Stage performers across West Bengal are facing a severe shortage of funds as shows have come to a halt during the lockdown, with some even looking for alternative jobs
As one crosses Hatibagan’s Hari Ghosh Street in North Kolkata, one can see a huge tarpaulin laid right on the side of the road. The tarpaulin is filled with packets of bread, milk and cartons of eggs, with customers lining up to make purchases from the makeshift shop. The scene seems nothing out of the ordinary, such shops exist aplenty all throughout the city.
What is striking, though, is the shopkeeper. This is not the everyday job of Nilisha Basak, 24. It has been just a little over two months since she opened this shop. Before the Coronavirus halted life in India, Basak was a successful stage singer, captivating stages across West Bengal with her voice. “I received the moniker of Shreya Ghoshal Junior in the local scenes due to the similarity of my voice to the singer.
“For the past 4-5 years I have been singing on stage, and was living my childhood dream of a performing artist”, she says. From festivals like Durga Puja and Diwali to shows outside the city in more rural areas, Basak was one of the most in demand “macha”(stage) artists, as they are colloquially known in West Bengal.
From stage shows only, Basak would earn around Rs 50,000-60,000 a month, which would cater to not only her needs but also look after her entire family. A show every weekend was almost a certainty for her, and her life on stage was going on quite smoothly, both personally and professionally. This was until Covid-19 entered the picture.
Since 23 March, the country has been in total lockdown, and even though businesses have been opening up since the start of May, stage shows do not seem to be making a return in the near future. This means a loss for performing artists like Basak. “Being the sole earning member of the family, it was extremely difficult for me to sustain since my income came to a grinding halt since the lockdown was imposed”, she says.
For the first two months, she somehow managed to get by with her savings, but now she has to find other means of survival. So, with the help of her grandparents, she opened this makeshift shop selling bread, eggs, milk and biscuits.
“During the lockdown, everyone is looking to buy food items and this seemed like a viable option, as it would bring at least some money into my household”, she says. Until and unless, everything restores to normal, this seems to be the new occupation for Basak. “What I fear is that without regular stage shows my voice would go for a toss. Our future is very uncertain now”, she says with a sense of fear.
“Since a large crowd gathers at these programmes, sometimes people numbering even one lakh are cramped in one place, it will be difficult to maintain proper social distancing and sanitisation. Hence, organisers are shying away from organising such gatherings,as they feel they will violate government guidelines”, says Saibal (name changed), who is one of the most reputed show organisers in West Bengal.
This lack of shows has rendered artists like Basak bereft. Sneha Bhattacharya, another popular singer is also facing the same problems. Bhattacharya just cleared her Class 12 board exams with flying colours, but the happiness in that seems missing.
Bhattacharya has been singing ever since she was a child, and the stage used to come alive whenever she performed, says Saibal, for whom she has sung in many shows. Her market value increased 10-fold, ever since she participated in one of Bengal’s biggest singing reality shows. She came into the Top 10 contestants of the competition and thus her demand for stage shows increased across the state as she became a household name.
I used to perform in 10-15 shows on an average every month, but since the lockdown everything is a big zero. I haven’t performed on stage for more than four months now and all my savings have dried up.
Since her shows increased by a huge number after the reality show got over, she couldn’t manage her accounts on her own. Her father left his job to manage her accounts, and hence in a way she became the sole earning member of the family. With the lockdown bringing a screeching halt to stage shows, she has been rendered jobless, even as her father is now without a job, and the family is in financial doldrums.
Sampad Banerjee (name changed), a guitarist who used to perform regularly for various singers at these stage shows, is also without a job. Hailing from a village in Midnapore district, he stays in a rented accommodation in Kolkata. “My dream was to accumulate as much money as possible from these stage shows and go to Boston, USA to study music at Berkeley School of Music. But all that I saved is now slowly getting spent”, he says.
He has now returned to his village, as his dreams seem shattered. “Once the shows resume, I hope I can save enough to pursue my dreams once again”
“I urge both the governments to look at us, and think of us. Hundreds of artists like us are now left without a job, and our families depend on it. If everything else can be restarted, then why not stage shows?”, questions Sneha Bhattacharya.
“Performing on stage is like oxygen, without it it seems the artist in me is dying a slow death”, concludes Nilisha Basak, with a hint of tears in her eyes.
(Cover: Nilisha performing on stage Photos: Facebook.com)