‘Divinity’, power, cliques: Kalakshetra case spotlights all that’s wrong with the ‘classical’ arts world

Its insular nature protects those accused of abuse, and makes it almost impossible for victims to speak out.

BySwaroop Mami
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‘Divinity’, power, cliques: Kalakshetra case spotlights all that’s wrong with the ‘classical’ arts world
Gobindh VB
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Chennai’s Kalakshetra Foundation, one of India’s foremost art institutions, is at the centre of serious allegations of long-term, nearly systematised sexual harassment against one of its professors. More allegations later emerged against other professors, leading to some suspensions and an arrest. 

The path to this was not easy for the students – it took protests, all-night vigils, representations to state authorities, and immense civil society pressure to get the administration to take action. 

Two facets of this episode are particularly disturbing. First, the reluctance of the administration to act on the allegations, bordering on active protection of the alleged perpetrators. Second, the failure of institutional mechanisms to address issues of sexual harassment within the institution. To understand them, we need to delve into the nature of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music.

These two forms of art are referred to as ‘classical’ dance and music – a term I do not endorse (although I do use out of habit). ‘Classical’ brings to mind something ancient or traditional, and hence more ‘pure’ than other forms of art. This is far from the truth. The Bharatanatyam practised and taught at Kalakshetra is less than a century old. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder of the school, stressed that her style was a departure from what was in vogue at that time. She was stripping Bharatanatyam of elements she considered to be sensual or vulgar – elements that were always part of the art form. 

Meanwhile, Carnatic music has evolved to a great extent over the last century. The style of rendering compositions, the format of the concert, the ragas considered part of the canon, the signature phrases of some of these ragas, the ‘rules’ of some of these ragas – all have been innovated upon. The concert format, the backgrounds of the artistes, patrons, and audiences have all changed for both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. An unchanged art form belongs only in a museum, and the evolution of these forms reflects the artistes who have engaged with them and the political and sociological churn over the last century.

Another issue is that our ‘classical’ arts are associated with divinity and religion. This comes from the fact that most of the lyrical content interpreted by these arts are religious. Calling our arts ‘classical’ itself is a function of their lyrical content. These ‘classical’ arts are taught and practised within rigid pedagogic and performative structures. Commentators often use words like ‘complexity’, ‘subtlety’ and ‘nuance’ to describe them. These notions of purity and religiosity tend to put Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music on a pedestal as compared to other forms of art.

When these arts are elevated in discourse, the artistes who practise them become larger than life figures. Artistes make covert and overt allusions to divinity. Audiences feed into this frenzy. When someone sings or dances very well, the people around them make references to ‘Maa Saraswathi’ residing within them. A flautist is always Lord Krishna, a male dancer is always Lord Shiva. The effect of this is that questioning an artist becomes akin to questioning God. The fact that an artiste is still human – with all usual human frailties and vices – is often forgotten. 

It is no coincidence, therefore, that there are so few biographies of Indian ‘classical’ musicians or dancers that deal with their faults in any serious manner – most are either hagiographies or, at best, retellings of their life stories.

As someone on the margins of this world – I am a Carnatic flautist and a lawyer – I know that a lot of the less divine stories of Carnatic musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers are told and retold in private. These stories, though, have no effect on the careers of these artistes. 

In college, I was part of a group organising some classical music concerts. A famous Hindustani musician was coming to perform and I was asked to pick him up from the airport. I was specifically told that I must go myself and not send a female volunteer. The musician came to college, the women students were deliberately kept away from him throughout, he performed to thunderous applause, and left. He continued to perform all over the world for two decades until he was outed in the #MeToo movement, and even after.

No one within the classical music world was even surprised that allegations surfaced against him. The stories about him, all well-known, were hidden only because he was powerful, famous and performed religious art. 

There are three other aspects that make it difficult for stories of abuse within the arts community to come out. The first is the closeness of this community to power. Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music have always had patrons in the seat of political power. Kings and temples patronised them in the past. During the British era, patronage was mostly by the emerging Indian business class. 

But immediately after independence, governments started viewing these arts as representatives of Indian culture. Governments often sent musicians and dancers as emissaries of Indianness around the world to perform. These governments didn’t send film musicians, actors or dancers; they didn’t send folk musicians or dancers; they sent Carnatic and Hindustani musicians and Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers. Because these arts, pure and divine, were considered ‘real’ Indian culture. 

The musicians who were at their peak between the 1950s and 1970s benefited most from this, becoming powerful patriarchs wielding outsized influence within the political circles. Pull up any list of Padma awardees year after year, and you will find a disproportionate number of ‘classical’ artistes.

The second issue is that the Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music community is a closed clique. If you are an engineering graduate and allege abuse against your professor, you might find a job far away from that professor when you graduate. If you study at Kalakshetra as a dancer, and make an allegation against your professor, you will still have to spend the rest of your life in that same circle, repeatedly crossing paths with that same professor, while making art. Chances are that the professor in question will interfere with every aspect of your career – ask any musician or dancer in these worlds, and they will tell you of the kind of vindictive power these patriarchs are capable of unleashing.

The third issue is the very skewed power dynamics between a student and a teacher in this world. In the guru-shishya parampara, the student is beholden to the teacher. Questioning is frowned upon. The answer to difficult questions is often, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” There are stories and stories of teachers partial to one student over the other and deliberately stunting one student’s career, teachers partial to their own children over brighter students, students consigned to managing their teachers’ lives or running errands. 

And, of course, students monetarily, emotionally, socially or sexually exploited by their teachers. 

A combination of the claim to divinity, access to political power, the insular nature of the ‘classical’ world and the guru-shishya equation makes it impossible for victims of abuse within the system to speak out. Some victims manage to chart their own path, some leave the world, but many suffer in silence.

The allegations in Kalakshetra, especially against assistant professor Hari Padman, are spread over a period of time. There seem to be many victims as well. The tone of a social media post by Leela Samson, the former head of Kalakshetra, calling Padman out suggested that this was all well-known in the whisper network. 

Yet, the administration of Kalakshetra chose to actively shield him. The external lawyer member on the internal complaints committee, BS Ajeetha, quit the committee after the inquiry. In her letter, she directly accused the administration of not conducting the enquiry in the right spirit. The National Commission for Women, after initially making the right noises, cited the committee’s finding that there was no wrongdoing to not interfere any further. The students had to risk their entire careers and sit in protest for days before the police and administration finally took some action.

Four years ago, there were serious allegations against some Carnatic musicians when #MeToo first broke in India. In a confusing set of social media posts, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Committee denied all allegations of any sexual abuse at their festival in Cleveland. At the same time, it stated that when allegations surfaced, it dealt with them with a firm hand. 

On the other hand, the Federation of City Sabhas in Chennai (sabhas are bodies that organise live concerts of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam – they are impresarios and event managers rolled into one body) announced that it was setting up an ICC to inquire into allegations. No victims came forward. The artistes against whom stories had emerged returned to perform as before. Many of them still travel abroad, still perform at the biggest venues, and still perform with the biggest names in the field. Just as with the Hindustani artiste I mentioned above, some of these names were unsurprising to those within the field. The Music Academy and Parivadini (an influential online streaming service) are the only major names to boycott these artistes.

An ICC, popularly known as the PoSH committee, is clearly not the answer to dealing with allegations of sexual abuse within this world. These committees are often populated by the same persons who control careers and opportunities of young artistes. The world is too small to maintain any kind of confidentiality and when big artistes are accused, they tend to wield more power than these committees themselves. The answer may lie in formal legal processes, or a quasi-state committee that is less intimidating than a police station.

Kalakshetra is an educational institution. That the institution sought to protect the perpetrator is the saddest, yet most unsurprising, outcome. When the abiding discourse within a field of art is around divinity and reputation, the people within that field reach for the action that protects these virtues and not action that prioritises the safety of its own young students. That is what Kalakshetra’s administration also did. 

It is this discourse that we need to break. We need to make Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music more democratic; we need to make the relationship between teachers and students less hierarchical; we need to break the cycles of power.

The writer is a lawyer and Carnatic flautist based in Chennai.

Also see
Faith vs art: Why Kerala's Bharatanatyam controversy is more than a Hindu-Muslim issue
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