While many have turned to teaching music and learning new skills during the pandemic, others have gone to the desperate measure of selling their instruments and leaving the field.

Two musicians on stage, one singing with his hair loose, the other holding a guitar, the background is blackConcert by Chaos / JK (singer) and Nikhil (guitar)
Features Music Monday, September 20, 2021 - 18:09

Every Saturday and Sunday, on the Facebook page of Highway Haze, a 30-year-old western music band in Kochi, there are live sessions featuring a musician or a group of musicians, performing. It’s a practice that began soon after COVID-19 struck Kerala and musicians who depended entirely on live performances suddenly had no venue to play at and no means to earn. In the beginning, the sessions used to see performances every day. Gradually, it turned into weekend sessions. At the end of each session, the band members of Highway Haze would pay the musicians who performed– their way of supporting the independent music community.

“COVID-19 badly affected independent musicians all over the world. We were a band that had been playing at Taj hotels in Kochi for decades – five or six shows every month. Suddenly there was no show, neither for us nor for any of the thousands of others in the state who needed a stage to earn an income,” says Mani of Highway Haze.

It has never been a rosy picture for independent musicians in Kerala. People still prefer film music to independent music, and bands and musicians have very few stages to perform on within the state. This became harder when colleges were banned from having entertainment programmes, after an unfortunate accident killed a college student in 2015. Until then, music shows were the highlight of college events across the state.

Watch: Sunday session on Highway Haze page

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With few or no shows to play, musicians started leaving the state for places like Bengaluru, where performance venues were more and a larger audience showed up for even the heaviest of rock genres. But then COVID-19 shut the doors on all venues and stages. Many musicians came back home to Kerala when rents (in other states) became unaffordable and began finding alternative means of making money.

“A lot of full-time musicians also teach on the side – instruments or vocals. But when the pandemic struck and lockdowns ensued, they began relying entirely on the music classes to make money, while pursuing their own music on the side,” says Nikhil from Kerala, who is the lead guitarist and co-founder of the thrash metal band Chaos.

Watch: TNM's 2018 interview of Chaos

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Nikhil, left his techie job a few years ago, had been busy with live performances and teaching guitar in Bengaluru, when the pandemic reached India. “Full-time musicians anyway need multiple sources of income to bring out their own music. Apart from teaching, I also did some session work – making music for some popular brands,” he says.

Picking up new skills

During the lockdown, he began training himself on doing production work, so that he could do the production of the band’s future albums. Chaos has brought out two acclaimed albums so far – Violent Redemption and All Against All.

James, the vocalist of the Malayalam rock band Thakara, says he too is picking up production work as well as using this time to learn to play instruments. “It is a very difficult time, without any shows to do. Many musicians are struggling during this time. I am using this time to learn to play the guitar and the keyboard and train in Carnatic music, hoping that stages will open again soon,” he says.

Watch: Thakara performs in January 2020

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The struggling musicians do not always admit they need money. Mani says that when they are in dire need, they call him and say, “Mani chetta, we need to play.” And Mani understands that there is an emergency and gives them the next free slot on the Highway Haze Facebook page. Mani and his friends collect funds from among their circle of friends and family to pay these musicians.

Sometimes it has gotten so bad that a musician has had to sell their instrument. “You know how bad it is when a keyboardist says he wants to sell his keyboard. It’s very bad. I know musicians who are on the verge of suicide. Others take debts,” says Harish Sivaramakrishnan, vocalist of Agam, a Carnatic progressive rock band.

Carnatic musicians, others affected

It is not just band musicians either, he says. There are a number of Carnatic musicians, temple artistes and others who have gone jobless due to the pandemic.

Carnatic musician Rama Varma who used to travel around the world for his kutcheris and music classes says that he began taking online classes for the first time. “I never taught or performed online before. But I have come to accept that things have moved online for an indefinite period of time. As an organiser of the Kuthiramalika festival (Carnatic music festival in Thiruvananthapuram), my expenses have actually come down. But as more of a teacher, than a performer who used to go from place to place and interact with the students and families, learning the culture of different places, there is a whole lot I miss,” Rama Varma says.

Watch: Rama Varma's online class

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He now takes online classes for about 200 students every weekend, from different corners of the world. He is also learning newer krithis and delving deeper into the ones he knows. However, the situation for many other musicians in the field is really sad, he says, without any kutcheris taking place on which their livelihoods depend.

Several vocations affected

“It is not just independent artistes but every artiste is suffering. People are finding various options for survival. Some musicians have dropped the field and chosen other fields of work. Some others have ventured into teaching music, through online classes and such. Then there are those who do session recording. Live musicians are more affected, but at least they could try some YouTube releases. It is a time of struggle for everyone,” says singer Sithara Krishnakumar.

Watch: Sithara taking music class

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Everyone connected to live music in one way or another is affected, as she says. Harish talks about the other vocations that got affected when the stage shows stopped. “For one, there are light and sound technicians, who are an integral part of the live music ecosystem,” he says.

Just in July 2021, two light and sound company owners died by suicide due to financial crisis – Nirmal Chandran in Thiruvananthapuram and Ponnumani in Palakkad. In August, a third man K Sumesh, who owned a light and sound firm in Kollam, also took the extreme step because of financial woes.

Mazhamizhi, featuring 2,600 artistes online

While many musicians took to online performances, the state too began holding an event for independent artistes. Bharat Bhavan, a state-run cultural organisation, began a show called Mazhamizhi in August, featuring performances of various art forms on social media pages of various cultural centres. It is a 65-day programme that began as an initiative to support artistes who have been struggling during the pandemic. “Sixty-eight technical crew members went in four groups across the state, covering remote and tribal areas, to record performances of about 2,600 artistes. Each of these artistes has been paid Rs 2,500 each. We began broadcasting the shows every day from August 28. It is the 23rd day on Sunday, and we have planned to conclude it on November 1, the 65th Kerala Piravi,” says Pramod Payyannur, secretary of Bharat Bhavan.

Watch: Mazhamizhi show on Sunday

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On Tuesday, the 25th day of Mazhamizhi, a new programme called Unarumee Gaanam (This song would wake up) will begin to promote music performances. “On that day, we are honouring musicians such as G Venugopal (playback singer), Subbulekshmi (Carnatic musician, actor), CS Radha Devi (Akashvani singer, actor), Jeevan Sathyan (singer, son of actor Sathyan) along with some blind singers and street musicians. The idea of the programme is to give space to street singers, musicians with disability, transgender musicians and other artistes who have been struggling during this time,” Pramod says.

The struggle comes from live music being a largely people-dependent vocation, Harish points out. When all this goes away – the pandemic and the lockdowns it brought with it – music events would come back. “At that time, we hope that people will buy tickets and attend the shows, that organisers will not exploit the musicians and reduce the rates, and that everyone gets paid their deserving dues,” he says.

 

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