Creatively Feminist: Women, Arts and Creative Entrepreneurship

by Manojna Yeluri

Working with Artistik License gives me the opportunity to engage with a number of enterprising creative professionals who constantly endeavour to transform the cultural and creative landscapes they inhabit. Through conversations with them, I am often privy to their worlds of creativity, collaboration, and sometimes, confusion, which only serves to better inform my work as a cultural entrepreneur.

Information is crucial as it is a backdrop for clear dialogue — dialogue between the various stakeholders within and between domains, as well as ‘outsiders’ and audiences curious to learn more about artists and their industries.

In this spirit of discussion and learning, I spoke with five creative professionals in order to share their perspectives on cultural industries, art and artist rights.

Collaboration, creativity and ideas

I first met Tritha Sinha a few years ago at a music conference and trade event, where she had attended a panel discussion I was speaking at. Already familiar with her music, I was happy to meet her in person; what caught me off guard was her interest in my work in the field of artist rights and law. Tritha is an independent artist, singer-songwriter, composer and performer, originally from Kolkata, India. She travels the world for her music, working with multiple projects such as Tritha Electric as well as her more recent project, Space.

Tritha Sinha

I asked Tritha about her voice — as an indie artist in India, her music has earned her a great deal of attention both at home and elsewhere in the world. Having had the ability and opportunity to connect with a large number of people — often very different from each other — was there a sense of responsibility she felt as a performer? She responded by saying that she always felt a deep sense of responsibility when communicating through her music, making honesty very important. Her songs are largely about her experiences — good and bad, beautiful and ugly. There is a certain need to be open to experiences as well — something that has led her into many fulfilling creative collaborations. “For me, music is about healing and provoking”, she says, alluding to her most recent work, Spaces, involving music as a healing tool as well as her role as an activist of sorts, where she doesn’t shy away from writing songs that criticize patriarchy, politics and corruption. Tritha is busy and she believes that this is the essence to staying focussed and alive with her music. She is excited about the fact that there are more women who are becoming visible in the music industry and breaking away from the stereotypical expectations of what a female musician ought to be.

Redefining expectations and breaking stereotypes is something that comes naturally to Aishwarya Natarajan, founder of Indianuance and co-founder of Sunoh. I was introduced to Aishwarya by a common friend with the understanding that we would have a lot to discuss about the indie, classical and folk music scenes in India — areas I’m constantly trying to learn more about. Aishwarya is known for her work as an artist manager of folk and classical musicians — something that is still uncommon and especially challenging. She has spent a lot of time, energy and resources arguing on behalf of musicians who don’t usually have the odds in their favour. For Aishwarya, the struggle was to help showcase art and culture from rich traditions in formats that they would not ordinarily be associated with. Aishwarya’s work stems from her love of music and collaboration. Her role has evolved into that of a curator and producer, uniting her love for music and her ability to put unexpectedly powerful combinations of artists together (for instance, her most recent work with Trilok Gurtu and Evelyn Glennie, who performed at the 2017 Celtic Connections).

Aishwarya Natarajan

When I asked her what she thought of the music market in India, she responded by saying that there are big gaps with respect to professionalism among those involved in the music industry. There is still very little clarity with respect to processes, clear definitions of obligations and artists’ rights over their works. She is optimistic however, as she earnestly believes that there are more and more people interested in making careers out of their love for music (and not just musicians). Aishwarya’s company, Sunoh, works with identifying sonic identities for brands and companies, thereby marrying an interest in music with a nontraditional format of expression. Sunoh stresses the need to engage with sound in new and interesting ways, by helping companies identify a unique sonic palette through an approach both intuitive and pragmatic. Aishwarya is always buzzing with ideas, and she believes that nothing beats having a great set of people to help with the execution and translation of these ideas — Sunoh is a culmination of this belief.

Cultural entrepreneurship, power and progress

Finding the right set of people to help execute a creative project is not easy, as there aren’t always enough people around who share the same interests and have the requisite skills. This is exactly why there needs to be more focus on the development of cultural infrastructure. This is just one of the many things Heena Patel and I often speak about during our long and informative chats over the phone. Heena is a cultural entrepreneur — an artist manager, a booking agent and the founder of MELA Arts Connect, an initiative that brings together artists and creative professionals for the purpose of collaborating on creative projects. Heena divides her time between India and the United States, managing artists in both countries, although her work with MELA is currently her top priority. The reasoning behind this is simple — the need to have professional networking facilities in the creative community has never been stronger than it is now, and MELA hopes to address this. Heena is a part of several professional networks in the indie music world, and a regular at music conferences. When speaking with her about her experiences at these forums, Heena alluded to an interesting and sometimes overlooked factor — power. Heena believes that the hierarchies and power dynamics in the market are getting in the way of people doing good work. While leadership programs to nurture cultural entrepreneurs do exist, the opportunities to participate in these programs aren’t equally distributed. “Where are the agents and managers?”, she inquires of fellowships and leadership programs in the arts, which seem to be preoccupied with curators and programmers. She believes that progress will only occur when there is an upward movement of managers and agents from the bottom of the pile, and that this change in perception will refresh and transform the dialogue between creative professionals, one that is currently often merely transactional.

Heena Patel

Accountability is important, which is why it is crucial to keep examining the existing processes and standards that are in place, while evaluating the health of the music industry. There is an overwhelming need to discuss, maintain and develop standards, says Sentirenla Lucia Panicker, an RnB vocalist and vocal teacher currently based out of New Delhi, India. Lucia is a dear friend, and we’ve spoken about all kinds of things affecting our lives as women and creative professionals. Having worked as a performing musician and music teacher both in India and the United States, Lucia has spent good portions of her career engaging with interesting musicians from across the world in a variety of musical situations.

Sentirenla Lucia Panicker

When I asked her about her thoughts on professionalism in India’s music scene, she began with the example of how many of those working in the industry, including some muscians, are often quite unaware of the genre identity crisis — a situation in which the expectations from a genre can be strangely misinformed. For instance, although she identifies herself as an RnB artist, Lucia is no longer surprised to hear how people nonchalantly confuse jazz, and sometimes pop, with RnB. She is of the opinion that this leads to underappreciation and confusion amongst audiences, resulting in poor growth of the country’s music scene. I’m concerned and ask her about how she sees this affecting upcoming musicians, and we agree that the lack of defined standards makes it much harder for younger musicians to assess quality and identify role models. Of course, mentors do exist, but are extremely underrated owing to the overemphasis on film music and the hype around festival appearances and big-ticket shows. Although priorities definitely vary amongst artists, Lucia feels that this difference in priorities needs to be communicated clearly to aspiring musicians.

Honesty and creativity

Creativity is a difficult beast to wrangle; at least that’s what I feel at times. In order to better understand what creativity means in this day and age, and what motivates it, I thought it best to ask Indu Krishnan, an independent film-maker introduced to me by a dear friend. Indu also divides her time between the United States and India, making films about people and their stories. She believes that art helps open a window —a window into our humanity, empathy and compassion. There is no judgment or bias in art, just brutal honesty.

Indu Krishnan

When I ask her if this is true for all artists, she responds that there’s often, oddly, a lot of commonality in what people want, even though their resources might differ. In other words, it’s not the core intention so much as it is the question of what’s at a person’s disposal that defines their relationship with the world, and the ways they perceive it, which, in turn, influences their art. Like a character from her most recent work, she believes that we are looking for a degree of freedom for ourselves, but we draw boundaries on who is entitled to freedom based on our resources.

The above conversations highlight certain systemic problems and core beliefs that the creative community shares, perhaps the world over. I hope that these insights are as enriching to you as they’ve been to me. There is definitely the potential for a lot more growth and learning in the cultural industry — something I plan to take forward in my work with Artistik License, and something I hope we all can do, regardless of region, gender, orientation or class.


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