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Perspectives on Sexual Abuse in the Arts

In the wake of the sexual harassment charges by students of Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts at Kalakshetra Foundation, Bharata Kalanjali, a leading Bharatnatyam institution in Chennai held a panel discussion on the 10th of March 2023 titled "Perspectives on Sexual Abuse in the Arts." Along with CP Satyajit, Artistic Director of Bharata Kalanjajli, the panel discussion also had following speakers - Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan, Activist and Founder of Prajnya Trust and Sangeetha Sivakumar, Carnatic Musician and Founder of Saha for Arts.

The session also brought together artists, students, social workers and arts professionals, to discuss how the ecosystem can come together to address this issue. This article covers some key takeaways from the discussion. To watch the full conversation, please click here:

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan began by defining sexual harassment according to the International Labour Organization as "A sex-based and/or gender-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient." The perpetrator's intent in this context is irrelevant if the victim feels targeted or harassed verbally, physically or emotionally.

Stalking, obstruction to force attention, molestation, rape, unwelcome touch, groping, ignoring personal boundaries and space, bullying, creating hostile work environments all constitute sexual harassment. The cultural learning space does not warrant touching and feeling one's body to teach or instruct. Dr. Swarna also emphasized quid-pro quo harassment and the instances often veiled under the blanket of companionship, guru-sishya dynamics, and professional ethics.

Establishing an Internal Committee

Under the Vishakha guidelines formulated by the Supreme Court of India, all formal workspaces are required to establish an Internal Complaints Committee to look into matters of sexual harassment. Victims can also reach out to the police in such situations. The Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace - Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal Act is anchored in Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The #MeToo Movement in Carnatic Music

Sangeeta Sivakumar traced the timeline of complaints in the art world. With the advent of the MeToo movement, multiple artists and arts organizers were accused of shaking the foundation of the Classical Arts. It also highlighted the void in awareness and redressal systems within the arts fraternity. Sangeetha’s initiative, Saha for Arts, was then established as a safe space for young artists and students within the community to engage, discuss and aid one another through their traumatic experiences.

Establishing an Open Culture for Learning

Satyajit C.P. pointed out the lack of trust in the victims, as a complaint is often seen as a method of defaming the perpetrator. He urged organizations to trust and to acknowledge the possibility for such instances to happen. Breaking down the system of gurukula, Satyajit stressed the importance of making organizational- and process-based changes, especially making art learning spaces more professional and formal, which will go a long way in creating a safe space for students. Gurus need to assume the role of a facilitator rather than a provider, to break the several practices that empower such behaviour.

What Next?

The audience then raised several vital questions and shared additional insights pertaining to the topic of discussion. The group unanimously agreed on a joint takeaway: the necessity for collective action. Unless all stakeholders within the arts community, especially those in places of power and privilege, do not actively seek change, the current system will continue to thrive, enabling perpetrators to continue behaving the same way. Common spaces of redressal also need to be established within the arts community, empowering victims to come forward and voice their concerns.

To watch the full conversation, please click here:

Here are a few links to learn more on sexual harassment in India and organisations that you can connect to for more information.


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