The music is back.
The money, not quite yet. Stage shows, a familiar feature during this time of the year but brought to a grinding halt by Covid, have made a strong comeback.
The pandemic had posed livelihood challenges for hundreds of musicians and singers as the shows disappeared.
Many famous singers managed the Covid-ridden years by switching to virtual performances.
But the hands — musicians who play with them in a concert, sound ‘boys’ and others — who thrive on stage shows had been pushed to the brink of penury.
This year, they are back performing in front of live audiences. The payment is yet to catch up with 2019 as organisers face budget cuts. But being able to get back to the stage is like a lifeline for them.
“Dewal-e pith thekey gechhilo (I was pushed to the wall). Another season without stage shows would have been disastrous,” said folk singer Mainak Paladhi.
For musical troupes, the “season” starts during Ganesh Puja in September and goes on till March.
Post-Durga Puja to New Year is usually the “peak time”. After two years, the artiste’s calendars are booked again.
With his troupe, Paladhi has been visiting Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and other cities since 2013 to perform in the festive season. The past two years, he did not have any contract.
This year, he went to Mumbai and Pune during Durga Puja. He performed at different Puja venues. After coming back, he performed in Dum Dum, Paikpara, Kharagpur and Ranaghat.
When this newspaper called him on Monday, he was headed to Ultadanga for a Jagaddhatri Puja concert.
His income, though, has taken a hit.
For an outstation programme, he would charge between Rs 55,000 and Rs 60,000 in 2019. This year, he has done shows for Rs 45,000.
The maximum he got was around Rs 50,000.
“But I can’t be rigid. Some money is better than no money, especially after what we have been through in the past two years,” said Paladhi.
Manomay Bhattacharya, one of the popular male voices in Bengal, spoke in the same vein.
“Getting back on stage is a huge relief. But I have had to settle for a 10 to 15 per cent cut,” said Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya travelled to the US during the Puja.
He did shows in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Ohio and Florida, among other places.
This was his first performance abroad after a gap of two years. He has done at least five shows in Kolkata since coming back. All of them have seen a curtailed budget.
“But I went ahead because there are several musicians whose livelihoods depend on my stage shows,” said Bhattacharya, who travels with a dozen people, including musicians and sound assistants.
This newspaper had earlier reported how the Covid hardships forced many singers and musicians to look for alternative sources of livelihood.
Some sold their instruments, many mortgaged jewellery and other assets to borrow money.
Compared to what they have endured, a reduced income is an easier choice. “Earlier, I got tired of refusing organisers because my schedule was packed. In the past two years, I have frantically searched for opportunities to perform on stage,” said Sanjay Seal, who plays the bass guitar.
Seal has also had several live shows, after two years.
The budget of a modest open-air performance in Kolkata— with a singer and musicians playing the guitar, bass guitar, keyboard and drums — would start from around Rs 20,000 before the pandemic, said organisers.
With more established singers and specialised instruments, the budget would go up.
A “mega event” with “singers from reality shows” would cost over Rs 100,000. But this year, organisers are having to do with a tighter purse.
They attributed the cut to lack of sponsorships and donations.
“Businessmen, small and big, are not paying as much as they used to. Even if we show political clout, they are pleading helplessness with folded hands. We are having to spend money out of our pockets,” said a Kali Puja organiser on the northern fringes of Kolkata.
A musical evening was part of the festivities this year.
After two years, bands like Cactus and Fossils have also had outstation programmes. Both bands performed in Bangalore during the Puja.
“Being able to get back on the stage is the most important thing. The audience seems livelier than before. The response has been overwhelming,” said Siddhartha Ray of Cactus, widely known as Sidhu.