Death of an Artist
Hoping for lessons learnt
The quite untimely and unexpected death of the popular singer and stage artiste Krishnakumar Kunnath, fondly called KK by millions of his fans, following a brilliant performance in Kolkata on the 31st of May 2022 has left everyone in shock.
It is true that death is unpredictable. Even a perfectly healthy person can suddenly die. Still, the circumstances under which the 54 year old singer breathed his last after a performance at the Nazrul Mancha in the city of Kolkata raise some questions.
It has been very widely reported that not everything was right at the hall where KK performed. No one has disputed, except for the Police who were conspicuous by their absence at the venue, that on the fateful day the number of spectators was more than double the 2,700 the hall is built to accommodate.
The Mayor of Kolkata, who is also a senior member of Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet told TV channels that the crowd in and around the venue was unmanageable, that people were climbing over the walls and gate-crashed into the auditorium. Asked about police arrangements the Minister retorted, “what could the police have done, would they use force to disperse them?”
The Minister’s poser was not only unfortunate but also silly. Did he mean that if thousands of unruly people want to force their entry into a movie theatre, the police won’t control the crowd and push it back? The fact is that there was no police presence at the venue where such a popular artiste was performing before a packed audience.
It has been reported that except for one, all other doors of the auditorium were kept open. A number of spectators told reporters that the air conditioning system was not functioning, and the atmosphere inside the auditorium was extremely stuffy. The artiste was seen sweating profusely, frequently wiping his face and sipping water.
As if the sultry weather outside, the huge crowd and a non-functioning (or at least ineffective) air-conditioning system inside was not enough, some people reportedly used fire extinguishers to create “artificial smoke,” as a result of which many in the audience started coughing and feeling breathless.
Kolkata Police have contradicted almost all the reports that newspapers and TV channels carried about the incident. According to the police, there was no overcrowding. This counters even the statement of the City Mayor, who had said on camera that people jumped over the boundary wall of Nazrul Mancha and crowded the auditorium.
Police hold that their drones did not find any unusual crowd inside the Nazrul Mancha compound. The nearest Police station is said to be only 500 metres away. And yet drones were deployed to see how many people were entering the venue!
The Police have also said that the air-conditioning of the auditorium was working fine and had not been switched off. This is contrary to many spectators’ first hand experience narrated before TV cameras and journalists. The profuse sweating of the artiste and his request to switch off the large spot lights also indicate that the air-conditioners were either not working or not cooling enough.
The Police have given a twist to the use of fire-extinguishers. According to them, before the arrival of the artiste at the hall there was an altercation between two groups of spectators. One of these groups sprayed the fire-extinguishers on the other and hence the smoke.
The Police version seems to be a laughable attempt to cover the acts of omission or commission of the organisers of the function. In the face of all the reports by journalists of both print and electronic media, the Police report has little credibility.
According to reports, it was evident from KK’s unusual sweating and actions (asking for the spotlights to be switched off) that something was amiss. Still, none of the organisers thought it prudent to raise an alarm, cut short the show and call for medical assistance. I wonder if the artiste had a manager accompanying him, and if he had, then what that person was doing at the crucial moment.
Surprisingly, when the show ultimately came to an abrupt end as KK could continue no more, instead of taking him immediately to a hospital – and there was more than one within five minutes’ driving distance from the hall – he was taken all the way to his hotel in central Kolkata! There too he was not given any medical attention. Ultimately, when he had almost collapsed, he was taken to a hospital. By then he had breathed his last.
It is clear that not only the organisers of the Fest but even those who escorted the artiste to the hotel after the performance were guilty of callousness, if not negligence. Medical experts are saying that if KK had been taken to any nearby hospital or nursing home immediately after the show, in all probability he would have survived. Kolkata is a metropolitan city where ample facilities are available to meet such emergencies. It is surprising that no one sought to use those facilities when the need arose.
As it happens after any mishap, a political slugfest has begun between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties. The BJP has quite brazenly accused the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad of murdering KK by turning the auditorium into a hellhole where in addition to the failure of the air conditioning system, carbon dioxide was being sprayed from fire extinguishers to produce smoke.
The CPM has said that the unfortunate incident happened because of the total mismanagement by the organisers, i.e the TMCP, who had not only made no arrangements for handling an emergency situation but also sold thousands of tickets to the event at a premium, as a result of which such a huge crowd entered the hall.
The party bickering apart, there can be no doubt in any one’s mind that the organisers of the festival had no control over the event. There is no dispute about the fact that it was the TMCP which organised the fest. This fact is also apparent from the State Education Minister’s hurried declaration that from now on his party would oversee these festivals.
Sensing the huge fiasco and that KK’s death would badly tarnish the image of the governing party, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee cut short her district visit, returned to Kolkata and hurriedly declared that the departed artiste would be given a gun salute as a mark of respect.
Whether that gesture was any solace for the grief stricken members of KK’s family is not known but it is an undeniable fact that Kolkata’s image has been greatly dented. In a more law-abiding society this matter would have led to a thorough investigation and the negligent would have been brought to book. We have no such high expectation here.
The saddest part of the whole story is that with just a little prudence the artiste could have been saved. Unfortunately, no one seemed to care. One can only hope that those who organise such events in future will have learnt a good lesson from what happened in Kolkata on the fateful Tuesday.
The government machinery, again hopefully, will also have learnt something from the incident and will in the future ensure that organisers make ample arrangements to cope with any emergency that might arise at such gatherings.
Sandip Mitra is retired from the Indian Foreign Service