It has been a month since an uproar of “#MeToo” tags called out alleged instances of sexual harassment in the Indian performing arts fraternity. The responses have ranged from absolute shock and shudder from some, to further name calling and acknowledgement of the ‘open secret’ from many. The initial avalanche of horrific accounts from survivors is starting to thin down, but thankfully, so has the initial loud silence from the performing arts world on the ugly frothing of the issue.
The last few weeks have seen some demonstrations of proactive effort and action on the issue of sexual harassment. As one of the first collective expressions of solidarity, about 200 musicians broke the silence and signed a letter of declaration acknowledging the reported accounts of sexual harassment in the performing arts world, extending support and urging cultural organisations to take action. Several dancers from all over the world have spoken out about their own related experience or stance on the issue, in person or on social media and expressed solidarity.
A public hearing and consultation process was put together by ‘Ek Potlee Ret Ki,’ an activist collective, to turn the virtual solidarity space (on social media) into a real advocacy forum, towards redressal and constructive action against sexual harassment. The Madras Music Academy has removed from the list of performers this December season, seven musicians, against whom allegations of sexual harassment have been made. . The Federation of City Sabhas has put together an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to maintain zero tolerance for any form of harassment in the arts field. The setting up of the ICC by the Federation of city Sabhas is a welcome long-term measure against sexual harassment.
With all this due diligence, what has been achieved amounts to just a tranquilizing dart on the monstrous issue, which needs to be addressed systematically. It is of utmost importance at this juncture when a lot has surfaced, to increase awareness, dialogue and accountability and adopt policies to enable redressal procedures, to complete an action plan towards a safe future. Leaving the cycle incomplete is as good as an emergency alarm that does not alert anyone, which is in some ways more dangerous than not having an alarm at all.
Is there a ‘harmful’ and a ‘harmless’ sexual harassment? Why are issues being brought out after many years? Is the alleged perpetrator/person really capable of committing such a heinous act? Is verbal harassment less invasive than emotional or physical harassment? What kind of a family background does the survivor come from? It has reached a point where it is beyond the pale of reasonable questioning and debate to throw these at the survivor. One needs to accept that there is a high probability that there is a large grain of truth in most of the allegations, if not to the minutest detail.
However, certain basic questions are necessary to increase the awareness to a level appropriate to any civil society worth its salt. What exactly classifies as sexual harassment? How does cultural hierarchy and abuse of power favour sexual harassment? Are we knowingly or unknowingly enabling an act or a hostile environment? What are the POSCO, Vishaka and other guidelines and how can they be implemented in different capacities? The answers to such genuine questions may be sought through reading, dialogue with legitimate resource persons (in the case of individuals) and formal training from knowledge area experts (in the case of organisations). It is not acceptable to limit our opinion and thinking to our current extent of understanding of the issue.
The reason that sexual harassment looms relatively larger in the performing arts sector than another sector such as a corporate, is the level of trust and integrity that one assumes in the case of a senior artist/teacher with knowledge worthy of being placed on a pedestal. The moral imperatives of a student of music, dance or theatre adds to the guilt, shock, fear and confusion. Compounding the (arguable) dishonesty of claiming ownership of what by rights belongs to no-one, the people on a pedestal or in power are prone to the hubris (vanity) that philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously referred to as amour propre — he regarded such vanity and false pride as precisely the source of all the ills, injustices and internecine strife of civil society.
It is necessary to keep these specific dynamics and sensitivities of the field in mind while thinking of suggestions to address issues related to sexual harassment. Performing arts also being a relatively unorganised sector, the difficulty in handling issues is manifold and needs an expert intervention.
Nandini Rao, activist and gender trainer, after commending the bold action from the performing arts fraternity over the past one month, was kind enough to draft the essential steps to be put in place under three broad areas, for justice and prevention of sexual harassment.
First on her agenda is making the spaces safer. It is imperative to encourage a healthy climate of speaking out, breaking silences over any kind of wrong-doing and being able to discuss this openly with parents, siblings or anyone the child or person trusts. Performing arts creates closed spaces (small classes) and long-term relationships. The reason for making this space safer is the young age at which the students come in and within the guru-sishya paradigm, they are taught not to question or even doubt the teacher or a senior practitioner.
Whereas dialogue would still be possible within spaces such as sabhas, centres or institutions teaching music and dance, the challenges are even greater when it comes to individual teachers. For smaller, individual classes with young children, preventive measures are the only option, to create an awareness on what is safe and unsafe touch (not called ‘good/bad touch’ anymore, because that has too many moralistic overtones). This is where the role of the parents is crucial; to make their children aware about this.
Next important step would be to create strong committees that will listen with empathy to stories of sexual harassment that may come out. The Internal Committee should have external members, who have nothing to do with the cultural world, who are not invested in the arts in any way. This will help to bring some objectivity into the discussions between committee members, especially as most of the members would be internal and would be a part of the performing arts world.
As mentioned in the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, the external member could be someone, who has a knowledge of laws and women’s rights. In this context, training and awareness about sexual harassment for everyone in these committees is very important. Age and experience cannot exempt anybody from going through a training or some form of dialogue/discussion.
Thirdly, understanding power and its links to vulnerability. Of importance here is how one’s identity increases vulnerability to sexual harassment. It is crucial to talk about issues of gender, caste, class, regional and linguistic backgrounds, among other issues. A person from a poor/rural family may have many more hurdles to overcome than another young person from a more privileged background and that would make the former more vulnerable to sexual harassment. These insidious links need to be understood within the rarefied atmosphere of the cultural sphere.
Closely linked is the factor of power and how it can be misused. This power could come from one’s position within the hierarchy (teacher, guru, musician versus student or new entrant into the field), from the viewpoint of gender, caste, class, etc., but also from the power of knowledge itself. Someone who is highly regarded within the hierarchy (years of experience, very well-regarded in their field, highly decorated) would have a stronger voice than someone way below on the ladder. This power needs to be understood — and channelled — in proper ways, that are inclusive rather than exclusive and alienating.
These hierarchies often perpetrate abuse, harassment, violence, and beyond that, crushing silences around the crime that has taken place. So, when we turn around and demand to know why a woman kept quiet about the harassment she faced years ago (5, 10, 15, sometimes even 30 years ago), it needs to be seen in the light of what kept those structures alive for so many years. The reasons for addressing these issues late or never talking about it are often deep-rooted and psychological.
In the midst of all the unpalatable accounts of sexual harassment, it is important to remind oneself that the intent of speaking out is not to kill or question one’s faith in the fraternity/community, but to make it healthier. The calling out of the issue is not from lone individual voices anymore, but a collective that will form an appropriate curtain raiser to this year’s December Season.
(The writer is a dancer and teacher from the Temple of Fine Arts)