Finance Bill 2015: A Disservice To Artists?
With the recent Finance Bill of 2015 introducing a service tax for artists performing classical and folk art, forms of dance, music, and theatre – artists who charge more than one lakh rupees for a performance will be subjected to paying the tax, as of the 1st of April 2015. Also proposed is a hike in the rate of service tax from 12.36 per cent to 14 per cent. With musicians already having to pay a 30% slab of income tax on their earnings, many members of the classical community are voicing their opinions against the central government’s proposition.
“This is our bread and butter – we only earn with performances and it’s worrying to see that if we charge one lakh, in addition to the percentage that goes to income tax and our accompanists, we’d be expected to pay an additional service tax,” says classical Carnatic vocalist Mahesh Vinayakram – son of Ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram. “As a family, we are carrying a legacy and preserving the art form. If we had thought in a corporate way, I would have gone to a company where I would have had the opportunity to earn more money. But we aren’t a corporate with corporate benefits, we don’t have bookers – we are self-employed, and are completely at the mercy of this sort of legislation. The government should be considerate of this and think of us.”
What this proposition means for artists like Vinayakram is that charging more than one lakh rupees for a performance places the artist liable to pay the service tax, in addition to which they will also need to take out a registration, file an online return and comply with all the governmental (often complex) procedures. They can also be audited. With only the bigger names of the classical community at a level of seniority where they can charge such amounts – the economic returns to the government from charging such a minority of the artistic community can be expected to be minimal. As Vinayakram points out, the classical performer will also often be expected to pay his or her accompanying musicians with the landed fee they charge for the performance. However, he suggests an alternative – “Instead of adding a service tax to the TDS that we as artists already pay, the central government could look at taking a consolidated amount – give us one consolidated figure that perhaps can be taken at the end of the year.”
Sitar maestro Shubhendra Rao – disciple of the legendary Ravi Shankar – is equally vociferous about the disservice a service tax like this has the potential to inflict on the artistic community. “As it is, it’s a choice one makes as an artist – and as preservers of a classical tradition, we need the government to come forward with positive support, otherwise how will we survive? These sorts of movements will only make things more difficult – and how much will the government earn taxing a classical musician this additional percentage? Classical music has survived through the ages only because of support – and it will continue to survive only because of this support.”
As Rao points out, the difference in budgets between the entertainment industry and the Classical sector is astronomical. “We’re not talking about entertainment industry that has billions pumped into it – we’re talking about the classical arts. There’s a huge difference between classical and popular music even in terms of budgets – and what would our society look like without music, dance, culture? Art needs to be fostered for future generations, especially the Classical arts. There’s enough money in the entertainment industry, but we don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where performing classical music becomes impossible.”
As Indian classical / Sufi singer Runa Rizvi points out, Indian classical music and different forms of folk and traditional music form the backbone of Indian culture and are art forms that need to be preserved and supported in modern day contexts. “These forms of music – Indian classical, Sufi, Thumri, folk – these are all ancient traditions and the roots of our Indian culture, the government should be doing everything in their power to support them, instead of taxing them. Life as a performing artist is already difficult enough – and this sort of service tax won’t affect the commercial space, but will affect the classical and folk arts and the independent music circuits. And these are the spaces where artists like myself feel most free to create and express ourselves – but we need support to be able to continue to keep these traditions alive.”