook and Instagram. “
The team also set up a makeshift studio in one of the halls of the transit camp, to organize online performances. “We made a list of the equipment we needed for the live events: speakers, microphones, lights, sound mixers, cameras, and circulated it among our friends and supporters outside the colony on WhatsApp. ; they responded by donating a lot of that equipment, and we started, ”Maitri said.
Many artists have also transformed their cramped one-room homes in the transit camp into a stage by using green or black fabric to cover the walls and decorating the space with puppets and other crafts made by artisans. local.
Vinay Bhatt, 26, puppeteer, is one of these artists. He often streams live on Zoom from his room in the transit camp and has so far performed two dozen online shows and puppet workshops. He says that until the lockdown he knew nothing about online shows, but he was trained by his friends in art circles outside the colony. A friend of his, he says, even gave him a laptop and he got other gear like a webcam from Dariya Dil Dukaan, a gift economy forum on Facebook. Bhatt, who studied up to the fourth level, not only performed several live shows but also online puppet workshops for a company offering Art Integrated Learning (AIL) for children and several educational videos using puppets on Covid and other topics for various governments and non-government agencies.
“Online shows are not a substitute for physical shows, as performers crave applause from audiences. In an online show, we play for cameras, which sometimes gets boring, but at least we can support ourselves financially and keep our art alive. Otherwise, our art and our artists could soon be forgotten without any kind of spectacle, ”says Vinay Bhatt.
And how much is he paid for an online show? “I used to earn around ??7,000 for performing at a birthday party, but I get almost half the money for a similar online performance, ”says Bhatt, who also created Puppet Kala, which he describes as a“ production house ”to help local artists do shows online. . His most recent online show, he said, was for a birthday party at an army officer’s home in Delhi cantonment. “Although our income is far from pre-pandemic levels, I am now confident that I can use all of my experience and knowledge of the various digital tools to support myself in the worst times. I think every performing artist has to learn technology, ”he says.
Agrees with Santosh Bhatt, 50, another well-known puppeteer from the colony, who has performed several shows and workshops online. He says that before the pandemic almost no artist had a Paytm account, but now most are receiving payment for their online performances through online wallets such as Paytm or Google Pay. “We were trained by young volunteers in the use of mobile wallets. While we get little money from online shows, at least we get new audiences, which could help us revive our dying art, ”says Santosh.
Many Kathputli artists, led by Maitri, also collaborate with foreign artists online. In October, for example, a group of drummers from the colony collaborated with artists from Scotland, Jordan, Zambia and Kenya as part of a project by Tinder Box Collective, a community of young artists and musicians in Scotland. The project called “Samta Sessions” aims to form an international collective of musicians, artists, dancers, puppeteers and community groups, in India, Kenya, Zambia, Scotland, Jordan, Nigeria and Ireland and create them new opportunities.
“It has been a great experience making music with artists from so many countries online. We hope this will also give us the opportunity to do more shows online and offline in these countries, ”said Vinod Bhatt, drummer.
Maitri now runs a three-month fellowship for young people from the Kathputli settlement in partnership with Pravah, an NGO. As part of the scholarship, 10 young people carry out projects in mental health, education, digital literacy, among others in the colony.
Rohit Bhatt, 21, runs a digital literacy project, helping artists in the colony organize shows online. “I go door-to-door to train artists in the use of cell phones for live performances. While the young here, although poorly educated, learn quickly, the older artists struggle to use the technology. But everyone is keen to adopt the technology, ”says Rohit. “We have so far trained over 100 artists to create online events on Zoom, Facebook and Instagram, and we will be training many more in the months to come. I firmly believe that technology can really help save our art. The pandemic has made them desperate, but technology is giving artists new hope. “