The concert schedules are out, the rehearsals have begun and the caterers have been booked — all part of the preparations for yet another Margazhi season, Chennai’s annual winter date with a month-long series of Carnatic music and classical dance concerts. The Madras Music Season, which began in a small way in 1927, is inching closer to its centenary year.
But there is yet another imminent anniversary in October that sadly seems to have been forgotten. It will be a year since several women accused at least 12 male classical dancers and musicians of sexual harassment.
For all their cultivated image of piety and high culture, the fields of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam did not remain unsullied by the #MeToo movement — a global outcry against sexual assault — that swept the country last year. Women dancers, musicians and students — many of them anonymously — took to Twitter and Facebook to name and shame male artistes and teachers who allegedly sent them inappropriate messages, or groped or forcibly kissed them, molested them or even demanded sex from them.
Among the accused, at least one musician denied the allegations but the others largely remained silent.
As more survivor testimonies tumbled out into the open, many in the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam community admitted that stories of sexual harassment have long been an open secret, with a few artistes even going to the extent of saying they should have done more to support the survivors from the start. More than 200 Carnatic musicians also signed a statement condemning sexual harassment and encouraged more women to come forward with their stories.
But that was last year. What has the fraternity done since then to ensure zero tolerance for sexual harassment? Disappointingly little, as some of the artistes concede.
The greatest disappointment was the lack of follow-up action by artistes after the initial furore, says singer TM Krishna. “Most of the top-ranking musicians have not shown any interest in taking up this cause after initially signing petitions and putting up Facebook posts,” he says.
“I have been especially saddened by the way the younger generation has responded. Apart from a few young artistes who tried to make this conversation more nuanced, explaining the complexities involved in abuse including power, emotional manipulation and using professional upward mobility as a bait, others have been unwilling to even listen with empathy. I thought that the next generation is more aware of these issues but I was completely mistaken... even the few who wanted to speak up finally decided to back off out of fear that they will be singled out and their professional chances will be affected.”
What was worse was the attitude of the community towards the survivors and their testimonies, he added. “The general nature of conversations among Carnatic musicians has been to immediately suspect survivors,” he says. “Many would say ‘Since she had many boyfriends and slept with many men, she cannot be trusted’.”
Dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh, who has been campaigning for justice for the survivors since the accusations first emerged, describes the struggle to get classical arts institutions to respond with seriousness and urgency.
At a public forum in Chennai organised last year by Ek Potlee Ret Ki , an activist collective focused on cultural identities and diversity, there were discussions on the testimonies of survivors, the social impact of the #MeToo allegations and the community’s role in tackling the issue. They then took their concerns to two premier organisations: The Federation of Sabhas and the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (Abhai).
“We chose these two institutions because we felt they were instrumental in making this field safer,” she says. “Abhai then hosted a public discussion, which, unfortunately, ended up being a basic regurgitation of ‘yes, sexual harassment is wrong’, but nothing more.”
The association did not take any decision on the accused musicians and dancers, she added, nor did they speak of setting up an internal complaints committee (ICC), as stipulated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, for any organisation with more than ten employees.
In October last year, only The Music Academy dropped seven of the accused artistes from its December programme. They were chitravina player N Ravikiran, vocalist OS Thyagarajan, violinist Nagai Sriram and mridangam artistes Mannargudi A Easwaran, Srimushnam V Raja Rao, Thiruvarur Vaidyanathan and R Ramesh. These artistes do not feature in the academy’s 2019 festival calendar as well.
However, it is unclear whether the allegations were investigated or any formal complaint was lodged to facilitate an investigation by the academy’s ICC.
‘No formal complaint yet’
One crucial fact thrown up by the #MeToo churn in 2018 was the complete absence of ICCs in Chennai’s sabhas, the cultural organisations that host performances.
The Federation of Sabhas, an umbrella organisation of 10 prominent sabhas in Chennai, finally woke up to this requirement and put together a 10-member panel that included singer Sudha Ragunathan, dancer Revathy Ramachandran and a lawyer, Poonguzhali B. “We set up the ICC almost immediately in October and invited survivors to come forward and register a formal complaint with us,” the federation head, K Harishankar says. “However, not a single survivor has come forward to lodge a formal complaint.”
Harishankar says this could be because the complainants fear they may be victimised. “People prefer to be anonymous. However, in front of the ICC, one cannot be anonymous.”
Krishna thinks the reasons go deeper. “After announcing the names of the ICC panel we have heard absolutely nothing from the ICC,” he says. “There has been no effort made to earn the trust of the survivors and, without that, we cannot expect anyone to come forward.”
Stating that it’s understandable why survivors prefer to be anonymous, he blames it on the inherent patriarchal nature of the field that leaves them with little choice. “But this also means that it becomes so much more difficult to keep the pressure on the system.”
He also points out that the federation has not yet made public its due process of enquiry nor published the rules of the ICC on its website. “The Carnatic music community is a small one, which means that the powerful are so much more influential,” he says. “This is a conservative set of people that still perceives abused women with suspicion and stigmatises them.”
Harishankar agrees there’s been a delay in framing and publishing the rules of the ICC. “In order to form these rules in the most effective manner, we consulted experts from the dance and music field and from the sabhas. We wanted a consensus. That has taken time, but now we have them in place and we’ll be putting them up on our website soon.”
Lack of consensus
Ganesh mentions yet another reason why survivors do not feel confident about approaching the federation’s ICC. “The fact that the ICC has on its panel artistes such as Sudha Ragunathan who also head bodies such as the All India Musicians Group could give rise to a conflict of interest,” she explains. “Ragunathan heads a body whose members include many of the accused artistes.”
Harishankar says the federation has devised a solution for this. “If, say, the complainant is a singer, then Ragunathan need not investigate the case in order to avoid conflict of interest,” he says. “All 10 members need not investigate all the complaints that come to the ICC. We can select a sub-panel and we will give the complainant an opportunity to voice their reservations, if any, against any panellist.”
While conceding that the federation is perhaps the only organisation that has at least moved to take corrective steps, Ganesh is however less forgiving about the delay in resolving the nitty-gritties of the panel. She also worries about the impact it will have on the survivors. “In the memory of the public, these accusations are slowly fading away. Many now have an opportunity to point fingers and say ‘see, nothing came out of the entire movement’. One other fear is that the accused may even go after the women who complained. This entire movement was not about retributive justice. It was about creating a safe work environment for artistes. Sadly, not many seem to be committed to this goal.”
To make matters worse, questions are being raised about the legal validity of the federation’s ICC. “According to the law, every institution is supposed to have its own ICC,” a sabha head said on condition of anonymity. So the reasoning is that each sabha should have its own ICC, rather than a common one under the federation.
Even as consensus on the way forward remains elusive, many of the accused artistes have gone back to performing in public, and sexual harassment is back to being discussed in whispers in private.
“Some [accused artistes] are also active in organising concerts, and the entire community across the globe has had no qualms in associating with them,” Krishna says.
“We should be ashamed that an organiser who made it a point to hold a concert of people accused of such behaviour quite soon after their names came out is being patronised and pampered by most of the music community. And the only reason is that he pays artistes well and offers them visibility.”
The only way forward he sees is public awareness, to continue keeping the issue alive in the minds of people. “Educating the community is the only hope, but this is a long-drawn battle,” he says.
(This reporter reached out to more artistes for their views, but most of them either declined to comment or did not respond .)
Archana Nathan is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru