THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: "All these years, I have made it a habit to call up fellow artists and give them Vishu kaineettam. But not this time. If I call them, I don't know what to tell. I am lost for words." When renowned drama director Kannur Vasootty, winner of several state honours including that of the Kerala Sangeetha Nadaka Akademi, says so, one can fathom the pain in his heart.
The veteran director is one of many in the theatre profession who have been badly hit by COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown. Theatre groups and artists, who mostly have a hand-to-mouth existence, have been enduring difficult times as their source of income has dried up and the debts are rising.
Theatres have long been the flag bearer of Kerala's socio-cultural renaissance. But of late, they have run into troubled waters as patronage and sponsorships have dwindled. Yet, many of the drama groups, better addressed as 'troupes' in the local parlance, stay afloat thanks to the painstaking efforts of veterans such as Vasootty and other drama aficionados.
However, theatre groups are now facing an existential threat, with most of the temple festival season (March to April) suspended. The floods in 2019 and 2018 had lent a crippling blow to theatres and COVID-19 could be their death knell.
"Once the pandemic moves away, life will become normal. It will take time, but normalcy will be back. But for theatres, there won't be any redemption. They are already at the brink of ruin and I am afraid they may not be able to see through this hard phase," Vasooty said.
Vasootty runs a troupe 'Samskrithi', which had performed 'Jeevitha Padam' in 125 stages before the pandemic struck. Of these, 50-odd performances were for 'competitions' and fetched poor revenue returns. Vasootty was looking up to 75 more venues, which could have fetched him about Rs 7.5 lakh and helped him offset the expenses.
A professional drama troupe has to spend Rs 12 lakh on an average for each drama. The rehearsal and camps will run for a full month. With not much profit to be had, financiers are least interested to invest and the onus falls on veteran artists like Vasootty to chip in.
Vasootty said his previous producer had backed off and he had to borrow money from his two sons, who are working. Even if the lockdown is removed by May, there is scant hope of any festivals and stage programmes being held in that month. Then comes the monsoon.
Artists are also having a harrowing experience in these COVID-19 times. Most of them used to take an advance from the troupe owners for meeting their expenses. That option is closed, at least for now.
"Even when we were having a full season, the money we got was not enough to meet the expenses. How are we supposed to survive when the full season has gone for a toss?" asked an artist, who wished to remain incognito.
Though the future looks bleak, Vasootty said he felt time has got something good in store for them. "It's hope that keeps us alive."