COVID-19 has encouraged the art fraternity in Kerala to change the way it used to see and create art.

Bindhi in front of her painting at the Lokame Tharavadu showArtist Bindhi Rajagopal in front of her painting at the Lokame Tharavadu show
Features Art Monday, August 30, 2021 - 16:23

A year and a half ago, immersed in handicraft works at his studio in Kochi, artist Vinoj Pathrose hardly imagined that there would come a day when he would have to convert his studio into something else for survival. He had been doing well professionally until 2020 when the novel coronavirus hit the world. Like everyone else, Vinoj also waited for a while thinking the situation would get back to normal soon. But it didn’t. Rather, he was forced to change his profession.

“Work orders began to reduce after COVID-19 struck. To survive, I turned my studio into a vegetable-cum-cool-drinks shop,” says the artist. Before the pandemic, he used to sell sculptures and other decor for interior designers, advertising companies, handicraft shops and others.

However, his new business lasted only a few months. “I had to close it down because customers could not visit the shop due to the COVID-19 lockdown,” he adds. He used to run a handicraft shop in Mattancherry with a friend, which closed down in February 2020. “Another friend who was planning to open a handicraft shop in Alappuzha had to do the same as COVID-19 adversely affected tourism. It’s a really difficult time for artists,” says Vinoj, who resumed handicraft work after the vegetable business failed.

In his opinion, a pandemic is not the ideal time to toy with new ideas. “When we explore a new business territory, we have to learn the profit-making techniques of that particular field. It is a time-consuming process and requires financial investment. Such an attempt is not feasible at a time like this. I know many who have lost money after starting new businesses during the pandemic,” explains Vinoj. “Moreover, art is a solo process. When it comes to business, you have to pay salary to employees. All this requires money.”

Although he is back in his comfort zone, Vinoj says uncertainty still looms. “I’d have been a little more courageous if I had enough money at hand. Now, I’m doing miscellaneous jobs to meet my basic requirements. There is no other way to go ahead.” He is also thinking of taking his business online to reach more customers.

Looking around it is apparent that many other artists are also choosing different jobs to beat the COVID-19 blues. A few have also succeeded in their alternative venture. But, there is an unwillingness among them to open up about this shift due to personal and professional reasons.

An uncertain time

When Kerala declared the first lockdown in March 2020 to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the artist community in Kerala had no clue that it would be a long uncertain journey. Days and weeks passed with no sign of revival of travel or events, let alone reopening of art galleries. Like every other sector, the lockdown and related restrictions brought a dilemma to the art world too.

Hassan Kotharath's work done as part the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi camp

Commissioned works dipped, large-scale events ceased and art sales plummeted. At least for a brief period, several artists were forced to take up other jobs like house painting, carpentry, polishing, selling vegetables, and food supply, to cope with the situation. Those who used to depend solely on art suffered the most. But they all are sure about one thing – it is a temporary phase. They want to return to art once life is back to normal.

Hassan Kotharath working at home

Cyril P Jacob, art collector and co-founder of Palette People Art Residency, observes the same. “Usually for an artist, income might be coming from different sources like printing works or creative jobs at weddings. Such avenues have stopped, and so they moved to fields where they get money. It’s because they are struggling, even to buy materials for their work. This shift is for temporary survival,” says Cyril.

On the other hand, one can find artists who remained in their profession despite the difficulties. “For an artist, life is mostly simple. They try to live with whatever they have,” adds Cyril.

Hussain Kotharath at work

Hussain Kotharath, a Kochi-based artist, says he survived the lockdown because the state government provided monthly ration kits. “For months, we could not go out for work,” he says. He and his brother Hassan, who are full-time artists, devoted the time to create more art, and posted them on social media platforms. They also took part in the 10-day work from home art camp organised by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. Their works explore the COVID-19 experience. Hassan’s work is titled ‘Lockdown’ while Hussain’s work is called ‘Memories of the Pandemic’.

Exhibit at the Lokame Tharavadu show

Material shortage was another problem artists faced, mostly in the first phase of the lockdown. As art supplies were not categorised as essentials, artists had a tough time procuring them. “Even online orders took a long time,” says Thaj Bakar from Malappuram. The scarcity of materials inspired him to experiment with a new medium – Ponnani Mashi or Arabic ink, which was available locally. Using this, he created drawings depicting childhood and rural life. These works are on display at the ‘Lokame Tharavadu’ show currently happening in Alappuzha.

Emotions as stimulus

Not only a financial obstacle, but COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns were also an emotional rollercoaster for many. While some used the emotional turmoil as fuel to nurture their creativity, for others it was quite an unsettling period.

Artist Meera Krishna from Kochi, whose works involve self-portraits, says she had a tough time exploring her mind. “My works portray my emotions. I just could not bring them to the canvas.” Last year, she also had to postpone her solo show as galleries were closed. “The grant I used to get from the cultural department was also delayed during the first phase of the lockdown.”

Hussain Kotharath's work done as part of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi camp

Meera says she misses travel and gallery visits the most, which are important to stir creative thoughts. “Gallery visits have great value in an artist’s life. Seeing others’ works refreshes our minds, and sometimes ignites a spark. Also, it is a different vibe when we meet, sit together and discuss our practices. Travel generates the same effect. However, going out became a daunting affair with the advent of coronavirus,” explains Meera.

Artworks on display at the Lokame Tharavadu exhibition

Babitha Rajiv, who hails from Fort Kochi, concurs. “I find happiness in interacting with people directly. Sometimes, it might be during a gallery visit that I come across an idea similar to mine. Then, I’d look for a new perspective,” she says. However, when it comes to creating art, the lockdown has not been a hindrance for Babitha. “I rarely go out when I work, so it was nothing new for me,” she adds. “The only time I used to get worried was when family members talked about their difficulties. I was concerned because I could not reach them.”

Artist and art teacher Bindhi Rajagopal also agrees about the link between artists and exposure to the outside world. In her opinion, an artist draws inspiration from nature and people. “How can we make art when we are locked in?” she asks. “I do a lot of outdoor sketching before translating my thoughts to the canvas. Still, I managed to do some work. In the first year, I focused on COVID-19 as a theme.” Her works, portraying mangroves, are also on display at the ‘Lokame Tharavadu’ show. She also got to take part in a national camp during this time.

Babitha with her work done as part of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi camp

GS Smitha, a Kozhikode-based artist, had a different tryst with her art. She says it saved her from falling into depression. “In the beginning, the whole locked-in situation made me anxious. For a while, I could not paint. Later, to save myself I started painting a colourful world, drawing inspiration from my childhood memories. I went on to paint an extremely bright world of forests, rocks, streams, and places I saw or went to as a child. I created a colourful world to forget the dullness of the lockdown. That process healed me.” These works are also exhibited at the ‘Lokame Tharavadu’ show.

Art, a non-essential item

Although artists kept creating art, the biggest dilemma has been finding the market. Even before COVID-19, the art market in Kerala was not quite lively. Unlike other Indian art hubs where art is a part of lifestyle, the culture of collecting or buying art is still at a latent stage in the state. Even today, artists, irrespective of gender, face social stigma for choosing the profession. This situation has only worsened during the pandemic. With galleries closed and art perceived as a non-essential item, the art market in Kerala became more discouraging than before.

“Last year, nobody visited my gallery and hence there were no sales,” says Bindhi, who teaches at the Asian School of Architecture. “Most of my buyers are business people, architects and interior designers. During the pandemic, their industry was down, which was mirrored in my sales too.” Her teaching job helped her sustain.

Babitha's work

Babitha adds, “Usually, I get sales from solo/group shows. Since galleries were shut, my creations couldn’t find a market. In January, when galleries reopened for a brief period, I exhibited a few works at a show held at MNF Gallery, Kochi, where some of them were bought. Unfortunately, the galleries closed again. Online shows didn’t bring me any sales.”

Benny, an art teacher, who used to work at the Ente Bhoomi art gallery, Kochi, cites a different angle. He says, “Tourists were our main source of income, especially those who would come for the Kochi Biennale. We suffered because neither the Biennale happened nor tourists came last year. The situation is more or less the same even now. In Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, art venues are being shut down due to the dormant tourism.”

There has also been a major dip in art collection during this period, observes Cyril. “The income of art collectors has also reduced with the pandemic. It reflects in galleries, which are the primary markets. Many galleries have closed down during this period. At the same time, auction houses, the secondary art markets, are functioning well at the national level. But the secondary market does not help the artists directly. In the case of Kerala, the state has a few art collectors, and does not have auction houses,” he says, adding, “On a broader landscape, art is the least priority now. It is something that people would leave aside at this point.”

However, Cyril collected some works during the pandemic to support the artist community. “More than from a collector’s point of view, this time I looked at the supporting side,” he says. In the first lockdown, he organised an initiative to help 45 artists. As part of this, he gave each artist Rs 5,000. Now, he is all set to provide scholarships to two final year Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and two Master of Fine Arts (MFA) students. “The BFA students will receive Rs 25,000 each and the MFA students will get Rs 30,000 each.”

Helping hands

The dilemma artists faced only increased with each wave of COVID-19. However, both individuals as well as public and private organisations came forward to lend a hand.

The Kerala Lalithakala Akademi rose to the occasion with two major programmes – ‘Nirakeralam’ and ‘Shilpakeralam’ – to help artists during the pandemic. The Akademi gave a remuneration along with art supplies to the artists. “The criterion was to select artists who have no source of income, especially those who don’t receive any government support or pension. The artists could work from home,” says Nemom Pushparaj, Chairman of the Akademi.

“The first phase of ‘Nirakeralam’ included 105 artists, who were each given a remuneration of Rs 27,000, 4x3 inch canvas and other materials. That was in 2020, a time when the COVID-19 cases were at their peak. The whole situation was scarier than now. However, adhering to safety protocols, Akademi members travelled from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod to distribute art supplies to artists at their homes. Once the works were completed, they collected those too. Later, we held an exhibition of these works and added them to the Akademi’s collection,” he adds.

The second phase of ‘Nirakeralam’ held in 2021 had 250 artists. “We went a step ahead in that edition. We included not just practising artists, but also art graduates who had been doing other art-related works for survival, and transgender artists and sculptors. They were each provided a grant of Rs 20,000, 4x3 canvas and an extra Rs 2,000 to buy art supplies. Instead of adding these works to the Akademi’s collection, we decided to return it to them so that they could sell it at a price they want,” says Pushparaj. The second edition also highlighted mural artists. “Mural works have a market even now. But mural artists stopped receiving orders because of COVID-19.”

The third event ‘Shilpakeralam’, organised exclusively for sculptors, is going on right now. “As part of the programme, sculptors were given a Rs 20,000 grant and Rs 10,000 to buy materials. Their works will be given back to them after the exhibition.”

Pushparaj says the programmes were designed considering the dire situation brought about by COVID-19. “The aim is to keep those who have been practising art to stay in the profession,” he says. “Many artists had informed us about their struggles. Some of them said they were on the verge of suicide. They get to eat because of the government ration kits, but for other necessities like buying medicines, they had no financial support. This inspired us to shape these programmes. Above all, it is the Akademi’s responsibility to help artists,” he adds.

Many artists have found the programmes useful. Hussain, who got in the second round, says, “It was a big help. I could cover some of my financial needs. The convenience was that we could work from home.”

Babitha agrees. “The programmes conducted by the Akademi are more useful than any private ones. When we participate in a private programme, we’d need to spend money from our pockets. When the Akademi organises programmes, it would give us the money. Getting an amount at this point is a great help indeed,” says Babitha, who took part in the second round.

Not merely camps, but for the first time in its history the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi launched a free health insurance plan for artists during the pandemic. Pushparaj says the plan allows artists to reimburse up to Rs 1 lakh. “About 550 artists have joined the scheme. The Akademi will bear all the expenses for the insurance.” Though the Akademi publicised the plan across platforms, initially many artists were hesitant to claim it. Ask him the reason behind this reluctance, Pushparaj says, “That is the uniqueness of artists. There is a section of artists who believe in keeping a low-profile. It is their nature.”

However, the initial lull slowly vanished as testimonials for the plan began to come out. “One of the beneficiaries are twin artists Hussain and Hassan Kotharath,” says Pushparaj, reading out a letter they sent to the Akademi about how the insurance helped them. “One of them had a medical emergency and they got cashless treatment at the hospital,” adds Pushparaj. Hussain and Hassan confirm the same. “Now, we are getting a lot of enquiries. I believe more artists will come forward during the renewal time,” Pushparaj is hopeful.

According to Cyril, organisations like the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi should strengthen such initiatives. “At this time, the Akademi funds should be spent towards the welfare of the artists. Activities like experiments in the art field can be put on hold for a while.” At the same time, he urges artists to make use of the schemes available for them, such as the medical insurance and senior artists’ pension.

Alappuzha-based sculptor Ajayan Kattungal feels that the Akademi’s programmes are more helpful than any initiatives by corporate entities. “It would have been great if the government had given more funds to the Lalithakala Akademi, because it follows a feasible process now. If any work gets sold, the artist gets the entire amount. That is what we need now,” he says.

The Lokame Tharavadu show

Surprisingly, at a time when the world has gone virtual, the Kochi Biennale Foundation came up with a physical show ‘Lokame Tharavadu’. Bose Krishnamachari of the Kochi Muziris Biennale who curated the show says, “I felt it was important to give confidence to the artist community here. In cities like Mumbai, people know how to connect with galleries or at least they are familiar with the process of connecting with collectors. Unfortunately, in Kerala, artists are not well-connected with the market situation or galleries. They are not very aware of positioning their work in the market. ‘Lokame Tharavadu’ is a bridge trying to fill this gap.”

The massive show is spread over six venues: Kerala State Coir Corporation Ltd, New Model Society Building, Port Museum, William Goodcare & Sons Pvt Ltd and Eastern Produce Company in Alappuzha and Durbar Hall in Ernakulam.

Ask him about the reason behind organising an offline show during this time, Bose says, “At that time, the number of cases was coming down. In September 2020, we were thinking about postponing the 2020 biennale. I felt that there was a real emptiness in contemporary art. Nothing was happening. Everything was closed, people were sitting at home. Of course, we were having art discussions over webinars. But I felt that the physical presence of an exhibition was lacking.”

He suggested the idea of an event to showcase Malayali artists. Former minister Dr Thomas Isaac asked if it could be done in Alappuzha. “I thought it would be interesting not to show in Kochi. If I do something in Kochi, people will think it is the biennale. I didn’t want that. Kochi Biennale is going to be there in Kochi,” Bose explains.

Dr Thomas Isaac, the Muziris heritage project and architect Benny Kuriakose came forward to help him. The preliminary list included 140 artists. Then the number grew. “I was also worried because 267 is a huge number. It was a huge task. There was also no financial support coming from the (biennale) foundation or anyone,” says Bose, adding that the Rs 2 crore the state government earmarked in the budget for the show has not reached his hands.

Bose says he pulled off the show in April 2021 with the help of some of his friends. The viewers were supposed to follow COVID-19 protocols and carry RT-PCR negative certificates to enter the venues. The show did not take off as he imagined. Unfortunately, it had to be halted temporarily a few weeks from its launch when the state government tightened the COVID-19 restrictions.

The situation became difficult then, says Bose. “Venues like this usually do not draw a huge crowd. Art-loving people – such as art collectors – would come and visit. Artists would get a boost if their works are purchased.”

Upendranath, a participating artist, echoes the same. “It would be a big help to struggling artists if these works get sold,” he says. Smitha, who has four works showcased at the venue, says, “One of my works has received enquiries. It will be sold after the show is over. If it is sold, the artist can either take the full amount home or, if willing, donate a part of that amount to the organiser. It’s up to the artist.”

Eventually, the show, featuring works in different mediums, reopened for public viewing on August 13, 2021. The public are still required to follow COVID-19 protocols for entry. Bose says he is using his resources to help the artists. It will take a while to completely ascertain how far the show helps the Kerala artists.

Digital wave in art

On the bright side, the COVID-19 era witnessed artists, who are usually reluctant to attempt new media, embracing the virtual space for holding exhibitions and selling their works.

RK Chandrababu, an artist, art teacher and photographer, did two shows during the pandemic. The first one, held in 2020, featured 100 paintings for 100 days. “The amount I received from the sale was contributed towards the treatment of two patients and towards building a home,” he says. His second show featuring photographs crossed 100 days.

The ‘Monsoon Art Fest 2020’ by the Kottayam Art Foundation and the ‘Cochin Art Fest’ curated by artist O Sunder were offline exhibitions before the pandemic. They adopted the virtual space during the pandemic. “The two-part Monsoon Art Fest received a good response. We are planning to do another one in September this year,” says Udayan, a Kottayam-based artist who participated in the exhibition. The Students Biennale, a vertical of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, is also happening online.

In order to bring the viewing experience of an art gallery, Canvas Art Initiative has created a virtual art gallery, perhaps the first of its kind in Kerala, to showcase the works of 26 artists. The show ‘Distress Passes’ is presented at a gallery modelled on the traditional architecture of Kerala. Sanu Ramakrishnan, one of the artists, says, “COVID-19 has been a time when artists struggled but art flourished. The virtual art gallery is a platform to showcase their works. It also intends to explore the artistic side of individuals who were not full-time artists before.”

The show, which began on August 17 on YouTube, is getting positive feedback. “It’s because the show provides a new viewing experience. Unlike other online shows, artworks are displayed in the actual size. After a few days, we will be introducing our artists and their works.” The team is planning to do another virtual show in September with more advanced viewing techniques. “It will have about 60 artists from across the world,” Sanu pronounces.

Are online exhibitions helpful for artists? Chandrababu opines that online exhibitions draw more response than those at physical galleries. “I organised the exhibitions to keep myself busy. It was an emotionally satisfying experience. Also, the reach was great compared to gallery exhibitions. How many viewers would a gallery get? Maybe maximum 25 persons. On the internet, the works can reach about 3,000 people within hours. The audience response is quick,” he says. He believes the key is to make use of the possibilities that are available now. “Right now, online is the only way to reach the masses. So, we should make use of it.”

However, not everyone is in favour of online exhibitions. “As an artist, I’m not happy with them. Offline exhibitions have a different charm. Online shows may give us some publicity, but I’m not quite happy about it,” says Bindhi.

Teachers also opt for the virtual path. Art teacher Benny says he takes classes through WhatsApp. “In the first phase of the lockdown, my former students helped me endure. Then I started taking online classes.” Benny observes that adults show more interest than children to learn art. “Looks like children don’t want to sit through another online class,” he smiles.

The Kerala Lalithakala Akademi is also holding permanent online exhibitions of its collected works. “We also curate exhibitions,” Pushparaj says. “Our website offers a 360-degree view of the Akademi’s 19 galleries. These exhibitions will go on even after the revival of the physical galleries.”

The Akademi has also utilised the time to digitise its collected works. “The paintings and sculptures in the Akademi were not properly tagged and listed. This time has been used to sort and digitise them. The uploading work is going on. Once it is done, people can easily access artworks just by searching the medium, artist’s name, year or other such details,” says Pushparaj, adding that the Akademi will continue its digital wing even after the COVID-19 era.

The times may be tough, but artists are hopeful. They know how to deal with difficult phases because at least once in their career they would have confronted such a phase. Their perseverance keeps them going. They may be emotionally and financially wrecked, but they take efforts to keep their art alive by exhibiting them wherever possible, believing the dark clouds will eventually pave the way to light. But it is not time yet to relax. With health experts predicting the arrival of a third wave of COVID-19, every little support will help artists who continue to document the pandemic.

Elizabeth Thomas is an independent journalist based in Kerala.

This story was reported under the National Foundation for India fellowship for Independent Journalists.

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