The #MeToo movement that has swept India’s media, film, entertainment, literature, business and political spheres since October 5 has made a ripple in the worlds of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam too with several women accusing at least 12 male dancers and musicians of sexual harassment.
According to anonymous accounts on Twitter and Facebook, women dancers, musicians and students have accused the male artists of sending them inappropriate messages, groping, forcibly kissing and molesting them, even demanding sex. There has also been a mention of a male teacher molesting his young male student. Screenshots of the allegations – some of which go back almost a decade – are being shared widely.
So far, one musician accused of sexual harassment has denied the allegations. The others have been silent.
On Saturday, more than 200 Carnatic musicians signed a statement condemning sexual harassment and encouraging more women to come forward with their stories.
In an attempt to take the conversation forward, the cultural organisation Ek Potlee Ret Ki has organised a “public hearing and consultation” on the MeToo movement in Chennai on October 21.
‘They constantly talk about women’s bodies’
One woman who has accused a musicologist of sexually assaulting her seven years ago describes the world of classical music and dance in India as “hypocritical”. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said. “For instance, there is a lot of sleaze in the film industry but I think women still have slightly more agency there.” She added, “Here, all these men hide behind their pattu veshtis [silk dhotis] and vibhooti pattai [holy ash].”
Women are expected to dodge all sorts of threats, from inappropriate jokes to demands for sex, she said. “Whenever musicians or dancers come together, they always stand around and crack adult jokes,” she said. “Especially musicians. Some of them constantly talk about women’s bodies. It is really cheap. I have friends who tell me that when they go abroad to perform with some of these musicians and end up staying at the same venue, they have seen these men watch pornography on their televisions or computers in front of them.”
She said she had also heard stories of teachers touching their young female students inappropriately in the guise of instructing them. “I know an artist who has this very nasty habit of grazing his paunch over your chest as he talks to you,” she added. “He can do that because he’s really short. It is really creepy.”
A student can be harassed even when she is not in front and within reach of the teacher. “For instance, if it is a Skype class, they ask things like ‘do you like cyber sex?’,” she said.
Then there are reportedly threats and intimidation. “I know of someone who was told by a male musician that he, along with his father and brother, would finish off her career if she didn’t oblige [them with sex],” the survivor said. “They conducted a witch hunt and sent her email after email. She’s got them all. They even made a woman student call her up from abroad and solicit on their behalf.”
She spoke of another similar incident. “Another time, another student came running to me crying and telling me she wanted to end her life because her teacher was soliciting her to a male artist,” she said. “These are all well-established teachers and it is shameful.”
An open secret
Carnatic music vocalist and columnist TM Krishna said harassment in India’s classical arts circles is an open secret. “Whispers and accounts [of such incidents] have been doing the rounds for a very long time,” Krishna told Scroll.in. “The truth is that all of us, including myself, have kept quiet and allowed for the ‘normalisation’ of such behaviour. We even went a step further and blamed the women for whatever may have happened. I am ashamed that I did not stand up for the women who I knew were abused. We have to stop elevating musicians and gurus to the status of demi-gods.”
Singer Bombay Jayashri agreed that the Carnatic community has always been aware of allegations of sexual misconduct and should have reacted sooner. “The Carnatic music industry has plenty of unsavoury behaviour and as artists, we are all vulnerable to this just as any woman would be in a public or private place,” she said. “I wish we had all spoken up before. I wish we had clarity and courage and we could look beyond just ourselves. I wish we had. But now is the time.”
Power, patriarchy and caste
According to singer Sudha Ragunathan, the worlds of both Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam have historically been deeply patriarchal.
The woman survivor who did not want to be identified said both disciplines have also been dominated by the upper castes, and this has allowed several men to get away with abuse and harassment of women. “Abuse is not just about groping or touching me,” she said. “It is about power and its misuse. Especially in the field of classical music and dance, a lot of predators hide behind their caste, their bhakti and religion.”
Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan said it was time to change the structures in these worlds. “The power hierarchies that have called the shots for all these centuries – I think now is the time to stop believing in all these things,” he said. “People in power and position of privilege have to understand the immense accountability and responsibility that comes with that power.”
No forum for complaints
While patriarchy and a casteist attitude make it difficult for women musicians and dancers to speak up against their abusers, many say the absence of an official mechanism to address their complaints compounds the problem. Typically, music and dance performances are staged by cultural organisations called sabhas, which are run by trusts. Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, any organisation with more than 10 employees is required to establish an internal complaints committee to hear complaints of sexual harassment. But artists say few sabhas have done this.
The Music Academy in Chennai is an exception. A premier training institution that also hosts music and dance performances, it set up an internal complaints committee last year after one of its secretaries was included in a list of alleged sexual predators in Indian academia that was circulated by a student named Raya Sarkar.
“When his name appeared in the list, I confronted him,” said N Murali, president of the Academy. “I told him that the name of the Music Academy will also be affected and said we will have to discuss this with a committee and decide on the future course of action. It was then that he himself resigned. It was like a wake-up call for us because nobody had officially complained to us before that. We now have a complaints mechanism and a policy to prevent sexual harassment.”
The other challenge for the community is to find a way to deal with harassment that takes place in the homes of teachers, where most of the instructing and training takes place.
“What kind of a body can we set up to deal with those complaints?” asked Ragunathan. “We have to really think and work on this. Maybe we need an official body. But what form should it take and who decides its functioning? These are all questions that we need to figure out the answers to.”
Then there is the question on the minds of most artists today: what about those who have already been accused?
“I spoke to one of the accused and asked him why is your name in this list,” Ragunathan said. “I asked him if there is any truth to the complaint at all. ‘Not at all,’ was his response. I don’t know what to do now. I don’t know whether he is speaking the truth or hiding it. And how is one to find out? Maybe we could bring both sides in front of each other and have a proper enquiry… I am ready to do anything. But what exactly?”
A churn is taking place
Asked if those who have been named will be allowed to perform at the Music Academy’s annual concerts in December, Murali said the institution was yet to take a decision on this. “Only a few among those who have been named are performing with us,” he said. “Some of them have refuted the allegations. We will have to be very watchful and take a call.”
For now, many artists said they hoped the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam worlds, known to be largely insular, would take an open stand on the MeToo movement.
“If we need to change beyond just dominating headlines for a few weeks, I think every single artist has to come together to create an environment where younger artists feel safe, to learn, to perform, without fear of what the opportunity would cost them,” Jayashri said. “For art to maintain its integrity, artists need to take a stand without that fear.”