No country for old artistes

Do artistes and penury have some sort of a tragic, karmic connection? The great Bharat Bhushan (Baiju Bawra, Mirza Ghalib, Barsaat ki Raat) died in abject poverty, writes Namita Bhandare.

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Because Subrata Kundu had been fairly regular on the page 3 circuit at a time when I was a fairly regular journalist on page 3, his passing recently caught my eye. You couldn’t miss him, that man with a broad smile and thick mop of hair. Then, suddenly one day, the photographs stopped and newbies with names like Kitty, Monty, Thenny, Ronny took over. I failed to notice that Kundu seemed to have faded away.

I did not know that Subrata had taken a serious hit when the art market nosedived during the recession. I did not know that he was suffering from liver disease. I did not know that he had tried to kill himself. I found out all of this one sad day in September when I read with shock that this 51-year-old artist had been found unconscious in a temple at Ranaghat, Kolkata where he had been living. He died a few days later.

I remembered Subrata again when I read in the papers of the hard times that have fallen on actor AK Hangal. Bedridden with kidney disease and asthma, this 95-year-old actor who has entertained us in over 125 films, including as Rahim chacha in Sholay, must now depend on the kindness of his few remaining friends; Asha Parekh, for instance. Bills for medicines alone amount to R15,000 a month. And the only family member left to look after him is Hangal’s 74-year-old son, Vijay, a retired photographer.

Do artistes and penury have some sort of a tragic, karmic connection? The great Bharat Bhushan (Baiju Bawra, Mirza Ghalib, Barsaat ki Raat) died in abject poverty. Pandit VG Jog, the masterful violin player, died after a prolonged illness, dependent on the goodwill of friends and admirers, including the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. Dhrupad exponent Asghari Bai, living on a monthly government stipend of R1,500 a month, payable in two annual installments, was so frustrated that she took the extreme step of returning all her awards in 1996 with a furious letter to then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh: “I am starving and these awards do not make up two square meals a day for me and my family.”

Part of the problem is that artistes very often do not plan for eventualities like extended illnesses or retirement. Part of the problem is that there is no collective voice for musicians in India, except cine musicians, says Shubha Mudgal who along with her husband the table maestro Aneesh Pradhan is insured for eventualities like a prolonged illness which might stop them from performing for extended periods. And part of the problem is that, barring the absolute A-list names, artistes continue to be paid peanuts. “People will spend lakhs on the stage or on advertising, but hesitate when it comes to paying artistes. They say, ‘be lucky, you’re getting the exposure’,” says Mudgal.

But the real problem lies in the fact that as a society we simply do not give artistes their due. Every time there is a news break of an actor/musician/artist living in poverty, there is talk about creating a welfare scheme or a trust fund, but all talk invariably fizzles out once the story is inevitably forgotten.

Senior journalist and author Rauf Ahmed recalls what is perhaps the saddest story in Hindi cinema. In 1938, Ahmed says, grand celebrations were underway to commemorate the silver anniversary of Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full-length feature film. A hall was hired. Important dignitaries invited to deliver talks of significance from the dais. Only problem: no one thought of inviting Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who had made the film. Nobody thought of inviting him to sit up on the stage where encomiums were being showered. Suddenly, V Shantaram spotted a decrepit old man sitting on the last rows of the hall where the function was being held. It was indeed Dadasaheb Phalke. A deeply embarrassed Shantaram said not a word, but got up and led Phalke to the stage. Four years later when Phalke died, he was alone, poor and forgotten. It was, you could say, a predictably tragic end.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n . The views expressed by the author are personal