When Delhi resident 25-year-old Tulika Mishra walked out of the theatre after watching Swan Lake, a ballet composed by Russia’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, she was in raptures over the performance. A regular visitor to music concerts and gigs, the interior designer was watching a ballet for the first time, but knew she wanted more. “It was a unique experience, a very different, yet gripping form of art,” said an ecstatic Mishra, adding, “The film based on the ballet (Black Swan) was fantastic, but watching the performance live was another experience altogether.”
Mishra wasn’t alone in feeling that way. In fact, Swan Lake was so successful that Navrasa Duende—a Gurugram-based production house involved in promoting live entertainment and performing arts—which brought the ballet to India, is now planning a multi-city tour for it. For Dinesh Singh, founder, Navrasa Duende, the response was unanticipated. “All the shows on the three days were housefull. We had not expected such a response. We had to say no to guests after a point of time, as there were no seats left. It was more than just successful,” says Singh.
This is just one example, but what it indicates is heartening: that entertainment that is live and interactive will always be cherished. Ironically, more so in today’s world, where it’s the ‘experience’ that holds the most value, and live entertainment clearly trumps over anything else when it comes to delivering that. The fact that it allows instant gratification to artistes and audiences alike is the factor that seals the deal.
Fortunately, a plethora of venues for artistes, be it theatres, stadiums or even restaurants and bars, are giving the much-needed push to live entertainment. Agrees 27-year-old Sherry Mathews, a member of the New Delhi-based music band Doppler Effect: “I started playing music when I was in high school (in the early 2000s). Those days, the number of gigs we had or places that allowed us to play were few and scattered. Now, it’s a different ballgame altogether. We have so many places offering us to play. We can actually make a living out of it,” says Mathews.
For Mumbai-based Sunil Shanbag, a theatre artiste and director, the changing times have brought along a scope for evolution on an everyday basis. From staging Maihar Raag, his first major production, in 1994 to directing his award-winning play, Cotton 56, Polyester 84, in 2007, 61-year-old Shanbag has learned the intricacies of the industry along the way. “The theatre scene is filled with fledgling minds brimming with fresh ideas. When I look at them, I feel happy that the younger generation is taking the legacy forward. What I have learned in my career with respect to the changes in society is reflected in the shows I have done,” he says.
Some might be inadvertently promoting art in the name of commercial interests, but that’s no reason to complain if it’s a win-win situation. Take, for instance, Depot 48, a café-cum-bar in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash-1 market. Once just a dine-in place, the café has successfully cashed in on the live music trend—they host contemporary musicians and music shows everyday. “Footfalls have grown tremendously since we started playing live music. People like to listen to music when they are out in their leisure time. So we combined it with our menu. It was an experiment first, but as the response got better, we made it a regular affair,” says Girjashankar Vohra, owner, Depot 48.
Some have more serious objectives, say, ‘shaping contemporary society’, which ought to have an informed opinion about art and culture. That’s what 32-year-old musician Arjun Sagar Gupta set out to do when he started Piano Man, a one-of-its-kind jazz club, in New Delhi in 2015. “We wanted to experiment with a form of music that India was not used to back then. Everyone wanted to go for electronic dance music shows, heavy metal and rock concerts. Jazz, just like blues, was not such a crowd-puller. We wanted to change that,” says Gupta. A collective for performers, the club today is a major centre for jazz music and musicians in the country. However, jazz is not all they play. “We don’t have so many musicians to be able to play jazz on all days of the week. So we mix the genres of music,” he says.
The need of the hour, clearly, is innovation. Gone are the days when people would sit for a three-hour-long stage production of a Rabindranath Tagore play or a Bharatnatyam performance. The need for innovation in performance art becomes even greater at a time when ‘quick’ forms of entertainment are aplenty and at people’s fingertips. “There was a time when we gave three-hour-long dance performances. People would sit through it all and enjoy every bit. Today, the scenario has changed. People want quick bites of entertainment. We are not left with much choice, but to cater to changing times,” says renowned Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran. The 56-year-old New Delhi-based artiste has shortened the duration of her performances to keep up with the times.
Concerns & challenges
A major challenge before the patrons of live entertainment is the host of entertainment options available today. With entertainment moving on to hand-held devices, the challenge has never been greater.
The industry is divided over the issue. While some believe screens do pose a serious threat to the audience base, many opine that live forms of art will never die as long as people continue to go out. “Human beings are social animals. They will go out to interact with others or else life will become mundane. As long as this happens, live forms of art will continue to flourish,” says theatre artiste Shanbag.
Piano Man’s Gupta elaborates on the USP of live shows: “I have a Netflix and Amazon subscription, yet I go out for music concerts. These platforms have shows that can be watched anytime. So viewers know that they can go back home and watch them at their ease. But if they miss a gig or concert, they can’t watch it again till it happens the next time. That’s the major differentiator,” he says.
Sanjoy Roy, managing director, Teamwork Arts, a New Delhi-based event management and production company, however, acknowledges the stiff competition these new platforms pose. He is of the view that players such as Netflix and Amazon bring a different kind of experience, which the Indian audience is still new to. “They are new. They are fresh and have got amazing content. That is what they are competing on,” he says.
Roy, however, is optimistic about the future of live entertainment. “As long as the live entertainment sector continues to innovate and grow, it would be a healthy competition,” he says, adding, “I am optimistic it will continue to thrive, as it has seen the times change and yet stood tall. We should wait and see how the new players fare over a longer period of time. Let the hysteria pass.”
Another hurdle live entertainment faces is its unorganised nature. There is no formal organisation of the various forms of art that come under it, making it difficult to keep a track of the growth or failure of the sector as a whole. Then there is the bureaucratic tussle involved in obtaining multiple licences for an event—an issue that needs serious intervention. “If I have to organise a show in my club, I need to run from pillar to post to obtain multiple licences from various government bodies,” says Piano Man’s Gupta, adding, “If I bring a domestic artiste, I have to obtain 12-14 licences such as fire, stage safety, noise levels, etc. If it’s an international artiste, the number crosses 20. It becomes so hectic for an organiser to obtain so many licences, considering the way bureaucracy functions in our country.”
One way to solve this problem, say experts, is to have a single-window licensing system, where all the licences are brought under one window, making it easier for all the people involved.
Then there is the issue of funding. A majority of organisers find it difficult to get sponsors. Over the past couple of years, however, funding from the corporate sector has somehow managed to keep the sector afloat. “There is no doubt that the industry participation has seen a surge. Major cultural festivals today are sponsored,” says Teamwork Arts’ Roy. “Collaborations with international names such as Disney and Fox have brought a breath of fresh air, but the sector is far from unlocking its potential. One needs to see it as a contributor to GDP and national economic growth like in other countries. From employment to revenue, the possibilities are endless. We just need direction,” he says.
Roy feels there is a need to come up with stringent policies and an umbrella organisation for the sector. He is hopeful, though, that it will be done soon. “I am on the panel of a lot of government organisations such as the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry). The government is working in a fastidious manner to resolve the challenges. I am optimistic about the work being done,” he says.