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Seeking an institutional framework: #MeToo and the unorganized domain of dance and music

October 30, 2018

Was the last column clairvoyant? Just about fifteen days after I wrote the "Me too in Dance" column, formally tilted"#TimesUp", and It is Your Time Now: Why the dance world needs to think about #MeToo", inspired by the #MeToo exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum at Toronto, the #MeToo broke out in India, first with Tanushree Dutta's outing of Nana Patekar, icon of regional pride, and then the outing of Minister of State for External Affairs, M. J. Akbar's toxic abuse of his editorial power, through acts of sexual harassment, by no less than twenty women journalists.

In other areas too, especially entertainment, literature and television, ever since October 5 there has been the #MeToo movement, as if contagious. It found reflection in the domain of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam as well. And this is not a day too soon. In recent times, a renowned scholar and Secretary of the Music Academy as well as a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, was not only asked to leave his position at the Music Academy, but had also been politely advised against joining the investiture ceremony.

The same Madras Music Academy, taking a proactive approach, dropped the concerts of as many as seven eminent musicians, who had been named in recent #MeToo allegations. All of them were senior and iconic. Their expulsion is quite a loss to music lovers, but the Madras Music Academy needs to be applauded on taking such a progressive stand. The Academy has pointed out that in taking this decision they are not accepting that this pantheon is guilty, for no due process has been applied to establish their guilt, but it has exercised its agency to decide who they invite to perform on their platform and get associated with their name and goodwill. Its action will go a long way in projecting the Marghazhi music season of Madras, which helped acquire for the city "A Creative City" positioning, as a sensitive, inclusive and rights based forum.

Evidently the message has gone down to where it needed to go, for more than 200 Carnatic musicians have just this week signed a statement condemning sexual harassment and encouraging more women to come forward with their stories. It needs to be clarified that this is not a binary issue, in which just more women need to come out with their stories. Gender is far more complex and fluid an issue. So we need to create a safe and nurturing platform to hear all genders who have been similarly harassed. Many of the stories shared on social media platforms by dancers, talk of males harassing males!

What is remarkable about the churning that is happening in Chennai is the support it enjoys from leading artistes of the younger generation. T.M. Krishna has long attempted to make his music inclusive. His admission that we have all been complicit in ignoring the hushed whispers hits a bull's-eye. He speaks for all of us who could have done something and didn't.

But, Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh, an actress and classical dancer, a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow of 2014-15, placed that year at UCLA, for twin purposes of teaching and pursuing further her research, decided to do something about it. Joining hands with the activist collective Ek Potli Ret Ki, that is mandated to push for advocacy in areas of policy for marginalised communities, especially those linked with identity formation, she has attempted to take the conversation on sexual harassment forward. This is complicated by the fact that the world of classical music and dance, apart from being male dominated, has also been dominated by upper castes. Additionally the residue of shame and stigma that had tainted the Devadasis, remained active in twisted and covert ways!

Furthermore, the fact that even big organisations have failed to comply with Vishakha guidelines and sexual harassment committees, and do not have an understanding or policy to handle such issues, to say nothing of institutional structures like Internal Committees, very little can be expected from the informally organised sector of the arts. With much of training happening in the 'seena ba seena' manner, under the eye of individual and independent gurus, often in their domestic settings, artistes lack any institutional protection and are very vulnerable right from the start.

Despite the many hindrances and biases, Swarnamalya's efforts towards this end are praiseworthy. Together with other activists who belonged to the Ek Potli collective, she organised a "public hearing and consultation" on the #MeToo movement in Chennai on October 21st. This endeavour is endeavouring to eliminate the silence around these issues, remove the stigma on the survivor and suggest concrete ways in which those named could be compelled to face retaliation.

While normally a bottoms up approach is considered advisable in the development sector, the peculiarity of this domain, the urgency and the immediacy of the crisis, demands a top down approach, and so these activists are hoping to persuade the government to set up a sexual harassment complaint cell, easily approachable through the MOC's operating bodies like the national institutes, Zonal Cultural Centres. They suggest that the cell in the Ministry of Culture, GOI, where the senior artistes are empanelled, operate in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines.

The threat of blacklisting, deprivation of grants and privileges including the taking away of awards and honours, holding back ICCR tours, and denying SNA performance opportunities, could serve as a deterrent. The voice of the marginalised, oppressed and vulnerable could be strengthened by making it subject to RTI and the POCSO act. However, in wake of the fact that the present government has still not spoken out strongly on the #MeToo movement, even when one of their own was outed, does not make it seem likely.

That should not stop the effort that needs to be made by each one of us, to look out for the other, to empower ourselves and others with the correct knowledge of what all constitutes sexual harassment and what to do when it happens to us or when we see it happening to another.

I confess to and am ashamed of the fact that I too have been complicit and have not acted on the whispers and hushed complaints. So while outing has to be done by the one who has experienced the harassment, inspired by the lamp that Swarnamalya has lit, I and my foundation, the Kri Foundation will offer free gender trainings including sexual harassment trainings to artistes. Any organisation can contact me on and at no cost to you, I will conduct this training. Some of you may know that I have worked with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and am equipped to do this.

While Sothern India has definitely shown the way, the domain of dance and music in Northern India has been more silent. Given the strong feudal tendencies, within the domain of dance and music, especially north of the Vindhyas, I suspect that when #MeToo breaks here, it will be a more devastating storm. Let us brace up for its impact, create a strong protective net, and empower our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and family.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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